Desert Temples, Ancient Tombs & Tank Battles: Scenes From the Life of a Photographer

Zev Radovan has been taking photos since 1965, in Israel and around the world. He and his camera were given the kind of access that few people receive. As a result, Radovan was able to document some incredible locations and moments in history. His archive of photographs can now be found at the National Library of Israel…

The monument known as Absalom's Tomb, the Kidron Valley, outside the Old City walls in Jerusalem, late 1960s, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel

A temple in the desert.

Strange standing stones, arranged in a peculiar fashion, and covered in intricate, beautiful markings – human figures, animals and symbols decipherable only to a select few. The stones stand at the summit of a remote hilltop in the inhospitable wilderness of Sinai. The markings are ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, identifying the site as a temple dedicated to Hathor, goddess of the sky, fertility, women and love.

The Temple of Hathor at Serabit al-Khadem, Sinai, Egypt, late 1960s, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel

This is Serabit al-Khadem, a location that has been studied by archaeologists for well over a century. This was where the ancient Egyptians mined turquoise, a semi-precious stone that was in great demand at the time.

Serabit al-Khadem, Sinai, Egypt, late 1960s, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel

Serabit al-Khadem was where a link was first established between ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and early Proto-Sinaitic script. It was from this script that Hebrew, Arabic and Greek would eventually develop. Proto-Sinaitic characters were found scribbled on rocks not far from the temple. It is believed they were made by Canaanite prisoners who labored in the mines. These people lived, worked and worshipped here. In their writings they referred to the goddess as “the lady of the turquoise”.

Serabit al-Khadem, Sinai, Egypt, late 1960s, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel
Ancient writing scribbled on rocks at Serabit al-Khadem, Sinai, Egypt, late 1960s, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel

These photographs were taken in the late 1960s by Zev Radovan, a veteran Israeli photographer who throughout his career often focused on documenting archaeological and heritage sites around the world. Radovan has now deposited his vast archive in the National Library of Israel.

Radovan came to Sinai shortly after it was captured by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967. He would frequently work in collaboration with university professors, accompanying their digs and research trips.  “They were all incredible professionals,” he says of the Hebrew University archaeologists who travelled with him to Serabit al-Khadem and Sinai, as well as the rest of Egypt later on. “They were reading those hieroglyphs like I read the newspaper.”

 

A New Frontier

The new territories that became accessible to Israeli photographers following the war were the focus of much interest in those years. “The war was over, it was – ‘Let’s go to Jericho! Yalla!’ – and you’d get in the car and drive to Jericho,” says Radovan. “On the way you’d still see burnt-out vehicles here and there on the side of the road. Then it was ‘Let’s go to Hebron’ – and we’d drive to Hebron. It was all very innocent and nothing bad happened.” He adds that Israelis were often greeted warmly by Arabs in these storied locations, places that held a near-mystical allure and that had for years been so near, and yet so far.

The Dothan Valley in Samaria, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel
Sebastia, Arab village in Samaria, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel
Remains of the ‘frigidarium’ (cold room) of the royal baths enclosed in King Herod’s palace, Jericho, late 1960s, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel
Herodium, Judea, 1973, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel
Bedouin children, the Northern Negev Desert, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel

These areas could also now be reached by Israeli archaeologists, scholars and experts. Radovan worked particularly closely with geographer Zev Vilnay, archaeologist Yigal Yadin, and art historian Bezalel Narkiss. These professors opened doors for him, took him on research trips and excavations, and taught him much about their respective fields.

Archaeological excavations at Hatzor, Prof. Yigael Yadin, 1969. Yadin was a former IDF Chief of Staff and a future Deputy Prime Minister at the time. The Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel

 

Digging in the Gaza Strip

Radovan recalls that one of his most interesting shoots took place in Deir al-Balah, located in the central Gaza Strip, another area conquered by Israel in 1967.

Moshe Dayan, who as Defense Minister had been one of the masterminds behind Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, also had a deep passion for archaeology. According to Radovan, Dayan became acquainted with a Bedouin who owned a plot of land near Deir al-Balah on which he had found the remains of an ancient cemetery.

Hidden beneath the large sand dunes which covered the area were a series of anthropoid sarcophagi – ancient clay coffins carved to resemble human features.

An anthropoid sarcophagus uncovered at Deir al-Balah in the Gaza Strip. These coffins date to the  late Canaanite period (13th-14th centuries BC). The Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel

Zev Radovan accompanied the archaeological team that was sent to excavate the site, under the guidance of Professor Trude Dotan, but they would have been helpless if not for the Bedouin land owner, the only person who knew where the coffins were.

Hebrew University students working at Deir al-Balah in the Gaza Strip, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel

“He would say: ‘Dig here’, and there would indeed by a coffin there. How he knew I have no idea,” Radovan recalls. “You remove layer after layer of sand. Suddenly you reach the ground, you see some markings, you’re digging, and all of sudden a face appears. It was amazing”.

Excavations at Deir al-Balah in the Gaza Strip, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel

But the team of archaeologists only excavated four or five of these sarcophagi. Interestingly, around fifteen additional coffins had already been found and removed beforehand by Dayan, the amateur archaeologist/Defense Minister, and his Bedouin acquaintance.

Radovan explains that when a sarcophagus was uncovered and opened, “There would be a skeleton or sometimes two skeletons inside, as well as all sorts of personal belongings of the deceased, including jewelry.”

Anthropoid coffins from Deir al-Balah at the Israel museum, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel

For years these anthropoid sarcophagi were kept in Dayan’s backyard, which was something of a museum in its own right. The politician told Radovan: “When I’m here among the anthropoids, I feel like I’m in the Knesset. I see them and I see the faces of the Knesset members.” Dayan left the sarcophagi to the Israel Museum after his passing. They can be seen there today.

