Saturday, September 6, 2008

Are the Dead Sea Scrolls Palestinian treasures?

Are the Dead Sea Scrolls Palestinian national treasures that ought to be displayed in Palestinian Authority museums?

The very question sounds bizarre, and even offensive, to many Israelis. After all, the scrolls occupy a central place in world-wide Jewish discourse. The Israel Museum has dedicated a major and visually striking portion of its grounds to a "Shrine of the Book" housing Dead Sea Scrolls across the street from the Knesset building, and the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), the custodian of the scrolls, treats them as crown jewels.

The timing of their discovery in 1947-1948 was incredibly fortuitous for the nascent Jewish state insistent on proving its connection with an historical Jewish presence in the land. Here was physical proof-positive, which one could touch, of Jews living in Judea and composing Hebrew texts more than 2,000 years ago.

But the Palestinian view-which is rejected out of hand by the IAA - is strikingly different, and emphasizes the fact that the scrolls were found in the West Bank, in territory that they regard as part of a future Palestinian state. "The Dead Sea Scrolls are part of the Palestinian cultural heritage and should by right be returned to the Palestinians," says Nazmi Al Jubeh, Director of the Riwaq Center for Architectural and Archaeological Conservation in Ramallah. "There is a general principle that archaeological artifacts belong to the place in which they were discovered, and if removed must be repatriated. This holds true of the scrolls, which were found on Palestinian territory in Qumran, and were taken by Israeli occupation authorities from the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem."

Jubeh readily concedes that the Dead Sea Scrolls are Jewish documents, but contends that "the historical Jewish community is part of the Palestinian heritage and history, just as ancient Roman and Byzantine ruins comprise part of our history".

"No one would claim that Roman ruins found in Israel should be sent to Rome," Jubeh tells The Report. "They are properly displayed where they were found. History is accumulated layer upon layer, and the ancient Jewish history here is part of my identity, among the other layers."

Does that mean that if the first set of tablets of the Ten Commandments of Moses were to be discovered on Mount Sinai, they would be Egyptian relics? "Yes, exactly," says Jubeh. "Just like a mummy found in Beit Shean from a period of Egyptian rule there would be Israeli."

In response, Yoli Shwartz, spokesperson for the IAA, told The Report that the IAA categorically rejects any demand that the State of Israel part with the Dead Sea Scrolls. "From the perspective of international law, there is no requirement that antiquities found in the West Bank or Gaza Strip be given to the Palestinian Authority," says Shwartz. "The scrolls are a national Jewish treasure of enormous importance to the Jewish heritage, as well as being of world-wide importance. They are available to be studied by researchers of any nationality, but they will not be removed from the responsibility or ownership of the State of Israel, to anyone."

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