Jews? What Jews? // Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit canceled in Frankfurt out of concern that they might belong to the Palestinians

By Professor Lawrence H. Schiffman

Imagine the ridiculousness of this: The Palestinians claim that the Jews have no historical connection to Eretz Yisrael, Yerushalayim or the Har Habayis. Nevertheless, they still wish to claim that they are the rightful owners of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In other words, there were never any Jews there—but we want their scrolls anyway! It is this claim, already made during the negotiations leading up to the Oslo Accords in 1993, which caused the recent cancelation of a long-planned exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Frankfurt Bible Museum. Like the almost two dozen other Dead Sea Scrolls exhibits that have been held throughout the world, this latest one was to take place in close cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).

The IAA is a government agency responsible for all matters of archaeology in Israel, including excavations, research, and exhibitions of archaeological material in Israel and abroad. It is the custodian of nearly two million archaeological objects. The task of the IAA is to preserve the heritage of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Prominent among their work is conservation, research and exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

What happened is that the Frankfurt museum had been working with the IAA since 2015 to mount an exhibit in 2018, but like all such agencies, the IAA requires a document from the government of the exhibiting country indemnifying the lender of the antiquities against any attempt at seizure via legal action. Unlike all the other countries that had hosted Dead Sea Scrolls exhibitions, the German government refused to provide the document, which meant that the IAA had no choice but to cancel the exhibit. As a result, untold numbers of Germans and other tourists will miss seeing and learning about the most sensational archaeological discovery of the last century, including the earliest existing texts of the Tanach and numerous fascinating texts from the Bayis Sheini period.

Why did they refuse to sign? Because they questioned Israel’s ownership of the Scrolls. The initial discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was made by the famous Bedouin boy who recovered the seven original complete scrolls from the cave at Qumran at the shore of the Dead Sea. That was in 1947, when the area was part of the British Mandate for Palestine. All of those scrolls were purchased by Israel by 1954, and are held and exhibited at the Shrine of the Book of the Israel Museum. After the 1948 War of Independence, Jordan occupied the West Bank, including the site of Qumran and the caves. Over the next few years, Bedouin and archaeologists continued to recover scroll fragments, and these were held in the Palestine Archaeological Museum (PAM). This museum was acquired by Israel when it was victorious in the 1967 Six-Day War, and it was soon renamed the Rockefeller Museum. In this way, Israel came into possession of the manuscript fragments held in the PAM.

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