 

The Many Faces of The Holy City

Though born in Croatia in 1938, Zev Radovan has been living in Jerusalem since 1950, when he arrived in Israel as a child. Naturally the city is featured prominently in his photographs.

A market in the Bukharan Quarter, Jerusalem, 1973, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel
Yemin Moshe, Jerusalem 1970, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel
Jerusalem’s Mamilla neighborhood, a former “No Man’s Land”, 1967, immediately after the Six-Day War, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel
The Bukharan Quarter, Jerusalem, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel
Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood, 1968, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel
Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, ca. 1975, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel
Buses bringing people to the Mimouna celebrations in Sacher Park (“Gan Sakker”), Jerusalem, 1974, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel

Jerusalem was itself a photographic frontier following 1967, with the city’s eastern neighborhoods now open to Israelis and easily accessible to tourists.

The Notre Dame de Jerusalem building was severely damaged during the battles of the War of Independence in 1948, though this photo is from 1967, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel
The border between  east and west Jerusalem ran through the Mamilla neighborhood before the Six-Day War, ca. 1965, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel
One of the Muslim tombstones in the cemetery outside the Old City’s Golden Gate, Jerusalem, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel
The monument known as Absalom’s Tomb, the Kidron Valley, outside the Old City walls in Jerusalem, late 1960s, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel

The Old City’s Jewish quarter, which had been under Jordanian control since 1948, still lay in ruins. “For the older people, it was wonderful to return to all these places,” Radovan explains, “[For the newer arrivals like myself] it was fascinating, to see the gates of the Old City… Today it seems completely banal, back then it was extremely interesting and completely new”.

The ruins of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City after the Six-Day War in 1967, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel

Radovan’s camera also captured the beginning of archaeological excavations at the Western Wall and in the Jewish Quarter. “These were the days of the flower children, with lots of volunteers… Everywhere there was a spirit of volunteering and happiness.”

The beginning of archeological excavations at the Western Wall  in 1973, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel

 

The Other Side

But there were other sides to the post-1967 reality, and Radovan documented those aspects as well. “I travelled to all sorts of refugee camps, ‘like an idiot’ you could say, I took their picture, they smiled at me, and I smiled back. These were places that you couldn’t dream of entering today.”

A Gaza refugee camp, 1968, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel

Radovan’s archive includes photographs showing Palestinians refugees crossing the Allenby Bridge into Jordan, shortly after the war’s conclusion. “It was all done calmly, though for them it was a terrible disaster,” he says.

Palestinian refugees crossing into Jordan via the ruined Allenby Bridge shortly after the Six-Day War, 1967, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel,

A Photographer at War

In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, Radovan found himself in the Golan Heights, as the IDF struggled desperately to halt the advance of hundreds of Syrian tanks. He had been called up as a reservist and sent to the front lines by the army newspaper, BaMahaneh, to photograph the battles as they unfolded.

Israeli soldiers on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War, 1973, the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel

“I was attached to an armored corps unit…If I saw they weren’t advancing enough and another unit was, I could join the others. I wasn’t under anyone’s command… That gives you options, including the ability to escape. I was a bit naïve. The battles I was in…it’s foolish [to put yourself in such a situation] for the sake of a picture… I was in some difficult situations. But there were those who were much worse off. People right by me were hit.”

 

Disappearing Communities

In the 1980s, Radovan began a partnership with Professor Bezalel Narkiss, founder of the Center for Jewish Art. During his work with the Center over the next few decades, he made 35 separate trips to locations across the globe, with Narkiss and other researchers. They travelled to dozens of Jewish communities in remote corners of the world – “From Morocco, to India, Tunisia to Poland… documenting Jewish heritage, synagogues, Judaica, Torah scrolls, whatever was left in these places”

Zavulunov House in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, 1992, photo by Zev Radovan, the Center for Jewish Art Collection
A Torah case made in Tunisia, photographed in 1997 by Zev Radovan, the Center for Jewish Art Collection
A synagogue in Fălticeni, Romania, built in 1868 and photographed in 2010 by Zev Radovan, the Center for Jewish Art Collection

These trips targeted locations where there was real concern for the preservation of Jewish relics. The goal was to ensure that this heritage would at the very least be documented for future generations.

Zev Radovan’s vast archive has now been deposited at the National Library of Israel. It is currently in the midst of a process of digitization, and will soon be fully accessible on the Library website.

 

The deposit of the Zev Radovan Archive at the National Library of Israel was made possible thanks to the generosity of Steve Delamater of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

A Cry for Change: Protesting in the Promised Land

The protests taking Israel by storm this month are part of a long, heartfelt history of Israelis taking to the streets to make their voices heard. Whether their demands are peaceful or passionate, one thing has always remained constant: The power of ordinary Israeli people to affect big change when they put their mind to it

A protest in Haifa over the cost of living, photo by Yossi Zamir, published in "J. The Jewish News of Northern California", 23 September 2011

Baby Strollers, tents, and cottage cheese – the protests that changed the face of Israel started from the smallest, most innocuous of sparks, which burst into flames that couldn’t be ignored.

Israelis demonstrating in front of the Italian Embassy in Tel Aviv in protest over ties with the PLO, 1982, photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel
Photo by Yossi Zamir, published in J. The Jewish News of Northern California, 23 September 2011

Anyone who lives in Israel right now will be aware of significant changes happening in the country. Even if you aren’t politically-minded, when every bus ride through town is diverted, when quiet days are interrupted by remote chants over distant megaphones, and when poster board is sold out in every stationary shop, you sit up and pay attention!

