Reconfiguring Diaspora: The Transformation of the Jewish Diaspora in Antiquity

Abstract: Max Polonovski

Archaeology and Jewish Cemeteries: Political and Religious Issues

Max Polonovski

General Curator of Jewish Heritage for the French Ministry of Culture


During the past twenty years, haphazard discoveries of Jewish cemeteries in Europe on the occasion of archaeological excavations aroused identity or religious reactions which caused the interruption of work in most cases. This phenomenon can be explained by the increasing multiplication of archaeological operation as the risk of fortuitous discoveries during construction work was taken into account in the legislation of most European countries. It is also due to the reinforcement of the communitarian spirit, to the need of minority groups for recognition in a multicultural society, to the widening of notions of the traditional culture.

The obstacles which cause the cessation of the excavations and the irreparable loss of historical information are of diverse natures, which may be delimited in two main trends. The first one has to do with self censorship. Public authorities are not much aware of the particularities of Judaism. Not well informed, they have a tendency to consider the Jews as a special community which is governed by its own internal rules. Hence they are sensitive to international pressure which is exerted on their own soil.

The second tendency is related to the attempt of some fractions of Judaism to impose the supremacy of religion over the civil law. Universalist vocation of Science is jeopardized by this communitarian threat.

These two trends meet together to create a difficult situation, a threat to public liberty. Two legitimacies confront each other.

The position held by the religious authorities may be understandable since they are their role when they wish the strict application of the fundamental dogmas of their religion.

On the other hand, the right of access to its cultural heritage by the whole population is based on principles which are supposed to be implemented by public authorities. The position of these latter, in most cases, is questionable since it appears as a failure to protect the right to know and a propensity to let a small activist minority express its most extreme point of view.