Israel pulls out of Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit in Germany

Frankfurt museum couldn’t guarantee scrolls’ return if claimed by Palestinians or Jordanians

Visitors look at a facsimile of the Isaiah Scroll, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, displayed inside the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem September 26, 2011. (photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
Visitors look at a facsimile of the Isaiah Scroll, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, displayed inside the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem September 26, 2011.
(photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
Israel has pulled out of a planned exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Frankfurt because the German government would not guarantee their return if claimed by Palestinians or Jordanians.
The Frankfurt Bible Museum announced that it has canceled the exhibit which was scheduled for a September 2019 opening. Its director, Jürgen Schefzyk, said he regretted the German government’s decision, adding that neither Holland nor Austria would have hesitated to issue general immunity guarantees.
According to German news reports, the government guarantee would have blocked Palestinian or Jordanian authorities from contesting the provenance of the scrolls, which are among the oldest known texts related to the Hebrew Bible.
“Because of the unwillingness of both ministries to give the necessary declaration, as Qumran lies in today’s West Bank, the Israel Antiques Authority is not letting the material out of the country and the Bible Museum had to cancel its plans,” Uwe Becker, the deputy mayor of Frankfurt, told The Jerusalem Post.
Archeologists vs robbers in race to find Dead Sea scrolls in June 2016, preventing archeology and antiquities theft(credit: REUTERS)
Becker expressed outrage at Germany’s foreign and culture ministers on Thursday, sending letters to Culture and Media Minister Monika Grütters and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel asking them to change their position to support the exhibition.
“If Germany is unwilling to clearly express the legal status of the fragments of Qumran as Israeli world-cultural-heritage goods, it would dramatically change the coordinates in our German-Israeli relations. And it would mean the construction of a wall toward the places of the birth of Christianity in the holy country, because it would be the same for Bethlehem, Jericho, east Jerusalem and many other places of Jesus’s work,” Becker said.
Twelve years ago, Germany became the first country outside the Middle East to exhibit a segment of the scrolls, according to James Snyder, then director of the Israel Museum.
The first scrolls in the cache were discovered in 1946 by Beduins in the West Bank, which since 1967 has been under Israel’s control. In 2010, the Jordanian antiquities department demanded the return of some of the scrolls, which it said Israel had illegally taken from their museum during the Six Day War.
The Frankfurt Bible Museum, which is largely funded by a local Protestant umbrella organization, reportedly has worked closely with Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) officials for years. According to the museum’s director, Dr. Jürgen Schefzyk, the exhibit was based on a guarantee from Germany to Israel that the scrolls would be returned.
“Following a 2015 memorandum of understanding with the IAA concerning cooperation with the Frankfurt Bible Museum, we started to work on an exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Schefzyk told the Post Friday in an email. “The precondition for such an exhibition is an ‘Immunity from Seizure’ document issued by the German authorities. For reasons that are not in our hands we are at present unable to provide such a document, despite all efforts including contacts to all governmental institutions in Germany.”
“Although fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls would be available from secure museum collections elsewhere in Germany, we agree with the expertize of our Israeli and German colleagues that an exhibition without samples from the collection in Jerusalem would not be appropriate,” he added.
“In order to demonstrate our loyalty to Israel and our most important partner, the IAA, we decided yesterday not to continue with this project and to postpone the exhibit until Dead Sea Scrolls fragments from Jerusalem would be available. This decision was not easy for us since a lot of funds have been already invested and we are convinced that it is about time to show the German public these important objects of cultural heritage.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls carry great significance to Judaism and biblical history. The scrolls are a large cache of mostly Hebrew writings from the Second Temple period and its immediate aftermath.
They include many biblical texts and are believed to have been penned by members of a Jewish sect known as the Essenes.
Becker said that European states in comparable cases in the past have issued “immunity from seizure” protections to Israel for exhibits from the Jewish state that appeared in the EU. He cited Austria and the Netherlands as examples.
Becker, widely considered one of Israel’s strongest supporters in the federal republic, led a legislative effort to ban BDS activity in Frankfurt.
Becker said that the German government’s decision to not guarantee a return of the scrolls also damages Germany’s relations to Christianity in the Middle East. He noted that in consideration of “Palestinian sensitivities, the special relationship to Israel weighs more significantly.”
Boris Rhein, the culture minister from the state of Hesse, told German news agencies that the German Foreign Ministry and federal commissioner for cultural affairs considered the ownership of the scrolls to be unclear. Rhein said he would have gladly issued the guarantee himself if he could.
Frankfurt’s director of cultural affairs, Ina Hartwig, said the cancellation was an “emotional disappointment” and a lost opportunity.
A segment of the scrolls was displayed in Berlin’s Martin Gropius-Bau Museum in 2005 as part of an exhibit honoring 40 years of diplomatic relations between Germany and the Jewish state.
At the time, Snyder called the scrolls “a kind of Mona Lisa for us,” adding that he was “proud of its first voyage away from Israel.”