“Right vs. Left”, 1993, photo by Zeev Ackerman, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

But in case you didn’t know, for the last two months or so, nearly half a million Israelis have taken to the streets in protest of judicial reforms being proposed by the current government. This is one of the biggest demonstrations ever held in Israel against government legislation. In short, this new legislation would allow the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, to overrule supreme court decisions far more easily, allow the ruling coalition much more influence over the process of appointing judges, and administer a few other contentious points.

Photo by Yossi Zamir, published in J. The Jewish News of Northern California, 19 August 2011, the National Library of Israel

Believing this to be undesirable, or simply undemocratic, thousands of Israelis have donned blue and white garb, while waving Israeli flags and taking to the streets in what often looks like a cross between Israeli Independence Day celebrations, a street party, and an uprising. In reality, it is none of those things. It is, however, the latest in a long succession of protests which have been gracing the streets of Israel since long before there was even a state to protest against.

Photo by Miri Ekshtein Prager, published in J. The Jewish News of Northern California, 4 September 2020, the National Library of Israel

They say that two Jews have three opinions, but this is a sore underestimation. The scope of this article could never be wide enough to cover all of Israel’s various protests, but we will explore some of the most impactful ones from the last ten(ish) years.

Over the last decade, the price of housing has risen all over the world, and Israel is not immune to this trend. ‘A nation of renters’ is the phrase sometimes used when referring to the new generation of youngsters in Israel. So, just over ten years ago, across Jerusalem, Haifa, Be’er Sheva, Tel Aviv and other vital locations, tents started springing up in small communes. What better way to show the consequences of rising house prices than displaying to the government a snippet of a potential future homeless-population. At its height, around 400,000 protestors gathered in Tel Aviv, with small stores and water stations popping up in the midst of the sea of tents to service the masses of people temporarily living on the streets. In 2022, ten years later, the next generation of Israelis were facing the exact same housing problem – and decided to implement the exact same solutions.

Protesters call for affordable housingThe Jerusalem Post lite, 4 March 2015. Photo: Reuters

Housing prices were up by 15% at the beginning of 2022, after a year of prices rising monthly by 1.5%. Again, the makeshift town of tents arose, this time incorporating singalongs, public debates and even a daily Daf Yomi Jewish learning group! So, did it work? Well, it’s impossible to say for sure but in October 2022, the Knesset unveiled a program to build 280,000 new homes and approve 500,000 more, meaning that the government had essentially pledged to spend over 18 billion shekels on affordable housing.

Photo by Oded Balilty, published in J. The Jewish News of Northern California, 12 August 2011

Soon after the success of the tent protest, tens of thousands of parents with children between the ages of 1 and 4 years old, decided that it was time for them to take charge as well. Israeli parents, notorious for impeccable organizational skills, mobilized quickly and took to the streets with their strollers to protest the cost of raising young children in Israel.

Generally, parents of young children have more fixed routines and less time to take part in politics, so when these mothers and fathers – dressed in neon colors with yellow balloons tied to their baby buggies – gave up a day of sensible parenting to stand outdoors and protest, people took notice.

School children with their parents demonstrating in front of the Knesset in protest against the Education Ministry, 1970. Photo by IPPA staff, he Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel
School children with their parents demonstrating in front of the Knesset Building in protest against the Education Ministry, 1970. Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, The National Library of Israel

The main issue revolved around what many Israelis scornfully call their “second mortgage.” Daycare for infants costs around 3000 shekels per month, if not more, and with a mode Israeli monthly income of 7700 shekels, it is easy to see why young children prove to be such an expense in Israel. As a result, many women don’t return to work after giving birth, which results in an unnatural gender pay gap.

Initially, the organizers of the stroller protest requested a permit for just 500 protestors, but the week before the march more than 6,000 parents had pledged to show up. In the end, tens of thousands participated. Consequentially, the government agreed to implement free education starting a year earlier, at age 3 instead of age 4, saving families an average of 30,000 shekels per child. Eventually the stroller protest sparked a new demonstration, called the Sardines protest in which parents aimed to reduce how many children could legally be taught in a single classroom. Again, it was successful and the state reduced the maximum number of children in classrooms from 40 to 34.

University students protesting against the cost of higher education, 1987. Photo by Yossi Aloni, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Having covered accommodation and child care, the next obvious culprit was food. In the UK, young people (genuinely) judge the rising cost of living based on a chocolate bar called a Fredo. In the year 2000, Fredos cost 12 pence. Over time, the cost of a Fredo rose by a few pence annually, and now it is rare to find a Fredo bar being sold for less than 80 pence. The metric for economic downturn in the UK is routinely measured by the cost of a chocolate bar. Israeli chocolate, however, is known for being subpar, so in leu of a sweet treat with which to judge the economy, the metric used in Israel is cottage cheese.

“Thousands of people demonstrate” -photo by Chen Leopold, published in J. The Jewish News of Northern California, 9 September 2011

With the growth of social media, 90,000 Israelis took to Facebook to rage against the price of cottage cheese in Israel, but the online campaign was not enough and eventually 300,000 people stormed Tel Aviv in anger over the price of the cheese. Hand-in-hand with the protests, a boycott was issued, urging people to only buy cottage cheese if the tub was sold for less than 5 shekels, as opposed to the 8 shekels it had risen to by the end of 2011.

Israelis demonstrating in front of the Italian Embassy in Tel Aviv in protest over ties with the PLO, 1982, photo by IPPA Staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

In response, the government reduced taxes on the import of dairy products and increased import rates of food products, to promote wider market competition. An investigation into Israeli food prices was also launched. The price of dairy was set to be regulated by the Knesset and on December 30, 2013, the government imposed price controls on Israel’s largest dairy manufacturer, Tnuva, forcing the price of cottage cheese down by 20%, after the Prime Minister created a committee of experts to propose adequate socio-economic reform.

