‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ exhibition – 600 artifacts and a touch of controversy

“I want to introduce you to the person responsible for bringing “The Dead Sea Scrolls: The Exhibition” to Los Angeles,” Jeffrey Rudolph, president of the California Science Center, which is hosting the highly-anticipated show, said at a press conference last week.

Rudolph then promptly ushered David Siegel, the consul general of Israel in Los Angeles, to the podium, where Siegel spoke of partnering with the Center and the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) to bring the scrolls, mostly religious texts that date from 250 B.C.E. to 68 C.E., as well as more than 600 artifacts from the Israelite period on, to Los Angeles.

The exhibition, Siegel said, represents not only “the birth of modern Judaism but also of Christianity…and later, Islam…. So we’re really celebrating the Abrahamic traditions and monotheistic religions.”

In an interview after the press conference, Siegel noted, “the vision of the consulate is to bring Israel to local communities, and what better way to do that then to bring the ancient manuscripts of the scrolls to Los Angeles? It’s the most significant archeological find of the 20th century, and the largest ever exhibition coming out of Israel.”

But bringing the scrolls to Los Angeles was hardly easy. Siegel described how he had first approached several other area museums to host the exhibition, “but it looked like a lost cause,” he said. “The museums were pre-booked, or they were too small to contain the 20,000 square feet required for the show. Then the California Science Center came forward, and it was a big opportunity,” added Siegel, who helped to raise significant funding for the exhibition from both organizations and individuals.

Turns out the Science Center is the perfect venue: “The Israel Antiquities Authority needs to be so careful in the way that the scrolls are cared for, including climate and light control, so we are very excited that the Center has the technology to care for the manuscripts,” Siegel said.

“The exhibition is also significant in the way that it is not political,” he added. “It’s not about news headlines, but the significance of Israel to world religions and to all peoples, all nations.”

But whenever Israel is involved, it seems, politics are likely to simmer at least beneath the surface. At the press conference, Dr. Uzi Dahari, deputy director of the IAA, alluded to the Palestinian Authority’s claim that the scrolls belong to them. “(But) the Dead Sea Scrolls were written by Jews and are part of the spiritual assets of the Jewish nation,” Dahari said. “It is our right to possess the scrolls – it’s not a legal but a moral issue.”

In an interview, Dahari explained that the first seven scrolls discovered by Bedouins in a cave near Qumran in 1947 were eventually purchased by Israeli archeologists and are now housed at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. When the northern part of the Judean desert came under Jordanian rule in 1953, it was the Jordanians and others who discovered 900 more scrolls in caves at Qumran. The area of Qumran has been in Israeli hands since the Six Days War in 1967.

“The scrolls were not excavated by Palestinians…so they have no demands upon Israel,” Dahari said. “But the Palestinians say, “No, the excavations took place in the West Bank, and the West Bank is our property.’ However, according to international laws, they’re not, because Palestine is not (yet) a state. And even if it becomes a state in the future, this has nothing to do with the past….When the Palestinian Authority is all the time demanding the scrolls, every time we say, ‘No way.’ It’s our Bible, our history, and they must remain in our hands.”

When the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada was set to display a collection of the scrolls in 2009, Palestinian officials argued that the manuscripts had been acquired illegally when the Israelis annexed East Jerusalem in 1967 and appealed to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to cancel the show, according to a resport in the Canadian newspaper The Toronto Star. A letter of protest to Harper was reportedly signed by Salam Fayyad, then-prime minister of the Palestinian Authority and its second-in-command. “The exhibition would entail exhibiting or displaying artifacts removed from the Palestinian territories,” Hamdan Taha, director-general of the archaeological department in the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, told The Star at the time. Jordan has also claimed ownership of the scrolls. The Toronto showing went on as planned, and was among the museum’s most popular.

Dahari said that in peace talks with then-Prime Minster Ehud Barak some years ago, Palestinian officials demanded as part of their negotiations the return of the scrolls. At the time, the Israelis essentially replied, “They will remain in our hands forever and ever,” Dahari said.

“But I am afraid for the future of the scrolls,” he added.

For information about “The Dead Sea Scrolls: The Exhibition,” visit www.californiasciencecenter.org.