Beit Shearim – Don’t Miss It!
A friend was visiting me from the USA and we wanted to see something interesting but had only the morning hours for our trip. I decided to take her to Beit Shearim as I had been meaning to see the place myself.
It was with great surprise, then, that as we were waiting for the volunteer guide to meet us, a man running by excitedly stopped to tell us that just the day before (5 July 2015), UNESCO had voted Beit Shearim a World Heritage Site. Later we saw him being interviewed for foreign TV news and discovered that he is one of the archeologists working on the site. I took a chance and asked him if I could interview him for this article – he agreed, and I got permission from the National Parks Authority to use it. We will see it in a later section of this article.
UNESCO Inscribes Beit Shearim as a World Heritage Site
Seventeen nations enthusiastically congratulated Israel and paid homage to Jewish culture and history in the Land of Israel. If you don’t believe me, you can listen to the actual discussion of the Israeli application for recognition of Beit Shearim as a World Heritage Site at the UNESCO meeting, beginning at 1:58.
In his speech after the announcement of the inclusion of Beit Shearim onto the list, Permanent Delegate, Ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama Hacohen said that he is “thrilled at the birth of a new heritage site.” He suggested that the recognition of Beit Shearim is a “wall-breaker and a bridge, a pause between foes and rivals” and he spoke of how wonderful it is for him to share this rare “nonpolitical, professional and solemn” moment when he is more used to having to defend Israel from its detractors.
Proclaiming their recognition of the importance to world culture, history and heritage of a site upon which ancient Judaism was revived and revitalized, the delegates at this session gave this Israeli a moment of respite from all the hatred and denigration found on the Internet and other media. Hearing seventeen representatives of countries, not all of whom are particularly friendly toward us (such as Turkey), openly praise the resilience of the Jewish people after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE caused my chest to expand in pride and happiness.
The History of Beit Shearim
Forbidden from religio-cultural activities in our capital, Beit Shearim became a center for scholarship and community life and, after the death of its leader, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, a major magnet for wealthy Jews who wanted to bury their dead in the Holy Land. As diverse as the traditions from within which the Jews who were laid to rest in the Beit Shearim necropolis originated such was the diversity of their stone coffins. The more religious among them had simple unadorned coffins since graven images are forbidden. Others, however, had engravings based on either classic Greek or Roman art forms. Archeologist Dr. Dror Ben-Yosef remarks at how this site brought together Jews of diverse levels of religious affiliation and observance who in death were more tolerant of their differences than in life: Jews with pagan images on their stone coffins lay next to those with no images at all.
Preventing this site from becoming a draw to pilgrims who pray at the graves of ancient spiritual leaders, the Jewish Burial Committee removed all the human remains and reburied them elsewhere. Beit Shearim functions, instead, as a monument to our vitality wherever we live and our deep connection to this Land in spite how we may be influenced by other cultures.
While four members of the committee did not speak and perhaps were not even present, 17 of the 21 spoke most warmly about their endorsement of Israel’s application for Beit Shearim to be recognized as an important cultural center. Here are how some of the delegates put it (some partly paraphrased):
Portugal congratulated Israel on
this unique outstanding property, which is at the historical crossroads of Phoenecians, Romans, Greeks, Egyptians and Jews. It is an exceptional testimony to ancient Judaism and to Jewish culture that flourished here. This site has outstanding value in historical, cultural, religious and artistic terms.
Germany remarked on the:
impressive manmade catacomb, carved into soft limestone, that provides a comprehensive picture of ancient Judaism in this period.
India agrees that:
the necropolis represents a society with considerable resources and is a testimony to the resilience and revival of ancient Judaism.
Finland spoke of the history of the Jews in the Roman Empire and the historical evidence of our ancient Jewish culture. Vietnam remarked on the site’s outstanding value to multiculturalism and intercultural associations. Columbia spoke of the aesthetic and artistic value of Beit Shearim. Turkey confirmed the site’s authenticity and Israel’s conservation achievements.
Entreaties by the UNESCO committee members to fulfill the recommendations of ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) struck me as particularly ironic. As part of the obligations of Israel toward UNESCO for having Beit Shearim recognized as a World Heritage Site, Israel is instructed to prevent damage to this site and to conserve it for future generations by preparing for possible future seismic activity, reducing potential moisture and insect damages, and preventing the encroachment of unrelated land uses. We Jews are thus being told to preserve the evidence of our indigenous status on this land. No problem: the antiquities laws and national parks laws have been set up for that very purpose. How nice to be told to do something we want to do all on our own.
Come on to Beit Shearim and see for yourself. Tours are free with the entry fee. For visitor information, click here.
Photos here are my own.
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A version of this post appeared originally in Times of Israel Blogs, 7 July 2015.