Photo by Oded Balilty, published in J. The Jewish News of Northern California, 26 August 2011, the National Library of Israel Newspaper Collection
Israelis demonstrating in front of the Italian Embassy in Tel Aviv in protest over ties with the PLO, 1982, IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Despite the fairly-priced cheese and additional year of daycare, peace in Israel didn’t last. The following year, the Knesset proposed a plan to gradually incorporate the country’s Haredi population into the armed forces, which was met with heavy protests from the Ultra-Orthodox community. Haredim had, until this point, been exempt from military service due to religious reasons. They argued they were contributing to the safety of Israelis on a spiritual realm by studying Jewish scriptures in yeshivas, instead of physically fighting.

Israelis demonstrating in front of the Italian Embassy in Tel Aviv in protest over ties with the PLO, 1982, photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

After the founding of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion reached an agreement with Ultra-Orthodox leaders that exempted Haredim from military service. In 1977, Menachem Begin entrenched this arrangement in law, permitting all yeshiva students to avoid the military draft. However, in February 2012, Israel’s Supreme Court decided that this law was discriminatory, and demanded that everyone should be drafted equally to the IDF. Thus it was, that on May 16, 2013, around 25,000 Haredim demonstrated outside the IDF recruitment office in Jerusalem.

Protesting for women’s rights in Mea Shearim, 1990. Photo by Eli Harati, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel
Haredi Jews protest in New York, published in Kosher English, 14 June 2013. JTA, KE Staff

As it currently stands, all Haredim are technically required to join the army, but can easily succeed in getting an ishur – an opt-out – from their yeshiva or rabbi. Therefore, the vast majority of Haredim do not enlist in the army today. This remains a contentious aspect of Israeli culture, and many smaller protests take place both for and against this status quo on a regular basis.

Photo by Marc Israel Salem, published in The Jerusalem Post lite, 5 March 2014

On some matters, however, Israelis stand united. In 2015 the Israeli government proposed a deal to give an international consortium led by companies Delek and Noble the rights to the newly-found Leviathan gas field off the coast of Israel, which contained around 18.9 trillion cubic feet of gas, in exchange for reducing their involvement in other, smaller gas fields across the country. This plan would have furthered the goals of the Israeli government, who sought independence in those smaller fields, but it also represented the selling of Israeli goods to international firms, who would then manufacture the gas before selling it straight back to Israel at a higher price, paid for, of course, by the consumer. Professor Yaron Zalika, one of the main speakers at the resulting protests, said that “the government is plundering the largest national natural resource ever found here, after handing it — without tender — to a group of wealthy people, for almost nothing in return!”

Photo by Flash 90, published in The Jerusalem Post – Christian Edition, 1 June 2013

Despite being the largest protest to take place since 2011, the deal went ahead, with minor amendments, and the Leviathan gas field was sold to Delek, Noble Energy, and Ratio Oil Exploration who still own the gas field today.

So, was hope lost for good? Well, no, but for those who supported the gas protests, it was certainly a blow to their spirits to see their demonstrations being so adeptly ignored. But despite the many people who felt knocked down by the escapade, no one can be silenced forever. In 2020, thousands of Israelis made a comeback – one of the biggest so far!

A “Peace Now” protest outside the Defense Ministry calling for peace and withdrawal of settlements. Photo by Shaul Rachamim. the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel
Russian immigrants protest, photo by Danny Lev, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

As COVID-19 took over not just Israel, but the whole world, tensions started to build. There were those who demanded more vaccines, those who insisted that vaccines were harmful; people who advocated for masks, and people who wanted to do away with masks all together; some people wanted more public closures and some wanted the country to remain open. As such, it would have been impossible for a government to please all of their constituents. Even if someone happened to totally agree with government policy, there would have been other members of society who were violating what they considered to be sacred moral codes during the pandemic. Tensions rose, and people were angry. On top of that, Israel was in the midst of what felt like a million governmental elections, and the country seemingly couldn’t agree on who would run parliament, as election after election was called. Add to this an unemployment rate which rose alarmingly in a matter of months, and you had near-chaos in the streets.

Photo by Dimai Vazinovich, published in J. The Jewish News of Northern California, 12 August 2011

Protests sprung up quickly, and each Saturday night the numbers grew. Walking through the protests, the demonstrations were divided into small groups, each with their own flags and colored clothing, many shouting personalized slogans or playing their own music. Entering the protests from King George Street in Jerusalem, the first group one would encounter was the Breslov community, angry that their annual trip to Uman was being thwarted by travel closures. Next, one would meet supporters of the Meretz political party, with their vehement anti-right-wing chants. If you continued westward, you would get to a small but loud group of anti-mask protestors, followed by the large anti-Bibi Netanyahu group, decked out with blow up figurines and fancy-dress costumes. Further forward were the women’s rights’ activists, bearing pink flags of Israel, followed by a large floor-based meditation circle of peace activists. You would then pass by the unemployed group who demanded financial compensation from the government, and so on until you emerged, exhausted, from the other end.

As bars and restaurants were closed, large swaths of bored youngsters joined the protests, sometimes latching onto a cause, other times showing up with alcohol and music. There was even a 10 person jump-rope, live band, and fire dancers at times. Between the genuine anger and frustration, there was also a street party taking place.

