The Jerusalem Post entrevistou Simcha Jacobovici, diretor de O Sepulcro Esquecido de Jesus.
One on One: The cross he bears
‘The Lost Tomb of Jesus’ producer Simcha Jacobovici says public criticism only strengthens his belief that he’s uncovered a real revelation.
By Ruthie Blum Leibowitz – March 21, 2007
Canadians may recognize award-winning filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici (pronounced Yakobovitch) as The Naked Archeologist – the name of the TV show he hosts, which is premiering on Channel 8 in Israel in May. “You know,” says Jacobovici, grinning, “It’s like The Naked Chef of archeology.”
But ruins and remains are not – as he is the first to acknowledge during our hour-long interview in a Tel Aviv hotel – his field of expertise.
“What I am is an investigative journalist,” he argues for what may be the millionth time since the recent release of his ultra-controversial documentary film, The Lost Tomb of Jesus. The nearly two-hour movie he made with director James Cameron of Titanic fame – a cinematic cross between TV shows like 60 Minutes and CSI and biblical epics like The Ten Commandments – all but asserts with authority that ossuaries (bone boxes) in a tomb discovered in Jerusalem’s East Talpiot neighborhood in 1980 are none other than those of Jesus of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) and his family.
That Jacobovici’s having “dug up” and “dusted off” a 27-year-old find – dismissed at the time as one among many regular old relics – is rocking the archeological and theological communities is not surprising to the 54-year-old former Israeli. In fact, he insists, while he doesn’t appreciate the personal attacks, he does “welcome the debate.”
Indeed, if his previous and upcoming journalistic pursuits are any indication, Jacobovici likes stirring up trouble. So far, it’s paid off. Big-time. Among other awards, his Toronto-based company, Associated Producers, has two Emmys under its belt (one for The Selling of Innocents, on sex trafficking of children, and the other for The Plague of Monkeys, on the Ebola virus). Other topics he’s covered on film include Ethiopian Jews, the lost tribes of Israel, the sinking of the Struma refugee ship, Jesus’s brother James and terrorism. His latest film – that is going to be broadcast here during Pessah – is The Exodus Decoded, an examination, explains Jacobovici, of whether the biblical exodus was “history or fairy tale.” Uh-oh.
As it happens, Jacobovici’s own history has a touch of the fairy tale about it – a Jewish one. The son of Holocaust survivors from Romania, he was born and spent half of his childhood here, then moved to Canada, where he was an activist for Jewish causes (he chaired the North American Jewish Students’ Network; founded and chaired Network Canada, the country’s national union of Jewish students; founded the Canadian Universities Bureau of the Canadian Zionist Federation; and served on the national executive of the Canadian Jewish Congress; was invited to share the dais with prime minister Menachem Begin in 1978, following his announcement of the peace accord with Egypt; was president of the International Congress of the World Union of Jewish Students; and in 1980 – the year the “Jesus tomb” he would investigate a quarter of a century later was discovered – he was awarded the Knesset Medal for his Zionist work on North American campuses, and served as special consultant on Nazi war criminals to Canada’s solicitor-general).
Today, the married father of five is an Orthodox Jew, who dines with his Hollywood peers on the kosher food he requests. And Shabbat is sacred. “At the end of the day,” says Jacobovici, adjusting his lushly embroidered kippa crowning a head of nape-length hair, “if you refuse to compromise, others come around.” Sometimes, but not when the “others” are archeologists of the arch-critic variety.
Much has been written about your controversial film, including in these pages. But what about the man behind the movie. Who is Simcha Jacobovici?
I was born in Israel in 1953. When I was nine, my parents moved to Montreal, where I grew up. My mother had a thyroid condition, and though today Israel is one of the leaders in thyroid treatment, at the time my mother couldn’t be treated in Israel. She was one of the first people to be treated with radioactive iodine anywhere, and the first test case in Canada; thank God, she’s fine now. My father was a plastics engineer at the beginning of the plastics revolution. I attended McGill University, where I did a BA in philosophy and political science. Then I came back to Israel for two years to serve in the army – in what’s called sherut shlav bet, which is less than three years, because I was already 21. After that, I went back to Canada – to Toronto – where I did an MA in international relations. I finished my PhD work there, stayed and got married. I have five kids – four girls and a boy – ranging in age from 13 to 20 months.
How did you become a filmmaker?
