Yigael Yadin’s Last Night in America: ASOR and the Biblical Archaeology Movement

Posted in: ASOR, Bible and Media
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By Eric M. Meyers

Yigael Yadin, director of Hazor and Masada excavations, in 1978.   Photo: No. 102, 1671 in State of Israel National Photo collection item no. 016721

Yigael Yadin, director of Hazor and Masada
excavations, in 1978. Photo: No. 102, 1671 in State of Israel National Photo collection item no. 016721

In light of the sharp decline in enrollments in the humanities in colleges and universities in the United States and abroad, I thought it might be helpful to share a story about Yigael Yadin’s last day in America, the day before he died. Yadin in the eyes of most people who follow Israeli archaeology closely was Israel’s most famous and accomplished field archaeologist. He was also a military hero in the War of Independence, a great biblical and Dead Sea Scroll scholar, head of the Institute of Archaeology at Hebrew University, and Deputy Prime Minister for a time as well. As a former student of Yadin I can personally testify to his dynamic and inspiring teaching style—and in public lectures he had no equal. He simply was a dynamo and could attract audiences in the thousands in the US and Europe. My wife Carol and I also excavated with him at Masada in the winter of 1964-65 when we were students at the Hebrew university and HUC in Jerusalem. Most of Israel’s first generation of archaeologists trained with Yadin at his excavations at Hazor or Masada and also studied with him.

As a brilliant man with connections in so many places and a great fundraiser, Yadin came to the conclusion in the early 1980’s that the field of biblical archaeology might not survive unless at least ten major universities, by which he meant Research One universities, would have endowed chairs and programs in the field that would continue to bring young students to Israel to work on digs and to secure a permanent academic home for higher study of biblical archaeology in the broadest sense. It is not clear to me to this day how he had arrived at this assessment of the field but he was fully aware that Joy Ungerleider and the Dorot Foundation had selected ten such universities to support mainly undergraduate students who wanted to dig in Israel and offered multiple travel scholarships to those schools, many of which had their own excavations. Duke was one of the schools selected for the program and several hundred of our students benefitted from Dorot travel scholarships over the years. In many ways Dorot and Joy were prescient in sensing this need and the program was a kind of forerunner of Birthright Israel except that it was open to students of any faith and background. Today ASOR dig scholarships are in many ways filling the gap created by the loss of those Dorot funds, which unlike ASOR dig scholarships today that are open to all countries in which there are ASOR excavations, were limited to digs in Israel. Yadin certainly knew of this program and was very friendly with Joy whose family was responsible for funding the construction of the Shrine of the Book of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. And as I learned recently from the curator, Adolfo Roitman, she was also concerned with developing an outreach program there for students of all ages and the lay public, which is only now being introduced. Joy and the Dorot Foundation have also been central to the support and growth of the Albright Institute through the years and she served as chair of the Board for a lengthy period and was also a major force on the ASOR Board of Trustees for many years.

Whatever inspired Yadin, be it the Dorot program or the simple fear that in the greater and ever-changing Middle East Israel’s place in it and its archaeology might ultimately   be slighted or diminished, he convened a high-powered ASOR group to meet at Leon and Shelby White Levy’s apartment in Manhattan on June 27th, 1984. In attendance were the Levys, Joy, Dick Scheuer, Ernie Frerichs, Jim Sauer, ASOR President, myself, ASOR First Vice President, and possibly Phil King, past ASOR President, whose participation I cannot recall. Yadin was so concerned about the future of the field of biblical archaeology, he said, that he intended to devote his final days — he was 67 when he died—to ensure the future of the field in the United States and he offered to lecture anywhere and turn over all of his lecture fees, which were very high even in those days, to a central fund except for his personal expenses. He wanted

endowed chairs and programs established at the kind of top ten schools Joy has selected for the Dorot scholarships, and these are among the ones he definitely wanted: Harvard, Penn, Duke, and Brown and he wasn’t sure what the others might be and he was open to all suggestions. He wanted ASOR to organize his lecture schedule and arrange for him to meet the right people and administrators on each campus and in each community as he solicited in behalf of the proposed program. We did not work out many of the details that evening but everyone there was enthused and gratified that a man of his stature and experience would volunteer to lead such an effort. It should be said that Yadin was a great admirer of W. F. Albright and a dear friend of ASOR and never missed a function at the Albright Institute in Jerusalem. As a past Director and former student and now young Professor I felt very honored to be a part of such a distinguished group. The enthusiasm for the project that night was unbounded and while we all did not necessarily share Yadin’s somewhat narrow view of biblical archaeology, especially Jim Sauer, we all felt we could support his quest and that it would be good for the larger field of Near Eastern archaeology, ASOR, and American academic life.

