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An Appeal from Israel

Originally posted 05/04/2001

The following request is from

Phillip L. Walker
Department of Anthropology
University of California
Santa Barbara, CA 93106

Dear Friends,

I have recently received an urgent plea for help from an Israeli colleague, Professor Pat Smith. You may be aware that physical anthropologists in Israel have experienced difficulty studying ancient human remains owing to the activities of politically powerful ultra-religious groups who object to skeletal research. These people want to stop all skeletal research, including studies of early Homo sapiens remains that are many thousands of years old and part of the shared heritage of all people.

The Israeli government has recently gotten involved in this issue. Their Chief Scientist and the Israel Academy of Sciences are currently considering how to ensure continued research on human skeletons in Israel. A legislator representing the ultra religious groups has contested Pat's statement that the study of human skeletal material is legal in most Western Democracies.

In order to counteract this misrepresentation of the facts, she is asking as many researchers as possible to email the people appointed to consider this issue and provide them with two types of information: 1) basic data on the law (citing specific laws would be useful) and current practice regarding skeletal analyses (i.e., if reburial, then allocate time and funding for study) in your country and other countries you are familiar with, and 2) information that will convince the powers that be that anthropological research on human skeletal remains is an important and respected area of scientific research.

Hagit Messer-Yaron, was appointed to examine the rules governing anthropological research in other countries, so your message to him should address that issue. Here is his contact information:

Professor Hagit Messer Yaron, Chief Scientist

Israeli Universities and the Israel Academy of Sciences evidently need some prompting so that they clearly understand the scientific significance of research on human skeletal material. Pat thinks that if we can put up a convincing case, some of the members of the Academy of Sciences may be able to get human skeletal collections made part of the National Collections alongside the plant and faunal collections. There also has been some talk of the Academy sponsoring an international workshop on the role of physical anthropology in research in the 21st century. The people to contact with statements concerning the scientific significance of skeletal research are the following:

Professor Ilan Chet, Hebrew University Vice President in charge of Research and Development

Professor Benny Kedar, Israel Academy of Science

It would also be useful if you would send copies of your messages to Pat, so that she will have a record of the evidence that has been provided to these investigators. Here is her contact information:

Professor Patricia Smith
Dept. of Anat. Hebrew Univ.
Hadassah Ein Kerem and M. Gomorri Hadassah
Hospital, Ein Kerem
Jerusalem, Israel

Below is Pat's statement on the significance of physical anthropology to give you a idea of some of the points that you might want to reinforce along with her message to me, which outlines the situation in more detail. Feel free to forward this message to anyone who you think might be interested in providing letters of support.

Thanks for your help!
Phillip Walker

From Professor Smith:

Patricia Smith Professor and Head
Dental Division of Anatomy and Cell Biology.

Basically the current law in Israel forbids excavation or analysis of human remains from any period- this includes fossils since the ultra religious say that the world is only 5000 years old. Current collections are supposed to be handed over-but until a month ago the pressure was only on more recent material (past 3500 years). However, complaints have been lodged with the Police against both Universities stating that we have broken the law, and groups of ultra-religious males have appeared both at Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem demanding that all bones be handed over immediately. The resulting publicity resulted in a meeting of the Parliamentary committee of the Ministry of Science. At this meeting it was decided to re-examine the issue of research on human bones and to search for legal precedents elsewhere. One of the points made against such research was that it is barbaric and illegal in "Western democracies" and the chief scientist, Hagit Messer-Yaron, was appointed to examine the rules governing anthropological research in other countries.

There are then at least two issues. The first is to provide basic data on the law and current practice regarding skeletal analyses (i.e., if reburial then allocate time and funding). The second is to convince the powers that be that anthropology is an important and respected discipline. Hagit is the address for the first issue, the Universities and Academy of Sciences need some prompting to help with the second.

Physical Anthropology also called Human Biology or Bio-Anthropology, is the discipline that deals with research on humankind. Sub disciplines include:

Human Evolution and Origins
Human Variation and Adaptation
Growth Development and Aging
Osteology (Skeletal Biology)
Genetic Anthropology
Forensic Anthropology

Because of its broad multidisciplinary significance, Physical Anthropology forms part of the regular curriculum of teaching in Humanities, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences and Medicine in most Universities and Community colleges throughout the world The discipline has made major contributions to research in fields such as growth and development, biomechanics, cranio-facial biology, evolutionary medicine, molecular biology, behavior, identification in forensic cases, especially following mass disasters, prehistory and archaeology. The importance of research in physical anthropology and general interest in the topic is attested to by the large number of articles that appear in journals such as Nature and Science, as well as in specialist journals. At a more popular level, Scientific American and National Geographic as well as daily and weekly papers give extensive coverage to the discipline, while the number and popularity of television programs in the various fields of physical anthropology are arguably the most numerous and popular of all non fiction topics shown.

Excavation and analysis of skeletal remains recovered from archaeological sites has provided the main source of information for such studies. This is true for both Western Democracies and theocracies such as Pakistan and Iran. Where limitations have been imposed on the duration of time given to such research, governments have provided financial support for the necessary research to be carried out within the time stipulated.

Israel is one of the few countries in the world that has no undergraduate program in physical anthropology or full time academic appointment in the field. This is probably one of the factors that has contributed both to apathy on the part of the general public to the loss of our heritage that has already been sustained since the attorney general's ruling on human remains in archaeological contexts in 1995. It may also be one of the factors associated with the lack of knowledge displayed by the general public on issues relating to human evolution and human variation-compounding the difficulties of those trying to deal with racist prejudices based on such variation. It has almost certainly also contributed to the dearth of students and researchers in evolutionary aspects of molecular biology within the country.

Major journals in English include Journal of Human Evolution; American Journal of Physical Anthropology and Human Biology.

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