University students protesting, photo by Yossi Aloni, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

That’s the beauty of protesting in Israel. People show up, in a big way, and express their democratic right whenever they have the desire to do so. In the most recent protests this month, parents bring their children along, completely unafraid. Elderly people have joined the ranks, knowing that they will be safe. Whole families have taken part, and been allowed to release their hard feelings. Prayer quorums have been formed at the protest site so that no one need miss their daily minyan due to demonstrating, and during the protests, merchants sell food and water to those who didn’t bring their own peanut butter sandwiches. The Israeli public gets to voice their opinion, knowing that they are not only completely safe to do so, but actually protected by the general good will of society, and those who enforce it.

Protest against the lifting of an arms embargo on Syria. Photo by Gideon Markowiz, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

No matter your opinion, you can find a demonstration in Israel which would fit your beliefs, and allow you to release any pent-up tensions. And perhaps that’s why, in a society comprised of so many religions, ideologies, and walks of life, Israel is able to keep going.

Protesting antisemitism. Photographer: Vered Peer, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel
Protesting antisemitism, photo by Vered Peer, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel
Israelis demonstrating in front of the Italian Embassy in Tel Aviv in protest over ties with the PLO, photo by IPPA Staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The Queen Who Loved the Destroyer of the Second Temple

Who was Queen Berenice? Was she a cold, calculating seductress or simply a woman captivated by a young, charismatic general? Here we give you the story of the Second Temple-period Jewish queen forced to survive in a tumultuous world, whose love affair with Titus - the future Roman emperor and notorious suppressor of a Jewish rebellion—remains a bone of contention

Queen Berenice, Charles Landelle, Musée des beaux-arts de Reims

It is customary to think of the Jews in antiquity as a small, insular people that dwelled alone, a people forced to interact from time to time with the great powers around them. Once it might be Babylon and Assyria, on another occasion the Greeks or the Romans. But during the early years of the great Roman Empire, not all Jews were zealots hiding out in the desert, waiting for an opportunity to ambush Roman soldiers. Jews were sometimes willing and committed stakeholders in the Empire, holding positions of power and influence. In this article, we will tell of a Jewish woman, a queen, who lived during this time, and whose dramatic life story might resemble something out of Game of Thrones or House of the Dragon.

Queen Berenice was not just another queen. She was a princess by birth, daughter of a union between two of the most important families in the Roman province of Judea at that time. At one point, she was even considered a threat to the stability of the Empire. Here we can attempt only to summarize the complicated life story of this daughter of Jewish royalty and how she came to meet such historical figures as Emperor Vespasian and the Christian apostle Paul; how she found herself present at decisive moments in the revolt against the Romans; and above all, how she became the mistress of one of the most reviled figures in Jewish collective memory, a man who would later become Emperor of Rome—”Titus the Evil”. But, as with any multi-character saga, we begin at the beginning, with the birth of Berenice.

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Berenice’s father, Agrippa I. Source: Wikipedia]

Berenice was probably born in the year 28 CE to King Agrippa I and his wife Cypros. On her father’s side, she descended from the Herodian dynasty; her roots on her mother’s side traced back to the Hasmoneans. These were the two most significant Jewish families of the Second Temple-period. When she was about 10 years old, her father, a friend of Emperor Caligula, was made King of Judea, thereby officially making Berenice a princess.

Like other powerful women from antiquity, her historical portrait was drawn for posterity by the men around her. Many historians and writers of the past accused her of scheming, licentiousness, and even incest. In a recent biography of Berenice, historian Professor Tal Ilan takes a fresh look at the Second Temple-period queen, putting aside judgmental perspectives of the past that were rooted in anachronistic, ultra-conservative values. “…she is often described by ancient sources in negative terms”, Prof. Ilan writes, “[…] this is because the historians and authors who mention her conform in their writing to genres of poetry and prose prevalent in their days, that viewed women as the cause of all intrigue and scheming in the world. The sources on Berenice will be judged according to the actions they describe and not in line with their own judgement of these. The values of the ancient Jews and of the ancient Romans […] are not our values. Their conventional expectations of women are not our expectations”, says Prof. Ilan in the introduction to her book.

We hope to do the same.

 

Berenice Appears on the Historical Stage

When she was still a young girl—a child—Berenice was betrothed to Marcus Julius Alexander, son of the leader of the distinguished Jewish community in Alexandria, and nephew of the important Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria. The marriage was consummated when Berenice was 14 years old, apparently. It was short-lived however, as her much older husband soon died, leaving Berenice a widow.

In the same year Berenice was widowed, her father, Agrippa I, also died unexpectedly while attending a festival honoring the Emperor. According to the historian Josephus, on the second day of the festival, “a severe pain also arose in his belly; and began in a most violent manner.” Before his death, Agrippa managed to arrange a second marriage for his by now 16-year-old daughter—this time to his widowed brother Herod, King of Chalcis. Chalcis was a small kingdom in the mountains of Lebanon, and it was there that Berenice first received the title of Queen. That same year, she became pregnant and gave birth to her first son, Berenicianus, who was named for her. Prof. Ilan believes Berenice herself thought up the name, which became popular in the Chalcis region of the time. She named her second child Hyrcanus, an undeniably Hasmonean name. Was it she or her husband Herod who wanted to remind the kingdom’s subjects of their monarch’s illustrious roots?

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Roman and Crusader ruins in ancient Banias (Caesarea Philippi), where Berenice spent many years of her life. Postcard published by Max Jaffe, for Jüdische Verlag (Wien), this item is part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible by collaboration between the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

After Agrippa I’s death, the Emperor Claudius decided to appoint a procurator for Judea rather than transfer the kingdom to Berenice’s brother. The new procurator was none other than Berenice’s former brother-in-law from her first marriage, Tiberius Julius Alexander. After enlisting in the Roman army, Tiberius had an impressive career, not only as procurator of Judea but also as the brutal suppressor of a Jewish uprising in Alexandria that broke out at the same time as the revolt in Judea.

