By Michael Valpy, www.GlobeandMail.com

The six-month exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls closed January 3 in Toronto, with scholars baffled by the Jordanian government’s last-minute request to Canada to stop the ancient manuscripts from going back to Israel.

The request, delivered to the Canadian chargé d’affaires in the Jordanian capital of Amman, underscores the tortuous history of the region, where custody of the 2,000-year-old fragments of Jewish spiritual writings has become entangled in the politics and warfare of perhaps the world’s most fought over piece of geography.

Since the opening of the exhibit last June – at the Royal Ontario Museum in partnership with the Israeli Antiquities Authority – the huge lineups and laudatory reviews of the display have received extensive coverage in news media both inside and outside Canada.

However, Jordan waited until two weeks ago to ask Canada to take custody of the scrolls in keeping with requirements of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, an international protocol to which Canada is a signatory.

Jordan claims Israel seized the scrolls from a Jerusalem museum under Jordanian control in the Six-Day War of 1967.

The Canadian government has replied by saying Jordan, Israel, and the Palestine Authority should sort out who owns the scrolls and Ottawa will not intervene – a response which, legally, the Canadian government likely had no choice but to make, said Prof. Lawrence Schiffman, chair of New York University’s department of Hebrew and Judaic studies and a Dead Sea Scrolls specialist.

Ottawa, he said, was likely party to an indemnification agreement signed before the scrolls left Israel to come to Canada. The agreement – a conventional document protecting cultural property – would guarantee that Israel would get the scrolls back.

What has puzzled scrolls experts is not just Jordan’s timing but Jordan’s intervention. Why did it wait until just before the exhibit closed? And why did it make the request when 20 years ago it declared that its previous interests in the area, such as the museum in east Jerusalem that once housed some of the scrolls that came to Canada, were now in the hands of the Palestinian Authority.

Eibert Tigchelaar, professor of religion at both Florida State University and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium and a world-renowned scholar on the scrolls, said: “All I can say is that I am amazed that now not the Palestinian Authority but Jordan has entered the scene.”

In fact, Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, wrote to Prime Minister Stephen Harper in April, saying that the Israelis had no authority to let the scrolls come to Canada, although it doesn’t appear that the Palestinians asked Ottawa to keep the scrolls now that they’re here.

In any event, the application to the scrolls of the 1954 Hague Convention is not clear-cut.

In 1947 – the year the scrolls were discovered by a Bedouin shepherd boy around the Qumran wadi (desert) northwest of the Dead Sea – the United Nations voted in favor of the partition of the former British Palestine Mandate into separate Jewish and Arab states with Jerusalem to be placed under international supervision.

The Palestinian Jewish leadership accepted the plan, but Palestinian Arabs didn’t, and the British refused to implement it because there wasn’t agreement on both sides. Jewish inhabitants of Palestine then unilaterally proclaimed the state of Israel in 1948. Troops from Jordan invaded and occupied Jerusalem, and Jordan annexed the West Bank where the scrolls had been found.

Thus the legal custodianship of the scrolls appears murky.

Moreover, Prof. Schiffman said the scrolls have been exhibited in several cities in Britain and the United States without any action taken by Jordan.

Hindy Najman, director of the Centre for Jewish Studies at University of Toronto, said, “The main principle here should be the proper conservation and exhibition of artifacts that were a part of Jewish history and that, as a result of the survival of Judaism and its influence on both Christianity and Islam, have become part of universal history.”


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