Germany Won't Promise to Not Give Dead Sea Scrolls to the Arabs

Wednesday, December 06, 2017 |  Tsvi Sadan

A planned exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls set for 2019 has been cancelled after the German government refused to guarantee the return of the artifacts to Israel. After all, the Palestinians might lay claim to the scrolls while they are abroad. In other words, contemporary Germany (and likely many other nations) isn't sure whether it considers the scrolls to be Jewish property.

Jürgen Schefzyk, director of Frankfurt’s Bible Museum, told The Jerusalem Post  that the museum was unable to obtain a document required by Israel that Germany would guarantee "immunity from seizure." Addressing the issue, Boris Rhein, the culture minister for the German state of Hesse, explained that Germany’s Foreign Ministry and the country’s federal commissioner for culture are uncertain of the Israeli claim to the scrolls.

The first scrolls were found in the Qumran area in 1947, toward the end of the British Mandate. After Israel's War of Independence, the Qumran area was under Jordanian occupation, which ended in 1967. The first scrolls were found by Bedouin shepherd Muhamad a-Dib, and were quickly sold to Israel through the mediation of archeologist Eliezer Sukenik. In 1952, Bedouin bounty hunters found more scrolls, including a large trove containing 15,000 parchments representing 500 different books. In 1954, archeologist Yigael Yadin, Sukenik's son, bought four more scrolls for Israel. In the early 1960s, more scrolls were found in the unquestionably Israeli sites south of Ein Gedi. Most of the scrolls were written in Hebrew. Others in Greek. 

Most of the scrolls found their way to the Rockefeller Museum, which is today part of the Israel Museum.

Arab claims of ownership over the scrolls is not new. In 2010, when the scrolls were exhibited in Toronto, Jordan demanded that Canada seize the artifacts. Shortly after, the Palestinians joined the Jordanians in requesting control of the scrolls, but to no avail. In 2013, the Dead Sea Scrolls were shown in Assen, but only after Holland produced the required "immunity from seizure" document. Though eventually canceled, Austria also produced such a document before Israel agreed to show the scrolls in there.

Reacting to Germany's take on the matter, Deputy Mayor of Frankfurt Uwe Becker, himself a supporter of the Jewish state, told The Jerusalem Post that Germany's unwillingness to recognize Israel's ownership of the scrolls would "dramatically change the coordinates of German-Israeli relations."

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