That's why an interest in archaeology has always been a key factor in the century-long struggle to recreate and then maintain Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel.
You might think arguments claiming that the Jews were alien to the place are limited to the nonsensical propaganda that emanates from the less enlightened portions of the Islamic world. Claims from the Muslim Wakf that administers the Temple Mount in Jerusalem that the place has been a mosque since the days of Adam and Eve are, we hope, laughed off by those who read the mainstream press.
But though few in this country outside of academia have noticed, the notion of Israel being the historical homeland of the Jewish people has been under attack from far more reputable sources. In recent decades, a new front in the war on Israel was opened in intellectual journals and classrooms. Its goal? To trash the notion that the Bible's accounts of the history of ancient Israel have the slightest value, and to debunk the idea that the United Kingdom of David ever existed.
For a growing number of academics and intellectuals, King David and his kingdom, which has served for 3,000 years as an integral symbol of the Jewish nation, is simply a piece of fiction.
Building on the work of deconstrutionists, who have turned the study of literature into a morass of moral relativism and intellectual cant that seeks to undermine the very idea of historic truth, a new school of historians has arisen since the 1970s. Their purpose is to challenge not only the veracity of the biblical narrative, but the very idea of Jewish nationhood having its roots in the distant past.
As professor Jonathan Rosenbaum, president of Gratz College here in Philadelphia and himself a leading authority on Ancient Near East studies, said: "If you can upend the idea that King David was a historic figure and that ancient Israel was real, then you can delegitimize modern Israel."
And in the spirit of the post-Zionist fashion that has swept over Israel in the last decade, these ideas have been embraced by a number of influential Israeli archaeologists, too. Most prominently, Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University has written that the idea of the Davidic kingdom is not based on fact, and that David's Jerusalem was nothing but a "poor village."
But last week, the debunkers of Jewish history got some bad news. And all it took was for a dedicated archaeologist to start digging.
Dr. Eilat Mazar, senior fellow of the Jerusalem-based Shalem Center's Institute for the Archaeology of the Jewish People, made public the results of the dig she had been conducting since February in an area south of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, where scholars believe the city of David existed. What she produced ought to help quiet those who think Jewish history is bunk.
Amid the soil and rocks of the place that is now the village of Silwan, Mazar uncovered the ruins of the building she's sure was the palace of David itself – the very same structure that was built, according to the Bible, by King Hiram of Tyre for Israel's greatest king, around 1,000 BCE.
"It was obvious from the first glance that we are not speaking about a private house," recounts Mazar via phone from Jerusalem. "The walls are huge. The construction involved was massive."
Directly underneath the structure that was uncovered were "masses of pottery" all dating to the 11th and 12th centuries BCE, the era that archaeologists call Iron Age I, which predates the era of David. By its position in the site, this pottery, which was a unique find in of itself, makes it clear that "Iron I was over or almost over by the time the building was started," said Mazar.
"I had to ask myself, 'What do we have in hand?' " she says.
Mazar, 48, is the granddaughter of pioneering Israeli archaeologist Benjamin Mazar. She grew up in the world of digs and worked with her grandfather as a research assistant on his excavations on the Temple Mount.
She had talked with him before his death 10 years ago about the possibility of this project and, building upon the work of past generations of archaeologists and by reading a crucial verse in the book of Samuel II (Chapter 5, Verse 17), decided that if David had gone down from where he was to his fortress, then Silwan was the spot where David's abode might be found.
The dig was sponsored by the Hebrew University and Shalem, financed by American investor Roger Hertog and carried out with the help of the Ir David Foundation, which owns the land. But after years of work and planning, the proof was waiting in the ground.
"Once I started to excavate," says Mazar, "it was as if I had written nothing. Now, the stones will speak, not me."
And speak they do.
For those who contend that what she found was more likely the Jebusite fort David conquered or something else that predates his kingdom, Mazar said that the placement of the Iron I pottery right underneath it makes such a conclusion "problematic."
"How come I didn't find any remains of any construction underneath it? It doesn't make any sense. If this is the fortress, it was erected a day before King David captured the city.
"[This] fantastic building [is a] big, obvious answer to those who say Jerusalem was an unimportant settlement."
'A Name Is a name'
Just as telling was an artifact only 1 centimeter long, uncovered from a slightly later period. It was an impression of an ancient seal, or "bullah," which bore the name of Jerucal, son of Shelemiah, son of Shevi.
Who was he? Nothing less than a minister of the Kingdom of Judah in its last days before the Babylonian destruction of the city in 586 BCE. We know of him only because he is mentioned in the book of Jeremiah. But the bullah proves his existence isn't a literary flight of fancy.
The find shows again, as many other archaeological discoveries have also proven, that the Tanach is a credible historic source. For Mazar, this tiny piece of clay – found amid thousands of years of remains – "goes straight to the point" to understanding the role of the biblical text in reconstructing history.
"Layer by layer, we must take the Bible much, much more seriously than was ever thought, and treat it as a most important historic document that contains a lot of realistic descriptions," declares Mazar.
Any source that is the work of human hands (as scholars consider the Bible) is fallible, but, she says to those who doubt its role in understanding Jewish history, "a name is still a name."
While Mazar and the Shalem Center have tried to steer the discussion of the find away from politics, she knows firsthand that contemporary struggles are never far away from the study of Israel's past.
As spokeswoman for the nonpartisan Committee Against the Desecration of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, Mazar tried to alert the world in recent years to the vandalism being done to site by the Muslim Wakf. Much to her amazement, her pleas fell on deaf ears and the government of Israel refused to intervene. The result is that, due to politics, a treasure trove of antiquities in this sacred place may well be lost to us forever.
Similarly, Mazar knows there will be those who will assault her work for nonscientific reasons. As Rosenbaum noted, many modern scholars now seem to think that if you have an argument between those who claim the earth is flat and those who see it as round, "both are equally legitimate." Thus, it can be asserted, despite the archaeological evidence of the Bible's historicity, "there is no such thing as biblical history and no such thing as ancient Israelites."
Though Mazar says she "welcomes controversy over the meaning of the evidence," she urges her colleagues to deal with facts and not fantasies.
But by uncovering the remains of David's palace, Mazar has struck a blow not only for the cause of archaeology, but helped make clear just how deep the Jewish roots of this place run.
Jonathan S. Tobin is reachable via e-mail at: [email protected]