Jewish coin as political argument?

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by Ursula Kampmann
translated by Teresa Teklic 

September 7, 2017 – At the end of August, the Israeli and international press covered the story that a nine-year-old girl, Hallel Halevy, had found a half-shekel from the time of the First Jewish-Roman War. What was remarkable about it was the location of the find. It was near the Jewish settlement Neve Tzuf (= Halamish), an Israeli settlement in the fought-over West Bank. Her father took the coin to a neighbour, Dr Zohar Amar, who had intermittently held a professorship at the Department of Land of Israel Studies at Bar-Ilan University. As Wikipedia informs its readers, Professor Amar intends to “link Torah and science.” 

After a preliminary examination of the unifaced lead piece with the help of a scale, Prof Amar stated that the object must be a half-shekel from the time of the First Jewish-Roman War (66-70). Of course Prof Amar was aware that this case would require further scientific research but he “felt” that he must be dealing with an object from the past. Perhaps the wish was father to the thought in this case, considering that in Israel archaeology is at times instrumentalised to raise political claims to disputed territories. So Prof Amar said: “The village of Beit Rima, which appears in Mishnah in Menachot, is located three kilometers away and from there the libations were brought to the Temple. In the area of Neve Tzuf, there is a unique site in the world where a special wine was produced, which in case of great need was permitted to be transferred to the Temple. There is a great deal of data linking the Neve Tzuf area to the subject of the Temple and the coin sheds additional light on this issue.”

Perhaps it should be mentioned at this point that Neve Tzuf belongs to those Jewish settlements that are particularly hotly disputed. In 2016 it was the scene of several arson attacks. In July 2017, three members of a Jewish family in Neve Tzuf were stabbed to death by a Palestinian from Kobar, near Ramallah, while they were peacefully sitting down for dinner. On the other hand, 64 inhabitants of the neighbouring (Palestinian) village Nabi Salih have been arrested by Israeli forces since the end of 2009. The 64 inhabitants make up 13% of the village’s population. 

The location of its find made this small coin, discovered by an innocent girl, an important piece of evidence for the advocates of Israeli settlements, understood as confirming the rightfulness of their claims to the West Bank. Which may be the reason why Prof Amar’s closing remarks on the find were as follows: “After all that we went through recently, the discovery is very interesting because the Romans wanted to kill us, but we came back here, and this year we will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of the settlement of Neveh Tzuf.”

Unfortunately, the speakers will have to do without a neat argument to support their presence in the West Bank. It turns out that the discovered coin is not an ancient coin but a replica, one of dozens of replicas that kids make at the Israel Museum each year for Hanukkah. 

The origins of the disputed object were identified by Dr Haim Gitler, Chief Curator of Archaeology and Numismatics at the Israel Museum and President of the Israel Numismatic Society. To the “Times of Israel” Dr Gitler explained: “There is no chance that it is authentic; it is not an ancient coin. Even to call it a coin is to exaggerate what it is […] Whether it was 2016 or 2015, that’s more the question.” 

Yet Prof Amar insists on demanding a closer examination with scientific methods. And the archaeologist from the Department of Civil Administration (COGAT) who is responsible for the territory actually took the contested object into custody on August 23, 2017 – all archaeological finds made in the West Bank belong to the state – and handed the proud discoverer a certificate. COGAT wants to wait for the results of the scientific examination before making an official statement. 

You can find a more detailed account of the preliminary examination of the coin by Dr Zohar Amar as well as most of the statements quoted above in this article by Arutz Sheva, a religious-Zionist online radio broadcasting company which offers broadcasts in English. 

Photos of the souvenir coins and certificates of authenticity for the little mint masters of the Israel Museum / Jerusalem are provided in this article of the Times of Israel.
Here also Haim Gitlers assessment is published, together with a video which shows children making such replicas. The article also provides a strongly modified version of the story of the coin’s discovery as well as the second part of Prof Amar’s statements.

Even the Times of Israel had fallen for the archaeological sensation at first. The article has been removed from the internet by now. 

Learn more about Prof Zohar Amar in his Wikipedia entry.

Wikipedia also offers a brief overview of the conflicts around Neve Tzuf.