A Frankfurt exhibit is canceled as Germany refuses to promise it’ll return them to Israel.
By: Charlotte Allen; wsj.com (Wall Street Journal)
Israel had long planned to take part in a major exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Frankfurt. This would be no ordinary event: Nearly all the Dead Sea Scrolls known to exist are housed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The September 2019 show in Germany represented an uncommon—though not unprecedented—opportunity to display them outside the Middle East. But it wasn’t meant to be.
Earlier this month the German government declined to guarantee it would return the scrolls to Israel if Jordan or the Palestinians claimed them. The Frankfurt Bible Museum, a Protestant entity that had worked with the Jewish state for years, subsequently canceled the event. If Israel refused to release the scrolls, there wouldn’t be much to show.
The Palestinian National Authority and the Jordanian government have contested Israel’s claim to ownership of the scrolls, which were discovered northwest of the Dead Sea during the 1940s and ’50s. After the Ottoman Empire dissolved during World War I, the area became part of the British Mandate of Palestine. It was seized by Jordan during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Then it was recaptured by Israel in 1967, to become part of the West Bank. According to Boris Rhein —culture minister for the state of Hesse, wherein Frankfurt lies—Germany’s federal government considers the scrolls’ ownership unclear.
This is an odd development. In 2005 the German government sponsored an exhibition in Berlin celebrating Israeli art. The show included parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which had left Israel for the first time since 1967. They were housed in Germany for four months without protest. And there have been similar exhibitions in other countries, including the U.S., in recent years.
In 2009-10 Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum held one such exhibition. Just before it closed, Jordan asked the Canadian government to seize the scrolls, pending determination of ownership. Jordan argued that Israel had illegally taken them from a museum in East Jerusalem, which Jordan occupied before 1967, and moved them to the Israel Museum in West Jerusalem. The Jordanians argued this violated international law regarding cultural property during wartime. The Canadian government, having signed a guarantee that Israel would get the scrolls back, ignored Jordan’s request. But the incident was a warning that trouble could follow any plan for the scrolls to leave Israel.
Jordanian legal claims, based on the country’s seizure and occupation of lands that had never been part of its territory, are at best murky. But leave the legal case aside. The Palestinian Authority didn’t exist until the 1993 Oslo accords, long after the last major scroll discoveries. And the content of the scrolls—nearly 1,000 parchment, papyrus and, in one case, copper manuscripts, all dating from around 225 B.C. to A.D. 50—is entirely Jewish.
The scrolls were mostly written in Hebrew and Aramaic, the language spoken by Jews at that time. About 40% of the scrolls are parts of the Hebrew Bible, with every book except Esther represented. The rest include Jewish “apocryphal” scriptures written during that era, which became part of many Christians’ Bibles, as well as writings likely produced by a Jewish sect living in the area at the time.
Even if Jordan had a stronger legal claim, it hasn’t proved it can responsibly maintain the scrolls. During Jordan’s hold on East Jerusalem, the editing and preservation of the scrolls was marked by “scholarly mismanagement and irresponsibility,” scrolls scholar Géza Vermes wrote in 1994. A small team of scholars led by the French priest-archaeologist Roland de Vaux had assumed proprietary control over the manuscripts there, refusing access to outside researchers. They even sat on some of the manuscripts for decades without publishing them. Some of the fragile fragments, stored under glass and held together with adhesive tape, became stained and illegible.
In 1990 the Israeli government finally dissolved what was left of de Vaux’s team. It appointed Hebrew University professor Emanuel Tov to take over the project. Mr. Tov led the swift and orderly publication of the texts, and state-of-the-art preservation technology became the rule.
Given Israel’s extraordinary legal and moral claims to the Dead Sea Scrolls, one can only speculate why Germany is giving credence to the Jordanian and Palestinian ownership arguments. Perhaps it’s relevant that Germany’s five million Muslims, their numbers swollen by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s generous immigration policies, now constitute 6.1% of the population. But recall Israel’s treatment at the hands of Islamic countries. Western leaders should think again if they believe Muslim-dominated territories at the center of the strife will responsibly care for priceless records of Jewish history and culture.
Ms. Allen is author of “The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus ” (Free Press, 1998).