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A coalition of pro-Palestinian organizations is demanding that the Royal Ontario Museum close a Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit that opened last month, saying Israel looted the "Palestinian artifacts" during the Six Day War.
Toronto's Palestine House and the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid say the "Words that Changed the World" presentation is illegal.
When the museum refused to cancel the exhibit, which runs through January 3, the NGOs instead asked it "to release to the public and publish on its Web site the legal opinion that it obtained and on the basis of which it decided to go ahead with this exhibit," Palestine House said in a statement
The organizations are asking the museum to seek an opinion from UNESCO on the legal and ethical issues involved in the exhibit.
"We do not object to the Dead Sea Scrolls being accessible to the public,"
the statement continues. "The issue we raise relates to Israel's looting of Palestinian artifacts and the ROM's complicity by lending legitimacy to it by hosting the exhibit."
These issues cumulated in a protest outside of the museum by anti-Israel activists on Friday. There were no more than 30 protesters, most of them Jews from the Not in Our Name organization, according to Sally Szuster of the United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Toronto.
"The pickets will continue and the campaign will escalate," said Rafeef Ziadah, the media spokeswoman for the campaign.
According to Palestine House and the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid, the Israeli government obtained the scrolls through looting and force during the Six Day War.
The scrolls were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in 11 caves in the Qumran area, along the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Prior to 1967, they were housed in the Rockefeller Museum in eastern Jerusalem. After the Six Day War, the scrolls were moved to Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum.
"Neither the location of the discovery, nor the location of the [Rockefeller] museum are, or ever were, under Israeli sovereignty. The seizure of the scrolls was illegal under international law," according to a press release.
The Jewish community is not taking this accusation lightly.
There have been calls in both the Jewish community and the non-Jewish community to buy tickets to see the exhibit. According to a mass e-mail circulated among the Jewish community, the hope is that a surge in ticket sales will make a strong public statement. Sales are currently very strong.
"[The accusation is] part of an ongoing effort to deny the continuous Jewish presence in Israel. The Dead Sea Scrolls provide incontrovertible proof of the historical facts that underpin the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state," David Koschitzky, chairman of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, wrote in the e-mail.
"As such, they pose a threat to the ongoing attempts to obscure the unique relationship of the Jewish people with the land of Israel. We are informed that the government of Ontario and the ROM have ensured that Canadian laws regarding cultural property have been fully respected."
Palestine House isn't the only one fighting against the exhibition. Frederic Geisweiller, the owner of a French bistro in Toronto, used his restaurant's Web site to post his views about the acquisition of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Like Palestine House and the coalition, Geisweiller said Israel looted them.
"Although we endeavour in this page to bring you the best this city offers, we wish - uncharacteristically - to warn against a show whose artifacts were obtained by force and looting," Geisweiller wrote on his Web page, though he took it down a week after it was posted.
Len Rudner, Ontario's regional director for the Canadian Jewish Congress, said he had received roughly two dozen e-mails about Geisweiller's comment. Conversations have cropped up on many online forums, including restaurant review sites, discussing what should be done.
In Geisweiller's comment, he wrote that he used "Wikipedia as a source" while discussing the nature of the 1967 war.
Vicky Tobianah, a student from Toronto studying at McGill University in Montreal, wrote a letter that was published in the Toronto-based National Post daily.
"If [Wikipedia] is the best defense [Geisweiller] can come up with, I do not see why people even bother attempting to demonstrate why his comments were inappropriate," Tobianah wrote.
She went on to explain that "as a political science student at McGill University, we are not allowed to cite Wikipedia as a source; my professors have relentlessly stressed that it reflects badly on the students. If Mr. Geisweiller acquires his historical knowledge from a Web site that anyone can change as they see fit, that only shows us the extent of his ignorance."
Prior to the uproar, local Jews were looking forward to the exhibition.
"We want to send an unequivocal message that our community celebrates the Dead Sea Scrolls as part of our cultural and spiritual heritage," Koschitzky wrote in an earlier e-mail. "Any attempt to deny Israel's historic presence in Israel from at least the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls - 2,000 years ago - will not be successful!"
The exhibition (www.rom.on.ca/scrolls) includes 17 of the Dead Sea Scrolls, four of which are on public display for the first time.
They include the Book of War Scroll, the Messianic Apocalypse Scroll, and a section from Genesis that tells the story of Potiphar's wife's attempt to seduce Joseph.
Along with the scrolls, Jewish and Roman artifacts from a variety of locations including Qumran, Jerusalem and Sephoris (Tzipori) are on display.
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