After four years of marriage, the 20 year-old Berenice once again found herself a widow. With the death of Herod of Chalcis, who also oversaw the Temple in Jerusalem, Emperor Claudius contemplated what to do with the province. He eventually chose to name Berenice’s brother as King, who was by then older and more skilled. He took the name Agrippa II.

“The first twenty years of Berenice’s life witnessed some of the most dramatic events of Jewish and even world history”, Prof. Ilan writes in her book, “Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem […] a mad emperor attempted (yet again) to induce the Jews to abandon their religion and worship him.” According to Ilan, Berenice was only a bystander during this period—her father married her off as soon as he could, and she did not take an active part in these dramatic events. “The next 20 stormy years of Berenice’s life thrust her to the fore of the historical stage”, she says.

 So what happened next?

The Apostle Paul explains the Tenets of faith in the presence of King Agrippa and his Sister Berenice, Vasily Surikov, 1875, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Agrippa II arrived in great splendor to his new kingdom that included both Judea and Chalcis, now reuniting with his sister as well. Berenice, twice widowed in just four years, and with two young children in tow, was not the best candidate for a new match. Ilan mentions the Talmudic dictate, Isha Katlanit (“lethal woman”), in this respect. According to this religious rule, a woman who is widowed twice is not permitted to marry for a third time.

In terms of our story, it seems that over the next few years Berenice became her brother’s companion, living with him in his various palaces in Chalcis, Jerusalem and in the city of Caesarea-Philippi, or Banias, located today in northern Israel. Berenice is also mentioned in several places in the historical record alongside her brother, the King. Josephus says that she stood next to Agrippa when he gave a conciliatory speech to the people of Jerusalem shortly before the outbreak of the Great Revolt. The New Testament mentions Berenice as being present with her brother at the trial of the Apostle Paul and that she was among those who thought he did not deserve punishment. The close relationship between the siblings also led to the spread of malicious rumors, with various sources claiming that Agrippa and Berenice had incestuous relations. Perhaps in order to stave off the gossip, Berenice quickly found herself another royal match and once again became a queen.

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The ancient city of Tiberias with Mount Berenice in the distance. It is believed that her palace was situated on this mountain, but no trace of it has ever been found. This item is part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible by collaboration between the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

This time she married Polomon, King of Cilicia, a small kingdom in the south of Asia Minor. In order to facilitate the marriage, she convinced him to undergo circumcision and accept the commandments of Judaism. However, this marriage did not last long either. For one reason or another, Berenice left husband number three and returned to her palace in Banias.  And so it happened that Berenice arrived in time for what was perhaps the most important event in Jewish history of the first century CE—the Great Revolt against the Romans.

By then, it seems that Berenice was more than a passive figure swept along by the currents of her life. There is evidence that, after the death of her second husband, Berenice herself managed the affairs in Chalcis, at least until her brother was crowned King. Various historians described her as a Cleopatra-like queen who used her charms to influence the men around her. But it seems that when the reins of power fell into her hands, Berenice proved herself adept and used them wisely.

 

A Last Attempt to Save Jerusalem

Up until the outbreak of the Great Revolt (66–73 CE), Berenice apparently tried to use all her powers to prevent rebellion and save Jerusalem. She happened to be in the city during one of the most famous incidents leading up to the rebellion. The procurator of Judea at the time, Florus, coveted a portion of the Temple’s treasures for himself. When the Jews protested against this, he sent his soldiers to quell the unrest by carrying out a pogrom in Jerusalem. Berenice was alone in the city at the time, recovering from an illness for which she had taken a vow of ascetism. At the end of this period of abstinence, she shaved her head and probably came to Jerusalem in order to offer a thanksgiving sacrifice following her recovery.

While Florus’s soldiers were raiding the city, Berenice sent her officers to the procurator to try to stop the massacre and looting. After her plea was ignored, she risked her own life and went herself, shaven-headed and barefoot, to Florus’s palace to beg him to spare the lives of the city’s residents. She eventually made her way back to her palace where she anxiously spent the night, surrounded by her guards. The next day, the Jerusalemites drove Florus and his soldiers out of the city. With Judea now on the brink of rebellion, Berenice and Agrippa addressed the people in the center of Jerusalem, but their attempt at appeasement failed and the Great Revolt erupted.

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Titus and Berenice, ornamental watch cover, unknown artist. Wikimedia

During this period, a young man by the name of Titus entered Berenice’s life. A popular general, he also happened to be the son of Vespasian, the man sent by Rome to suppress the rebellion in Judea. Berenice spent the war years in Agrippa II’s palace in Banias, Caesarea-Philippi. It was there she most likely met Vespasian’s son for the first time. “Titus the Evil”, as he is often referred to in the Jewish sources, would later become Emperor of Rome. Berenice was then about 40 years old. Titus was in his late twenties, but the age gap was no match for their passionate love.

We will do our best to trace their love story, though after the dramatic scene describing her and her brother’s appeal to the rebellious crowds, Berenice all but disappears from Josephus’s account of the rebellion in The Jewish War. Some contend that Josephus refrained from writing about her at the express request of Titus. In his later work, The Life of Flavius Josephus, written after the death of Titus, Josephus allows himself a bit more leeway regarding her story. There, for example, he describes how Berenice intervened in favor of the historian Justus of Tiberias whom Vespasian had sentenced to death. Agrippa spared his life at his sister’s request, another example of Berenice’s influence on political affairs.

