Interview'Put an ancient shekel in someone's hand and they feel it'

To fight anti-Zionism, NY philanthropist showcases artifacts that tie Jews to Israel

Antiquities buff George S. Blumenthal talks about his latest project, which offers ‘bite-sized’ pieces of evidence to counter claims that Jews are not indigenous to the Holy Land

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Philanthropist George S. Blumenthal with a Second Temple-era silver shekel coin, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Jerusalem, on May 20, 2024. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)
Philanthropist George S. Blumenthal with a Second Temple-era silver shekel coin, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Jerusalem, on May 20, 2024. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

Holding out an ancient and surprisingly heavy silver coin, New York-based philanthropist and antiquities collector George S. Blumenthal explained that it was a shekel piece from 68 CE, the third year of the Jewish Revolt against Rome, inscribed with the words “Jerusalem the Holy” on one side and “Shekel of Israel” on the other.

“It’s material culture. You put it in someone’s hand and they feel the connection,” Blumenthal said, before nonchalantly slipping the 2,000-year-old shekel back into his satchel.

This connection, provided by a physical object attesting to the ancient Jewish presence in Israel, has been a central theme of Blumenthal’s philanthropic efforts.

Often working in concert with Israeli photographer and imaging technology expert Ardon Bar-Hama, Blumenthal, through what he called a series of “serendipitous” encounters over the last 20 years, ended up funding the groundbreaking high-resolution digitization of the Dead Sea Scrolls and also of the Aleppo Codex, one of the oldest surviving Torah scrolls, dating from the early 10th century CE, among other projects.

He has also worked closely with The City of David, financing a series of animated films about the history of Jerusalem, and is currently partnering with the Central Zionist Archives to digitize the original diaries of Theodor Herzl. This is in addition to other efforts relating to American Jewish life and American history.

Blumenthal, 80, the son of Holocaust survivors, grew up in Cleveland and made his fortune in the telecommunications industry in the 1990s. He then turned to philanthropy, quietly backing a myriad of causes. A longtime friend of actor Michael Douglas, Blumenthal has appeared in small parts in several of Douglas’s movies, including the classic “Wall Street.”

Image collage from the Israel Archaeological Proof website, showing, from left to right: The Tel Dan Stele, a scan of a 19th-century document, and a photo from Operation Magic Carpet in the 1950s. (Courtesy/used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Talkative, gregarious and unassuming, Blumenthal recently met with The Times of Israel in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in central Jerusalem to discuss his latest project, Israel Archaeological Proof, a website that compiles archaeological and historical documentation that shows the millennia of Jewish presence in the Holy Land.

The idea, he said, is to educate people about the deep roots of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel and provide ammunition against narratives suggesting that there are none, a mission that has become more urgent than ever after the October 7 Hamas massacres in southern Israel and subsequent outburst of antisemitic incidents and campus demonstrations in the US.

The first section of the Israel Archaeological Proof website, covering the late Bronze Age up to the Second Temple, has been launched, Blumenthal said. Two further sections, covering the period after the destruction of the Second Temple until the 19th century, and the modern period including the birth of the State of Israel, are in development.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The Times of Israel: The new website — it seems like you are bringing a lot of the archaeological work that has been done about the Jewish presence in the Land of Israel and placing it along a historical timeline, in context, with a specific goal in mind.

George S. Blumenthal: Archaeologists and professors, they go very deep. Professors tell me that to get a PhD today, you have to drill down to one object and write a thesis about it. But it’s not a broad view. All that we’ve done is collect the work of these prominent, important people, all the things that they have found.

Is this project in direct response to October 7?

No, it was happening before. But October 7 made it suddenly more relevant.

We in the United States do not feel your pain [in Israel]. We are empathetic, but every Israeli knows someone who was affected. What’s happening in the US is that we have a new pain of antisemitism. It’s always been there, below the surface. Look, I was called “Christ killer” when I was a kid. We were the only Jewish family in my neighborhood of Parma, Ohio. And I always felt there was antisemitism. But now… what’s happening on campus?

Illustrative photo of Jewish soldiers during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. (Benno Rothenberg/Meitar Collection/National Library of Israel/The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection/CC BY 4.0)

I live in New York, near Columbia. I live in Trump Tower. There were marches outside. I took my tennis racket and I started yelling “rapist” at these people. I did it three times, but the police shooed me away.

We, the Jewish community in the United States, are just galvanizing. When such a tragedy happens… both in Israel and on campus, no one was sitting there prepared for this. We have to galvanize. I believe we can do this through archaeology and history.

We are talking about biblical archaeology, about proving the historicity of the Bible. Many people have their own ideas about the truth of the Bible, one way or another. It’s historical, but it’s also mythology, it’s also legends. 

I hope it’s an issue of facts, not ideas. With ideas, you have an opinion and I have an opinion. When you can provide a fact that goes against an opinion, then you can assert something. I believe we are in a position to assert our relationship with the land, where we are obviously indigenous. I am not going to accept the BS from the Palestinians saying otherwise. There is a big story, in the United States, that they are the indigenous people.

But this site documents our presence. Let’s say, Ahab [one of the kings of ancient Israel]. A lot of people in the United States know the name Ahab. There is proof of Ahab! Who is defining it? The Assyrians. [King] Shalmaneser tells us that Ahab came up against him with 10,000 soldiers and 2,000 chariots.

In the Tel Dan stele, we are defined by Aram, which is Syria. It was found over 30 years ago. It very specifically says, “I killed the king of the House of David.”

Our story is defined by our adversaries.

These references place biblical-period Jews there, in historical context.

Exactly. They are documenting our presence in the land.

You had shown me earlier something you had compiled from the site and sent to a Chabad group at Oberlin College, a packet of short archaeological and historical proofs. You said they had used this in an attempt to counter the colonization narrative going around among students there.

Yes. And the Arab students there were dumbfounded when they heard the actual facts and saw the proof of it.

It’s all about education. How can we get the word out? How can you take this material and use it more frequently, in bite sizes?

A lot of the dialogue these days is also around more modern times, contemporary Zionism, and the creation of the State of Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

Everybody is amazed when I show them a newspaper from 1948: The State of Israel is declared, the Arabs attack… people say, “I’ve never seen that before.”

[For another project] I am aggregating newspaper articles about the 1948 war, as well as memoirs of the leaders of the Arab Liberation Army. What I am focused on now, is the fact that during the war the Arabs tried to starve to death 100,000 Jews in Jerusalem by preventing food convoys from getting through.

This is an enormous story, very well documented.

It seems so many people, now more than ever, see Israel as “the bad guy.”

The problem is that Israel doesn’t know how to tell its story.

George S. Blumenthal holds a silver shekel piece from 68 CE, the third year of the Jewish Revolt against Rome, inscribed with the words ‘Jerusalem the Holy’ on one side and ‘For the Freedom of Zion’ on the other, on May 20, 2024, in Jerusalem. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

Why do you think that is?

There is just a fundamental Israeli arrogance. “Damn the world, we know how to do everything.” But they don’t know how to speak to the world. You know, it used to be that a lot of Israeli businesses were developed but then had to be sold to American companies because they didn’t know how to market themselves in the US.

Also, it’s because people don’t like Jews, let’s be honest. People don’t trust Jews. They [the Israelis] don’t understand this.

What are your next steps?

I felt despondent after October 7, but now I feel empowered… I believe that something has changed, but it takes a while to turn the ship.

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