On the Curious Protests of the Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibition in Toronto

By Robert R. Cargill
Center for the Digital Humanities
Qumran Visualization Project
August 2009

A curious wind blows this way from the sidewalk opposite the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Each day a handful of protesters appear waving Palestinian National Authority (PNA) flags and chanting that the ROM is exhibiting stolen property - property the protesters claim belongs to the PNA. And what is the so-called "stolen" property the ROM is exhibiting? Why, it is none other than the Dead Sea Scrolls - Jewish manuscripts first discovered in 1947 that were composed two millennia ago.

Theft is a serious charge. So what are the facts surrounding this claim?

When the first Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, east Jerusalem and the area known today as the West Bank were occupied and administered by the Emirate of Transjordan. Transjordan was former Ottoman territory incorporated into the British mandate of Palestine after the end of World War I. After capturing the West Bank in the 1948-49 War, Transjordan officially changed its name to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls and accompanying objects were excavated from the area near Qumran (which sits in the West Bank) between 1947 and 1956 by a joint expedition of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan and the École Biblique et Archéologique Française in Jerusalem. Until 1967, the scrolls were housed in the Rockefeller Museum, so named for American philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who provided two million dollars to build a Palestine Archaeological Museum in east Jerusalem during the British Mandate. An international team of scholars worked on the scrolls, and an international board of trustees managed the Rockefeller Museum until 1966, when Jordan's King Hussein nationalized it in the prelude to war. During the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel wrested control of the West Bank from Jordan, and the scrolls were transferred to the Israel Museum in west Jerusalem. The bulk of the scrolls have remained in the Israel Museum and its Shrine of the Book since that time, while the Copper Scroll and some other objects have been housed in the Jordan Archaeological Museum in Amman.

The pro-Palestinian protesters outside the ROM claim that the Dead Sea Scrolls were "illegally moved" from the Rockefeller Museum to the Israel Museum. The PNA claims the scrolls are looted "Palestinian" artifacts. However, this claim intentionally overlooks the fact that prior to 1967, the Kingdom of Jordan controlled east Jerusalem and the West Bank, not the PNA, which wasn't officially formed until the Oslo Accords of 1994. Thus, there could be no realistic "Palestinian" claim to the Dead Sea Scrolls, since they were discovered prior to the existence of any recognized Palestinian governmental body. If anyone other than Israel can make a claim on the scrolls, it is Jordan, not the PNA. The PNA's claim that the scrolls belong to them is a creative attempt to politicize archaeology and interject an anachronous revision of history into the present day dispute between Israel and Palestine.

Further evidence that the Toronto ROM protests are not about archaeology, but rather politically motivated attempts to unfairly chastise Israel is the fact that there have been no such protests against the Jordanian government. The Copper Scroll is presently on display in the Jordan Archaeological Museum in Amman. Yet, we do not see pro-Palestinian protests against the Jordanian government across the street from the Jordan Archaeological Museum demanding the return of the "looted" Copper Scroll to the PNA. The PNA vociferously demands the return of scrolls in Jewish hands, but not of those in Arab hands. This double standard betrays the underlying reality that the Toronto protests are nothing more than a hypocritical attempt to use archaeology to advance the PNA's agenda against Israel.

Let me briefly recap to this point: The Palestinian National Authority claims ancient documents that existed over 600 years before the prophet Muhammad, containing numerous copies of books from the Hebrew Bible, written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek by Jews, and discovered on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea over 40 years prior to the existence of the PNA, somehow belong to the PNA because the caves near modern day Qumran sit in the present-day West Bank. Go figure.

So why are they really protesting? What could possibly be driving protesters to spend their Saturday afternoons yelling at museum visitors? The first reason has already been discussed; the protests are an attempt by a number of pro-Palestine and anti-Israel groups to promote Palestinian nationalistic claims, but only those that are potentially damaging to Israel and not to Arab countries like Jordan.

There is a second reason for the protests: money. Records show that the exhibitions of Dead Sea Scrolls in Kansas City, Seattle, San Diego, Charlotte, Raleigh, New York, and now Toronto have generated huge crowds and record profits for the museums hosting the exhibitions, with the Israel Museum taking an up front cut of every show. These revenues, combined with the ticket sales generated by the permanent home of the scrolls, the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, provide a large source of recurring income for the State of Israel - money that the PNA would rather be collecting.

While the Palestinian claim to the Dead Sea Scrolls is unsubstantiated, we should not discount legitimate repatriation efforts. Greece has made a continuous case for the return of the friezes transported by Lord Elgin from the Parthenon to England, which are presently housed in the British Museum. Likewise, Egypt would love to see the return of many objects, including the Luxor obelisk at the center of the Place de la Concorde in Paris, the bust of Queen Nefertiti presently in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, and the Rosetta Stone presently on display in the British Museum. Recently, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, CA agreed to return to Italy 26 items of Italian origin, including a statue of Apollo. The two parties still disagree over the ownership of the famed Statue of a Victorious Youth, often referred to as the Getty Bronze. Each of these claims merit justifiable scrutiny and warrants a greater discussion about who actually owns ancient cultural treasures.

As for Israel and the West Bank, neither side is innocent when it comes to using archaeology as a nationalistic weapon. The Israel Antiquities Authority has apparently outsourced the excavation of the Silwan Valley to the 'Ir David (City of David) organization, whose excavation is displacing Palestinians from their homes in east Jerusalem. Likewise, recent comments by leaders within the Palestinian National Authority denying any Jewish presence on the Haram esh-Sharif (the Jerusalem Temple Mount) at any point in history are an equally lamentable attempt to misuse archaeology to advance a nationalistic agenda. Fortunately, we archaeologists and scholars, along with nearly every major international player, including Israel, are now advocating for a viable, independent Palestinian state, and are ready to promote and advance legitimate Palestinian cultural heritage research. I applaud and support this effort, but the PNA should refrain from making spurious claims simply to disparage Israel.

The Toronto ROM protests are nothing but a drummed up political show, and one, I might add, which was curiously absent when the scrolls toured the United States. Pro-Palestinian protesters in Toronto are misusing the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition as a venue to make their claims to anyone who will point a camera in their direction. We should also avoid entertaining the equally foolish suggestion that the Dead Sea Scrolls all came from Jerusalem simply to avoid dealing with this issue. The repatriation of cultural heritage objects is a legitimate matter and should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. And while I shall continue to support the Palestinian people in their struggle for peace and independence, the claim that the Dead Sea Scrolls are PNA property is a baseless attempt to interject archaeology into the peace process for nationalistic purposes.

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