Titus probably first met Berenice in the year 67, during the Roman campaign against the Jewish rebels in Galilee. Agrippa apparently invited Vespasian and his son Titus to rest for a while in his palace in Caesarea Philippi—where Berenice was also staying. The affair between the two seemed to finally resolve the question of the Herodian dynasty’s support for the Roman forces suppressing the rebellion. This alliance likely saved the city of Tiberias, which Vespasian ordered not be looted nor its walls destroyed after it was conquered, as a gesture to King Agrippa.

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The Emperor Titus, marble, the Louvre, Paris

The alliance may have also helped Vespasian himself. By the end of the “Year of the Four Emperors” (69 CE), Vespasian was intent on declaring himself Emperor and was in urgent need of allies. One of his supporters was none other than Tiberius Julius Alexander, Berenice’s former brother-in-law. Could she have been the one who convinced Tiberius to support her lover’s father? The Roman historian Tacitus seemed to think so.

Whatever happened, it worked. Vespasian became Emperor and Titus became commander of the military operation to suppress the rebellion in Judea. As fate would have it, Berenice was now the mistress of the very person who would go down in history as the destroyer and looter of the Temple in Jerusalem. What was her role in these events? We’ll probably never know. In the film Legend of Destruction which describes the destruction of Jerusalem, the claim is made that Berenice intended to seduce Titus in order to save the city. In her biography of Berenice, Prof. Ilan believes that the truth is more straightforward—the two were simply in love, and Titus looked for any excuse to remain close to her. In The Jewish War, Josephus describes Titus as merciful, as having tried to avoid killing Jews who surrendered and waiting until the last possible moment before destroying Jerusalem and burning down the Temple. Some have claimed that Josephus wrote the account this way out of friendship with Titus who was also his patron. Ilan, on the other hand, believes Josephus’s account to be an unflattering description of Titus in the eyes of the Romans who were the book’s target audience. Instead, she contends, it was Titus’s idea to portray himself in this way for the benefit of none other than Berenice—as a kind of mea culpa for the actions he had been forced to commit in Judea.

 

A Second Cleopatra

After the suppression of the rebellion, Agrippa II continued to rule over Judea until his death, probably in the nineties of the first century CE. Titus, now the decorated conqueror of Jerusalem and heir to the imperial throne, embarked on a triumphal journey to cities in the eastern provinces of the Empire. It is possible that Berenice accompanied him. Eventually, Titus had to return to Rome, and Berenice apparently returned to Caesarea-Philippi. Throughout the period between the arrival of Vespasian’s forces in Judea and the destruction of the Temple, Titus and Berenice cohabited, but there were now reasons that prevented them from marrying. The age difference, for one. It was clear to them that the young Titus must find a suitable, young wife who would be able to provide him with heirs for the new dynasty ascending the imperial throne. And there was the matter of Berenice’s Jewishness, which prevented her from marrying a non-Jew without renouncing her religion.

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Victory procession with the treasures of the Temple, relief on the Arch of Titus, Rome. Photo: Th. Benzinger. This item is part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible by collaboration between the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

But this was not the end of that extraordinary romance. What began as a love affair between a queen, a daughter of a royal family, and a dashing young general—one of many—in the Roman army, ended with roles and power-relations reversed: a client queen and a future emperor.  In the year 75, Berenice arrived in Rome, four years after she separated from Titus. She came with her brother, and according to the sources, she stayed there for close to four years. She apparently lived with Titus in his palace and they were effectively a couple. Four Roman sources claimed Berenice to be his greatest weakness, raising the concern that she would cause him to become another Nero, bringing about Rome’s destruction. Titus proved he was made of different stuff. After seeing the Roman people’s displeasure with the match—either out of antisemitic feelings towards the people who had rebelled, or fear of a “second Cleopatra”—he sent Berenice home.

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Farewell Between Berenice and Titus, Adriaan Schoonebeek, 1694, engraving. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Berenice tried to return to Rome again a few months later, when Titus finally became Emperor, but he refused to see her. This was the end of their relationship and Queen Berenice disappears from the annals of history at this point. We have no information about what happened to her after she was sent away from Rome for the second time. Some believe that she remained in Italy and died there, but it is likely that she returned to Judea and lived in Banias until her death. We do not know what year she died. Her extraordinary story has inspired writers, poets, playwrights and screenwriters. Given the incredible events we have described here, we can only hope for a historical drama series…

 

Further Reading:

Queen Berenice: A Jewish Female Icon of the First Century CE, by Tal Ilan,
Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2022

An Ode to the National Library of Israel, the Love of My Youth

“I fear any attempt to harm the love of my youth. The imposition of any sort of political oversight or involvement regarding the life of the Library, may indelibly tarnish it, causing it and those who enter its doors irreparable damage.” Professor Aviad Hacohen pleads: Do not harm the love of my youth—the National Library of Israel

Opening day of the new building of the Jewish National and University Library, November 1, 1960 – the Circulation Desk, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

 “I was an unhappy boy during the nights, wandering alone, never letting anyone know, you were the love of my youth.”

-From Ahavat Neurai (“The Love of My Youth”) by Shalom Hanoch

The first time I saw you, I was on my way to the Gymnasia high school. Back then, I would sometimes skip the boring classes and run to you instead, if only to inhale your scent. You are not a great beauty, I know, but you always welcomed me with love and a warm embrace.

At sixteen, a first love can seem like that, all roses and sunshine. But forty-five years on, that first love is still going strong. It cannot and must not be stopped.

You stood there, your pale, white facade hidden among the trees and grassy lawns of Givat Ram, your body upright, confident in yourself, radiating an aura of dignity.

On the ground floor one would see the heavy wooden card cabinets, their old hinges worn with use, the drawers filled to bursting with thousands of cards covered in dense handwriting.

