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Yigael Yadin: Archaeologist, Military Man, Politician

I was always perplexed by references to Yigael Yadin. He had so many roles in the history of Israel but I never knew how to put them together. Finally, I read a short summary of his life in a 2019 book by archaeologist Jody Magness, “Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth.” This summary weaved all the details together, and I will try to present this summary briefly here (supplemented a bit by other sources).

Yadin was born in Jerusalem in 1917 with the name Yigael Sukenik. His father, Eleazar, was an archaeologist. Yigael became a student of archaeology, but also joined the Haganah in 1933.

In 1939, he became the personal aide to Yaacov “Dan” Dostrovsky, the Haganah’s chief of staff. Because the Haganah was outlawed by the British, its members used code names. Sukenik chose the name “Yadin” because he liked the allusion at Gen. 49:16: “Dan yadin amo.”

In 1945, Sukenik resigned from the Haganah and returned to his studies. But just before Israel declared its independence, Ben-Gurion recalled him to the military. He was head of military operations during the 1947-49 War, making many of the decisions that led to Israel’s victory.

On Nov. 29, 1947, just hours before the UN vote, with war about to break out, his father risked his life and traveled to Bethlehem to negotiate a deal for the first three Dead Sea Scrolls. Of course Yigael was torn. As an archaeologist, he knew the importance of these documents. But as a son and as head of military operations for the Haganah, Yigael told his father that it was too risky for him to travel to Bethlehem at this tense time. His father ignored him, and was able to obtain these scrolls. (I will tell this story more completely in a separate column. I will also address Yigael’s own role in obtaining the next four Dead Sea Scrolls.)

In 1949, Ben-Gurion appointed Yigael chief of staff of the IDF (the successor to the Haganah). Around this time, Ben-Gurion required high government officials to adopt Hebrew names. From that point on, Yigael Sukenik became Yigael Yadin, adopting his previous code name.

Yadin resigned his military position in 1952 and resumed his academic career, pursuing his PhD on the War Scroll from Qumran. In 1955, he received his PhD and was appointed lecturer in archaeology at Hebrew University. He received the Israel Prize in Jewish Studies in 1956 for his PhD study. In 1955, he undertook the first of four seasons of excavations at Hazor. In 1970, he became the head of the university’s Institute of Archaeology.

The Israel Exploration Society mounted a campaign in the early 1960s to explore caves in canyons along the southwest shore of the Dead Sea. Yadin was assigned to the Nahal Hever cave and did his work there in 1960-61. It turned out to yield spectacular finds. As Magness explains, he “excavated caves occupied by Jewish refugees from Ein Gedi at the time of the Bar-Kokhba revolt (132-135 CE). The caves had been discovered by Roman troops, and the besieged refugees, trapped and unable to escape, starved to death. Their physical remains and personal belongings including documents remained inside the caves until their discovery by Yadin. Among the documents are letters written by the leader of the revolt himself…”

Yadin’s crowning archaeological achievement was the excavations at Masada, which he directed from 1963-65. Thousands of volunteers from Israel and around the world participated in the excavations in two-week rotations. One year after the excavations ended, Yadin published a popular book on Masada, which became a best seller.

Within a year of the publication of this book, he was recalled to public service as tensions escalated with Israel’s Arab neighbors. Shortly before June 1967, he accepted an appointment as Prime Minister Eshkol’s special advisor on security affairs. Magness writes: “He played a central role in planning a military offensive which led to Israel’s stunning victory…” He also ensured that Israeli forces secured the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem, where most of the Dead Sea Scrolls were stored. On Yadin’s initiative, a special museum in Jerusalem, “Heikhal Ha-Sefer,” was built for the Scrolls.

After the war ended, Yadin returned to academic life, teaching and working on the publication of the Dead Sea text known as the “Temple Scroll.” Magness writes: “His position as the foremost archaeologist in Israel was enshrined in James Michener’s 1965 novel, ‘The Source’…The pipe-smoking Israeli archaeologist, Ilan Eliav, was modeled after Yadin.”

One of the many books he published was “Tefillin from Qumran” (1969).

After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he returned to public service as a member of the commission charged with investigating the Israeli government’s failure to anticipate the war’s outbreak. The report issued by the commission led to the resignation of Prime Minister Golda Meir.

In 1974, he returned to academic life. But in 1976, he returned to public life and was the head of a new political party called “Dosh,” an acronym for the “Democratic Movement for Change.” This party advertised itself as an alternative to the long dominant Labor Zionist party. The party won 15 seats, but this came at the expense of the Labor party, and enabled Begin’s Likud party to obtain the largest number of seats and form a coalition without Labor or Dosh. Eventually, Dosh ended up joining Begin’s government. Yadin was appointed deputy Prime Minister, a position he served in until 1981. He spent his final years engaged in archaeology and academic life. He died in 1984.

Magness was his student in the years 1974-76 and tells the following story from July 1976. She took a course with him that spanned two years: “Introduction to the Archaeology of the Land of Israel.” The entire grade for the course was based on the final exam. She remembers Yadin as charismatic but intimidating. He was always “Professor Yadin,” unlike the other faculty members with whom the students were on a first-name basis. All the students had been studying frantically for the final exam. But then they heard the news about the Entebbe rescue. As a result, the whole country was walking around with big grins on their faces, and the students entering the classroom for their final exam were as well. She writes: “It was then that Yadin entered the room and strode (as always) to the front. Sternly he asked, ‘What happened? Why are you all smiling?’—and then he broke into a big grin himself. It is the only time I remember seeing Yadin smile like that.”

P.S. Wikipedia has the following story: Yadin was sometimes forced to deal with thefts of important artifacts, occasionally by prominent figures. In one instance, the thefts were attributed by others to Moshe Dayan. Yadin remarked: “I know who did it, and I am not going to say who it is, but if I catch him, I’ll poke out his other eye, too!”

Like Yadin, Mitchell First leads a multifaceted life, alternating between law and Jewish scholarship (but without any military achievements). He can be reached at [email protected]. For more of his articles, visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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