Friday, October 9, 2015

Jerusalem's holy place: No, NY Times, Certainty is not 'elusive'

I have never written to the Public Editor of the New York Times, but I am starting now because of this article, " Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem’s Holiest Place," which is irresponsible in some easily demonstrable ways.
(a) It buries the lead. The beginning of the article states that the Jewish claim that the Temples stood on the site of what is known today as the ‘Haram al Sharif / Temple Mount’ is cloudy and disputed by serious scholars, so that ‘historical certainty proves elusive.’ But the only evidence of such cloudiness or dispute in the piece concerns the First Temple, not the Second Temple. As the piece states later on, there is overwhelming evidence that the Second Temple was located on that site (though one scholar quoted in the piece questions whether it was exactly where the Dome of the Rock now stands, or in another location on the Mount.) In other words, the piece gets around to saying that Palestinian claims that there was never a Jewish Temple on that site are pretty well established as false -- though there is some scholarly debate about the location of the First Temple (unresolved in part because the Waqf will not permit archaeological excavations on the Mount).
(b) The final quotation is sensationalistic and irrelevant. “Ms. Cahill, who is also a practicing lawyer, said the answer depends partly on what constitutes proof. “The answer might be ‘yes,’ if the standard of proof is merely a preponderance of the evidence, but ‘no’ if the standard of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said.” Maybe so…. but which of these standards (beyond a reasonable doubt, or preponderance of the evidence) do historians typically use in making historical judgments? My understanding is that we have the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard in criminal cases because someone is innocent until proven guilty, and we don’t want to subject someone to punishment unless that person’s guilt is conclusively proven. This is entirely different from the enterprise of historical investigation. It makes me wonder how our understanding of history were to be revised if we were to reject any claim about the ancient world that could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. (The same investigator, Ms. Cahill, is earlier quoted as saying that “nobody knows exactly” where the temples once stood, although “pretty powerful circumstantial evidence” suggests they were on the site. “Because there have been no organized excavations there, and not likely to be, circumstantial evidence is probably all we’re going to have,” she said.)

The effect of this piece is to have the ‘newspaper of record’ indicate that scholarly doubt exists about whether or not there was a historical Jewish connection to the ‘Haram al Sharif / Temple Mount,' and thereby to give credence to those who claim that there was no such connection.
But historical certainty on this question does not prove elusive. Rather, as the piece itself indicates, this historical question is settled, and -- at the very very least -- one Jewish Temple stood there for hundreds of years.

NOTE:  The NY Times printed a correction and made some modifications to the article - see http://www.newsdiffs.org/diff/985159/985620/www.nytimes.com/2015/10/09/world/middleeast/historical-certainty-proves-elusive-at-jerusalems-holiest-place.html. )