Some might want to interpret such a plan as a way to support the Israeli nationalist endeavor, which in 1975 had suffered through strong condemnations in the UN and UNESCO. To be sure, Yadin’s choice of sites to be excavated had everything to do with creating a sense of secure space in the larger Middle East as the face of it became more and more menacing toward Israel. And as a teacher he probably sensed that over time other subjects and disciplines would overshadow archaeology too. Be that as it may, he won us all over to his concern and his cause with his eloquence and emotion. I will never forget that evening. Yadin left us to catch the midnight flight on El Al to Tel Aviv on a high, with hugs all around and all of the rest of us felt we could do this. Yadin had told us he was a bit tired from this trip and that when he returned he was headed to his brother Yossi’s place on the beach to rest. And there he died that next day, June 28, 1984.

You can imagine how shocked we all were after hearing of his death and what the impact was on all of us. The sadness of losing a dear friend and great scholar and the realization of what it would mean for Israel, ASOR, and the larger community was in many ways overwhelming. The only direct outcome of this extraordinary meeting that I know of was the creation of the endowed  Dorot Professorship of the Archaeology of Israel in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, whose first appointee was Larry Stager and who also became Director of the Harvard Semitic Museum. The Dorot Foundation continued its support in this area most directly via the Albright Institute, endowing its Director’s position and other activities at the Institute. It was not a coincidence that Ernie Frerichs of Brown University, where Yadin had previously served as a visiting professor, succeeded Joy Ungerleider as head of Dorot after Joy’s death in 1994, ten years after Yadin’s death.

You might wonder why I am telling this story now some thirty-two years after it happened. One of the reasons is that most of the people who were there are gone now and I am not getting any younger. It is part of ASOR’s history too as well as part of the story of Israeli archaeology and I do not know how many people in Israel know about this. But it does fit in well with much of what Yadin’s life was about. There is one additional post-script to this story that I shall also include for the first time.

As many of you know Yigal Shiloh taught at Duke on a visiting appointment during 1986 and 1987, the year he died. It was to have been for two years but was cut short by his illness. Still, Yigal finished one full academic year here and had a wonderful experience teaching at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Yaakov Meshorer had done this several years before. One day I told Yigal the story about his beloved mentor, Yigael Yadin, and Yigal was deeply touched by it. He was also so positive about his Duke experience he said without hesitation after I had completed the story: Why don’t we both together take on this project; I can see its importance and fully understand where Yadin was coming from, to paraphrase his response. Sadly, later that year Yigal’s cancer returned and his life was cut way too short. He passed away in November in the fall of 1987 at the age of fifty. That was then and today the field which Yadin feared was going to lose traction one day has indeed begun to wane at least in the United States. While I understand the humanities are also under siege in Israeli universities it remains to be seen whether archaeology there will ever regain the kind of cachet it had during Yadin’s lifetime.

You might wonder why I didn’t take on the task after Shiloh died. Raising the money for our Duke dig and all the associated expenses was quite enough of a challenge for me and my wife, let alone organizing the dig each year while teaching a full course load at Duke. Over time attitudes in fact did change about opportunities to working in other countries in the region, especially in Jordan, which has enjoyed increasing popularity through the years as a place to pursue what many of us in ASOR now call Near Eastern archaeology. The same could be said for Cyprus. And today, the Middle East that Yadin and Shiloh knew no longer exists and its future is unknown and fraught. Perhaps Yadin sensed the insecurity of such a future and knowing the central importance of the Bible in American religion and culture wanted to embed land of Israel Studies, especially archaeology, in America’s higher education system. With the decline of such programs in the settings he desired, we can say all these many years later, that he had a point. While other foundations (e.g. The Green Foundation and the Museum of the Bible) and other kinds of educational institutions many of them with a religious affiliation have filled the gap, from my perspective, the best venue for such work is still the Research One university. Perhaps someone reading this blog will agree and select their university as a place where this might happen. Yadin would be so pleased he might just turn over in his grave and stand up and shout with joy!


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