Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Deconstructing Herod

JERUSALEM — King Herod killed many people in his time, among them wives, sons and, according to the New Testament, all the male newborns of Bethlehem. He had more victims beyond the grave: In 2010, the archaeologist Ehud Netzer died from a fall at Herodium, Herod’s magnificent desert palace, after spending his life studying the king and searching for his tomb.
Now a new exhibition at the Israel Museum celebrates both the king and the archaeologist, implausibly turning Herod into the most celebrated historical Jewish figure of the moment.

International interest in the exhibition has predictably focused on the boring issue of whether Herodium, which is in the West Bank, belongs to Israel or to the Palestinians. A much more interesting question is how Herod went from being a villain to a hero in the Israeli imagination.
From the year 37 B.C. until his demise 33 years later, Herod the Great ruled over Judea as a Roman proxy. He was a builder of many great sites, among them the magnificent Masada and Caesarea. “Whoever has not seen Herod’s building, has not seen a beautiful building in his life,” the Talmud says of the renovated Second Temple in Jerusalem. But he didn’t look the part of a Jewish hero.
For one thing, his Jewishness was questionable: He was of Idumaean origin, and while his great-grandfather had converted to Judaism, his mother was a Nabatean. In the eyes of the pious Jews, Herod wanted no better than to Hellenize Judea. The Talmud, by way of belittling his status, calls him “a slave of the house of the Hasmoneans” (the ruling dynasty that preceded his) andstruggles with the fact that he renovated the Jews’ temple.
Yet now Israel seems to be embracing Herod’s uncertain legacy. Not only is he the subject of an exhibition “unprecedented in grandeur and expense,” according to one review, Israel is also planning to rebuild his 83-foot tomb. Some archaeologists have slammed that idea as a “joke.” But it is already being funded by the government – for an anticipated cost of $540,000 — as one of more than 300 projects in the Netanyahu government’s Landmarks plan, an effort to make historical sites throughout Israel more accessible to visitors. Once built, Herod’s tomb will even be visible from Jerusalem, more than 11 kilometers away.

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