I first started writing background focus pieces – more like analysis. Slowly, I got involved in investigative stuff. The first time I made a film was in 1981. I had written an article about the plight of the Ethiopian Jews. I ended up writing three pieces [on this subject] for The New York Times, and they created quite a controversy. If you’re looking for common denominators in my life, I guess I would say that Ethiopian Jews – like the original Jesus movement I am now interested in – fell between the cracks: They were blacks among Jews and Jews among blacks. The Jews who followed Jesus also fell between the cracks: Jews don’t want to delve into them so as not to Christianize Judaism, and Christians don’t want to deal with them so as not to Judaize Christianity. I feel very comfortable in the space in between. The issue of the plight of Ethiopian Jews was a marriage of my Jewish interests and my journalistic ones. Anyway, I wrote several articles on the subject, and after you write so many articles, what do you do next? So I tried to interest some documentary filmmakers in the topic – my idea was to be a consultant, because I had no training in filmmaking. But nobody wanted to do it. So, I thought, “What do I have to lose?” And I went out and made my first documentary, Falasha, Exile of the Black Jews. The film was quite well-received and controversial. It was screened in Israel and to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset. It became part of the advocacy campaign on behalf of Ethiopian Jews that led to Operation Moses, the first airlift to Israel in 1984. So, suddenly, I’d made a film, and I liked it. Since then, haven’t looked back. I have a film company called Associated Producers, and we do a lot of investigative work.
What’s your connection to archeology?
There have been a lot of academics saying I’m not an archeologist, which is absolutely true. What I am is an investigative journalist. Normally, investigative journalists follow up social-political stories; they chase President Bush around, for example, or look into nuclear, medical or other issues. And when a journalist does a medical story, nobody challenges him for not being a doctor. But history and archeology? Those are realms in which you’re supposed to worship at the altar of academia. You can cross-examine a nuclear physicist and nobody questions your right to do so. But not a professor of history. There’s this little island of history and archeology that hasn’t been much exposed to the skills of investigative journalism. What I do is act as a detective. I’m not an archeologist; I interview archeologists. I’m not an epigrapher; I interview epigraphers. My job, as it would be if I were doing any story, is to connect dots and see if a picture emerges.
How did you come to take an interest in this particular tomb? And why now – 27 years after it was uncovered?
I was doing a film, James, Brother of Jesus, for which I interviewed [renowned archeologist] Prof. Amos Kloner. He asked me why I was interested in the James ossuary. I said, “What do you mean, why am I interested in it? This is the first archeological attestation to Jesus of Nazareth – one of the most important people to have walked the face of this planet.” So he asked, “Then why are you dealing with the brother? Why don’t you deal with Jesus?” I said: “What do you mean?” He said, “I’ll show you.” And he showed it to me. He thought it was the funniest thing. I asked him why it wasn’t significant. And he said, “Oh, it’s so common.” I asked how many he’d found. I thought he’s say 20 or 50. “One,” he said. I asked who else was buried in the tomb. He said, “I don’t want to tell you, because then you’ll think you have Jesus.”
If you were so interested in ossuaries and Jesus, why hadn’t you heard of the Talpiot tomb before that moment?
I mean, it had been discovered more than two decades before this exchange with Kloner. You have to understand that this tomb has been enveloped in secrecy. It’s been in the shadows. It’s been in the academic basement. From 1980 until 1996, something very unusual happened with it: Not a word was published on it. Sixteen years of utter silence. It was found by builders, when bulldozers were preparing a construction site. The builders phoned the Israel Antiquities Authority, and three archeologists arrived. The lead archeologist, antiquities inspector Yosef (Yoske) Gat, died very soon after the finding. The two others were Amos Kloner and Shimon Gibson [now a senior fellow at the Albright Institute of Archeological Research]. Gibson is open to the possibility of this being the tomb of Jesus and his family. Kloner has been very negative throughout this whole discussion. I think he’s a sweet man, but I don’t understand him. I mean, on CBS he said: “You cannot get DNA from God.” When a man makes a statement like that, is he making it as an archeologist?
Are you insinuating that he feels professionally or otherwise threatened by your investigation?
[Here he shrugs and laughs mischievously.] As Jesus would say, “You said that.” I don’t know how he feels. I don’t work with feelings. I work with facts. The fact is that for 16 years it was his responsibility to publish something, and he published nothing. It was only after a journalist from the BBC started asking questions that he published an article in the relatively small Israeli journal, Atikot [antiquities]. And unless you’re an avid reader of Atikot, you wouldn’t know that this tomb exists. I know many academics who had no idea about it. So, [if I were Kloner], I would be embarrassed.
But if he’s right that this tomb and its ossuaries aren’t significant, why would – or should – he have made a big deal out of them?
Archeological finds are uncovered in Israel all the time. Not each and every one is widely publicized. True, things are uncovered here, though not quite all the time. But things are published about them. I mean, I’m not asking why he didn’t hold a press conference. But for 16 years not to publish anything about it? Zero? This is very unusual. Also, let’s face it: It’s the only ossuary ever found with the name “Jesus, son of Joseph” on it. Now, these people are smart people. So, even if it was only to dispel any possibility, you would think that somebody would at least address it (cont.)