Buy loot or lose it

Why has the Israel Antiquities Authority declared such a counterproductive war against looted artifacts?

Here's a question that the Israeli archeological community needs to ask: Suppose you are sitting in your office in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv and a lawyer comes in who tells you he has a client whose identity even he doesn't know who has some antiquities for sale. He shows you a picture. The antiquities have obviously been looted, probably from the West Bank, but they are important. They tell us something significant about our history. And there is no question as to their authenticity. Moreover, the price is reasonable. Suppose you are a museum curator, scholar, collector or a licensed antiquities dealer. What should you do? Obviously the sensible thing to do is buy the stuff and get it into scholarly hands for study and publication and subsequent display in a museum where the public can see and enjoy it - and learn from it. Today, it's not so simple. In the old days, it was. That's how we got the Dead Sea Scrolls. Half a century ago Yigael Yadin's father, E.L. Sukenik, one of Hebrew University's first professors of archeology, purchased three of the scrolls from the Beduin through their middleman in Bethlehem. Yadin then managed to buy the other four scrolls after they were taken to the US. These are the Dead Sea Scrolls now displayed in the Shrine of the Book. Pere Roland de Vaux, of the French Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, and the then-Jordanian director of antiquities, G. Lankester Harding, arranged to purchase the thousands of scroll fragments that the Beduin had looted from other caves for a set price of 1 dinar ($3.30) per centimeter of writing. Larger pieces were negotiated at a higher price. These are now in the Rockefeller Museum. But that was before a segment of the Israeli archeology community, supported by a couple fanatical American professional organizations, like the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), decided it was forbidden even to look at looted antiquities. I do not question their motives: They want to stop looting. But the means are not only foolish, they deprive us of the knowledge that even looted antiquities can sometimes impart. IT IS foolish because the campaign against having anything to do with looted antiquities does not stop looting at all. It only sends the market underground and we never learn of important looted items - like the Dead Sea Scrolls. The fact is, looting is worse than ever. In pursuance of its policy of having nothing to do with looted antiquities, ASOR's journals will not publish an article about a looted antiquity. No lecture may be given at its meetings on a looted antiquity. Anomalously, leading scholars all over the world do publish research on looted antiquities that appear on the market - people like the late Nahman Avigad, Joseph Naveh, Shmuel Achituv, Ada Yardeni, Bezalel Porten in Israel, to name only a few. In the United States, the list includes Harvard's Frank Cross, P. Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins and David Owen of Cornell. In France, such scholars include Andre Lemaire and Pierre Bordreuil. So do Othmar Keel in Switzerland, W.D. Lambert in England and Vassos Karageorghis in Cyprus. All are among the most distinguished scholars in their field. The list could easily be extended. A law that reduces looting is obviously justified - if it is effective and if it does not result in the loss of important antiquities. The fact is that if looting is to be stopped, it must be stopped at the source. Once it gets to the market, it either goes underground and is lost to scholarship forever or some means must be provided to recover it for what it has to teach us. Israeli law, unfortunately supported by a few zealots in the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), does its best to ensure that we never see these important artifacts again. In 2002 the Knesset, with the IAA's support, passed a law requiring a permit to import antiquities from the West Bank into Israel. The result: Instead of going to Israel, these looted antiquities go elsewhere on the international market. Shouldn't it be legal for a public institution to acquire an important looted antiquity? If the state wants to acquire it, shouldn't it compensate the purchaser? Instead, the IAA now wants to put in jail Hanan Eshel, a distinguished Israeli scholar who recently purchased some Dead Sea Scroll fragments from the Beduin. Eshel is a former chairman of the archeology department of Bar-Ilan University, now a senior lecturer there. He knows as much about Qumran, the ruins adjacent to the caves where the bulk of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, as anyone living. He has excavated several sites in the Judean Desert and recovered most of the scroll fragments that have been found in recent decades. Through his graduate student Roi Porat, son of former MK Hanan Porat, Eshel recently learned that some Beduin were peddling scroll fragments which turned out to be from Leviticus from the time of the Second Jewish Revolt (the Bar-Kokhba Revolt) against the Romans. (Roi Porat is also being charged.) Eshel notified the IAA, but nothing happened. Months later, Eshel saw the fragments had been glued and were, in his judgment, badly deteriorating and would likely be lost forever if he did not buy them. Through his university, he obtained $3,000 with which he purchased the fragments. Eshel promptly published the texts with pictures in the Hebrew journal Megillot and arranged for an English publication in the journal Dead Sea Discoveries. He also donated the fragments to the IAA - without compensation. IAA Director Shuka Dorfman proceeded to have Eshel charged criminally for having purchased looted antiquities and failing to report to the IAA within 15 days, as required by law. Eshel was arrested and grilled for hours at the police station and his passport was confiscated. The case has pitted the IAA's Dorfman against an almost unanimous Israeli archeological community defending Eshel. At a recent meeting of the Archaeological Council, composed of leading archeologists and scholars who officially advise the IAA, the members threatened to resign if the case against Eshel is pressed. Magen Broshi, former curator of the Shrine of the Book, is collecting signatures of leading scholars from all over the world to protest the case brought against Eshel. In the opinion of most Israeli archeologists, the IAA under Dorfman is clearly out of control. But there is a broader issue. And the Eshel case should be an occasion to address it: How can we assure the recovery of important looted artifacts without encouraging looting? It is a matter worth thinking about. And now is the time. The writer is editor of Biblical Archaeology Review.