The Jewish National and University Library, Givat Ram. Reference Hall and Card Catalogue, 1992. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Every day, for years, at 9:00 a.m. sharp, the regulars would show up at your door to be let in and then move quickly to their regular corners. (There was a running joke back then that these scholars were so much a part of the Library, that if movers were ever called in for a relocation, they would move them right along with the rest of the “furniture”.)

Among these regulars were some of the world’s greatest scholars of Jewish studies: Jacob Katz, Gershom Scholem, Menachem Brinker, Shmuel Safrai, Shmuel Werses, Hava Lazarus-Yaffe, David Weiss Halivni and Meir Benayahu, to name but a few.

After a few hours, the prophet of rage would arrive. Somewhat grim-faced, he would stride briskly through the Library’s doors to the “press room”. There, seventy-five-year-old Yeshayahu Leibowitz would begin to go one by one through the journals—hundreds of scientific periodicals that were arranged like soldiers on shelves along the walls. He would start with the journals that dealt with the Bible and Talmud, then move to the medical journals, followed by the chemistry and microbiology section, and finish up with the daily newspapers stored between two giant wooden boards and that smelled intoxicatingly of the past

His younger sister, the great biblical scholar and teacher Nechama Leibowitz, also well on in years, would sometimes stroll into the adjacent hall, the Judaica Reading Room, her signature beret pushed down low on her head, her students hurrying to offer her help in locating a book.

The Jewish National and University Library, Givat Ram: Judaica Reading Room. Early 1960s, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Inside the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, located on floor -1, scholars and yeshiva students would sit side by side, each one hunched over a creaking microfilm machine, working tirelessly in order to rescue centuries-old Hebrew manuscripts from oblivion. Next to them would be a literary researcher asking to look at the notes and early drafts of the great Hebrew author, literary genius and Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon, in order to try to grasp the hidden meanings contained his works. Peering out above them would be the bright bald head of the gifted writer Yossel Birstein, who worked in the Hebrew Manuscripts department alongside cultural figures such as Rafi Weiser and Shlomo Zucker, from whom no secrets were hidden.

On the second floor, among the dusty piles of old audio tapes, Ephraim Yaakov would be trying once again to convince a one hundred-year-old newly arrived immigrant from Georgia to sing her community’s lullabies and lamentations, so that they would be preserved for generations in the Library’s Sound Archive.

Only in the rarest cases were we permitted to enter the “underworld”: floor -2. That was where the real treasures were kept. The manuscripts of Maimonides and Albert Einstein, genizah fragments and ancient Qurans.

The Jewish National and University Library, Givat Ram: General Reading Room. early 1960s, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Full disclosure: Over the years, I have had the pleasure of her favor, but I have also had the privilege of giving something in return to my great love.  During its renewal, I had the privilege of participating as a representative of the Library’s readers, the “users,” in meetings of its board of directors and even to represent the Library in court in order to protect its rights.

I also drafted the “National Library Charter”, which was signed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the then-President of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres, as well as by the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, and the President of the National Academy of Sciences, Rut Arnon, alongside dozens of other renowned public figures from Israel and around the world.

The charter reflects the unique spirit of the Library, whose doors are open to all, regardless of religion, race, gender, political outlook or orientation:

“The physical and virtual doors of the Library will be open to people of all nations and religions, to draw an increasing number of users from among the general public and from among the research community in Israel and the world, and to serve them in the best way possible.”

The charter emphasizes the National Library of Israel’s status as a “national and Zionist cultural and educational center”, meant to serve as an “inspirational space, which will be both an optimal learning environment and a meeting place drawing researchers, intellectuals, artists and seekers of knowledge from Israel and around the world, as well as a site of vibrant cultural creation that is based on its treasures and collections.”

Days and years have gone by and the love of my youth has matured and long since passed one hundred and twenty. The guards who used to zealously rummage through our briefcases and backpacks by hand are now aided by technological devices. The old-fashioned, awkward hand-written paper slips once used for ordering books were replaced by a simple computerized system, accessible from anywhere in the world, even by mobile phone. The old creaking elevators were replaced with new ones; even the official name was changed from the “Jewish National and University Library” to the “The National Library of Israel.” The Library began hosting an array of inspiring cultural events, wonderful concerts ranging from classical music to Israeli song, and the entrance hall was filled with groups of Jewish and Arab elementary school students coming to see and experience this great hall of culture for the first time, maybe even falling in love with it, as I did so many years before.

The Jewish National and University Library, Givat Ram: Reference Hall, 1992. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The National Library of Israel was and remains a unique nature reserve in the Israeli landscape. A fascinating human and cultural microcosm unlike any other. Perhaps the last place, apart from the hospitals, where a university professor conducting research for a new book or article might sit beside a regular Joe who took a four-hour bus ride to come explore his family’s roots; a place where a young Torah scholar from Mea Shearim might sit surfing the internet and its “forbidden fruit” next to a young bare-shouldered university student leafing through rare books for a seminar paper she is writing.

Indeed, like many others, I fear any attempt to harm the love of my youth. The imposition of any sort of political involvement in the life of the Library may indelibly tarnish it, and cause irreparable damage to the Library and those who enter its doors. And we haven’t even talked about donors—whether of money or of rare and irreplaceable archival materials— who might be discouraged from supporting a body that is guided by politics, and not professionalism. Many of them may avoid donating to the Library or perhaps even choose to rescind donations of funds or collections they have already made.

If this plan to impose political involvement in the Library goes forward, the National Library of Israel will become one more political estate among many. A pointless institution, devoted only to the powers that be.

As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke—don’t fix it.” The National Library of Israel is not broken and is not in need of a fix, certainly not of a political nature.

The Jewish National and University Library, Givat Ram: A view from the South-East, 1970. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, The National Library of Israel