Here We Go Again

The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto has never been an institution to shy away from the sleaziest kind of over-the-top P.T. Barnum-style biblical spectacular, as long as it draws the visitors and rakes in the cash.  They proved that with their questionable (but profitable!) 2005 exhibition of the “James, the Brother of Jesus” ossuary whose, pedigree is– umm– a lot less righteous than its Aramaic inscription might suggest.

But far from apologizing for its earlier money-making stunt in the 21st century relics trade, the ROM has now teamed up with the Israel Antiquities Authority to mount what they hope will be another blockbuster exhibition, the bombastically named Dead Sea Scrolls:  Words that Changed the World.

That exhibition has been touring the world for the past year as a good-will ambassador that should rank right at the top of the international PR missions of Israel’s Foreign Ministry.  For though the world (and certainly the war-torn Middle East) has not been changed since the discovery of these ancient texts, they provide ready-made parchment icons for almost every biblical perspective, from Orthodox Jewish to Freewill Baptist.  Like every good set of relics they are meaningful not for what they ARE (and the bitter scholarly debates about their significance continue) but for what they SYMBOLIZE.

Above all they have come to symbolize the State of Israel’s deep roots in the past, though it is of course not as simple as that.  Qumran, the site of the scrolls’ discovery in 1947 was allotted to the Palestinian States by the UN Partition Resolution.  It was subsequently annexed and ruled by the Hashemite Kingdon of Jordan (1948-1967) until it was conquered by Israel in the 1967 War.  Equally important, many of the scroll fragments on display in Toronto, were obtained by Israel in their conquest of East Jerusalem (and in particular the Rockefeller Museum) also in 1967.

All this makes for a very messy ownership claim, when viewed in the light of international law.  Although there is no question that the Israel Antiquities Authority has served as responsible and competent stewards of the scrolls, their final ownership is certainly not settled– and the relentless use of the scrolls for international good will and museum profit is perhaps not as appropriate as it might have been.

The exhibit is concluding today (January 3, 2010) and both Palestinian and Jordanian officials have requested that the Canadian government delay the scrolls’ return to Israel until an international adjudication of their rightful ownership is made.  Two weeks ago, according to The Globe and Mail, the Jordanian government summoned the Canadian chargé d’affaires in Amman, requesting that Canada seize the scrolls and see that their legal ownership is properly adjudicated, citing the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, to which both Jordan and Canada are signatories.

Of course it simply won’t happen.  In the modern consciousness, the Scrolls have become religious and political relics, worth a million times their flimsy weight in political and cultural grandstanding and public claims for national legitimacy.  They are not just cultural property. 

Naturally, little of this has anything to do with the intentions or expectations of the ancient writers of the scrolls.  The are in the past and the Dead Sea Scrolls are a cultural “brand” in the present.  Too bad that modern hatreds and power struggles hijack the past again and again to dash hopes for a better future– in the Middle East and everywhere else.

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