LETTER FROM CANADA
Weirdly, the sideshow was almost as compelling as the main event.
For six months, ending in January, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto hosted the Dead Sea Scrolls, the ancient parchments recovered from the caves of Qumran beginning in 1947. The Scrolls comprise the earliest known examples of Jewish biblical writings and offer a tantalising glimpse of life during the Second Temple period.
None of that stopped local Palestinians from staging noisy demonstrations at the museum, demanding that Canada close the show.
Because Israel occupied the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day War, the protesters said, the Scrolls constituted looted artefacts, and the exhibit violated no fewer than four international protocols on the treatment of cultural goods that were illegally obtained.
“Neither the location of the discovery nor the location of the museum are, or ever were, under Israeli sovereignty,” said Palestine House, located in a Toronto suburb. “The seizure of the Scrolls was illegal under international law.”
They also cited the housing of some of the manuscripts — those not purchased outright by Israel — in the Rockefeller Museum in east Jerusalem, from where they were transferred to the Shrine of the Book after 1967.
Two months before the exhibit even opened, letters of protest were dispatched to Canadian PM Stephen Harper by Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad. Canada demurely stepped aside; the museum more or less clammed up.
The Scrolls might be in Hebrew, illuminate Jewish history and predate Islam by seven centuries, but detractors insisted they are plundered Palestinian property. But like other local anti-Israel efforts, such as calls to boycott Israeli films, the campaign had the opposite effect. The exhibit drew an exceptional 331,500 visitors.
Experts countered that under the Oslo Accords, Palestinians expressly recognised Israel as custodian of all artefacts found in the West Bank and Gaza pending a final resolution of the conflict. And the PA’s lack of status as a recognised state would undermine any claim to owning the Scrolls.
However, two weeks ago, Jordan asked Canada to seize the Scrolls and stop their return to Israel. When Canada declined, Jordan complained to UNESCO. This was puzzling. Why did Amman wait until just before the exhibition closed? Why not file a claim in 1967? And didn’t Jordan relinquish its interests in the PA’s area 20 years ago?
The Scrolls’ next stop is Minnesota. There’s no word yet on whether the Americans will also be hectored — or whether Egypt will now petition Britain for the Rosetta Stone, housed in the British Museum since 1802.