Monumental Victory

Jewish Light Editorial

It seems strange to welcome news about a victory by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s army, but its taking back control from ISIS control of the ancient city of Palmyra is indeed a welcome event.

ISIS marauders had received worldwide condemnation for their calculated and vicious destruction of priceless artifacts in Palmyra, which has been world famous for the archaeological treasures it contains. Many of the antiquities destroyed by ISIS brutes were more than 2,000 years old, including the city’s iconic Arch of Triumph.

A year ago, ISIS murderers beheaded Khaled al-Assad, an 82-year-old world-renowned archaeologist who had refused to lead Islamic State destroyers to hidden Palmyra treasures. He had worked for more than 50 years as chief of antiquities in Palmyra. Assad’s family informed Syrian authorities that he had been killed by ISIS after having been held for more than a month.  

The obvious motive for this cultural destruction is to erase the history of previous civilizations that lived in those ancient cities whose roots go back to pre-biblical days. By eliminating the most meaningful remnants of civilized society’s history, ISIS attempts to create a past that fails to acknowledge any existence other than its own.

Fortunately, the Syrian army, supported by Russian airstrikes, took back control of the ancient city late last week. Troops, visiting journalists and scholars saw the extent of the ISIS rampage of destruction, which included destroying virtually all of the ancient temple of Bel in Palmyra. ISIS justified its actions as attacks on monuments and statues of ancient gods it considers examples of idolatry.


ISIS has also enriched itself by selling some of the priceless artifacts on the black market.

Previously, ISIS had boasted of its destruction of archaeological treasures in the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrod, including Jonah’s Tomb and other sites in the 3,000-year-old city. Other wrecked sites include the Mosul Museum.

Certainly, destruction or desecration of cultural heritage sites is not limited to that committed by ISIS. In 2001, the world was shocked and repulsed when the Taliban, which was then in control of Afghanistan, destroyed the world’s two largest standing Buddhas, one of them 165 feet high. And Hamas and Fatah terrorists have repeatedly attempted to destroy Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus (Schechem), the burial place of one of the central figures in the Hebrew Bible.     

ISIS’ persistent efforts to wipe out cultural history have brought with them urgent cries from across the world. The director general of the United Nations Cultural, Educational and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) has called ISIS’ destruction of Palmyra’s architectural gems a war crime. Markus Hilgert,  director of Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, said he was extremely troubled at the inability of the international community to “stop this cultural carnage.”

In 1967, after Israel liberated the Old City of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, there were some extremist hotheads who called for razing or moving the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount so that a Third Temple could be built on that site. Wisely, Israel resisted these calls and instead has assured that the holy sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are administered and protected by the various religious communities in the Old City.

Israel’s approach is clearly the right one. To ignore history or pretend it didn’t exist is to fail to learn from both the successes and failures of the past. The destruction of antiquities, especially those that stood as the highest and best examples of past societies, isn’t much different than book burning. It’s creating a mass pretense that only the current leaders’ viewpoints ought be considered, and sends a horrific, chilling message that other perspectives are to be dealt with disrespectfully at the best and savagely at the worst.

If ISIS leaders are arrested and brought before a United Nations or special war crimes tribunal at the Hague, they should not only be charged with human genocide, but also with the war crime of cultural genocide.

In the meantime, we are at least relieved that what is left of Palmyra and its archaeological treasures have been liberated from ISIS control. 

If only Assad were himself so enlightened as to tolerate and respect viewpoints contrary to his own.