This is the experience of requesting a museum exchange from the Vatican - opinion

A museum exchange entails the Vatican loaning Jewish artifacts in its possession to a museum with a history of biblical archaeology.

 THE REMAINS of the massive Temple of Peace in Rome, built by Emperor Vespasian, where the Herodian Temple vessels were housed for 400 years.  (photo credit: HARRY MOSKOFF)
THE REMAINS of the massive Temple of Peace in Rome, built by Emperor Vespasian, where the Herodian Temple vessels were housed for 400 years.
(photo credit: HARRY MOSKOFF)

I came as a friend.

I came to the Eternal City in order to meet the Vatican Museum director, the officer(s) in charge of the Scavi excavations underneath the tomb of St. Peter’s Basilica (including a private tour), and to speak with the Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See about getting a hold of the various manifests that state what the Pope had received as gifts during certain periods in the history of the Vatican.

As a side event, I would endeavor to meet with the people generally in charge of Jewish-Catholic relations, since this project of mine actually has potential to turn into a bilateral agreement between Israel and the Vatican Church.

Firstly, I must say, (apart from one encounter) I was received with respect. Considering the cross-section of people that I met, along with the fact that the Roman Catholics have very different customs and a very different approach than Jews do, I would say that this initial outing was indeed a success.

No matter who you are, to try and set the parameters for a deal involving two disparate parties that are still at odds with each other regarding the subject at hand, can be daunting, if not outright risky. After all, Roman Catholics (including Russian and Greek Orthodox) comprise a whopping 1 billion people around the world!

 Easter Vigil in Saint Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican (credit: VATICAN MEDIA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS) Easter Vigil in Saint Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican (credit: VATICAN MEDIA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

The idea behind my first trip to Rome was (what I’m calling) a Museum Exchange. It’s a unique project whereby we acquire the go-ahead from the Vatican Museum Governors to construct a loan arrangement for a limited period, for a selection of ancient sacred vessels, of their choice, to display. Just to be clear folks, we’re not talking about the Temple Menorah candelabra here!

{As a side-note, the Israeli Ambassador told me personally when I met him there at the Embassy that he receives multiple requests per day from around the world for retrieving (with the Mossad), the golden, holy vessels.}

No, we’re talking here about artifacts from the Late Antiquities/Roman period originating from the province of Judea, more precisely the greater Jerusalem area. Pieces like ancient makhta (incense shovels) and khatzotzroth (silver trumpets), as well as other smaller Jewish cultic items that were used for sacrificial rites and so on.

These precious objects found their way to the Vatican mostly through inheritance, and by way of gifts that were given to the various Popes in the Early/Middle Ages by the various Emperors of Constantinople, and even much more recently through modern excavations here in Israel. One of my readers left a comment on a previous article I wrote, stating:

“This is the history of humanity – hugely significant, culturally, artistically and historically. It’s not fair that any country should hide this history.”

IF AND when the proverbial green light is obtained, we can then approach various museums in Israel that have already held exhibitions of Vatican art and archaeology that originally came from Israel and ask our new Ambassador to the Vatican to follow-up and start the project in a more official capacity. Of course, we in turn would need to receive directives from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (who are loosely involved at this point).

In the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, this concept originally came from former Chief Rabbi David Rosen, the International Director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee. He also headed up the International Jewish Committee for Inter-religious Consultations (IJCIC), the broad-based coalition of Jewish organizations and denominations that represents World Jewry in its relations with other world religions.

However, Rosen cautions that the whole idea of eventually restoring artifacts of cultural and religious heritage back to their countries of origin is a complex one that must take into account the interests of the country that currently possesses the artifacts, amongst other things.

An exchange like this has never been done before with these particular items and if all goes well, would be a major event. Of course, the Vatican would retain all ownership throughout, a prerequisite that they will not budge from, causing all museum items to be only symbolically Jewish moving forward.

Although biblical archaeology research is what I’ve been doing for decades now, why this fell specifically into my lap to pursue, I’m not quite sure. Apparently, I am unofficially official. In fact, the Papal Nuncio to Israel, His Excellency Archbishop Yllana, told me that if successful, I would be acting as an Ambassador for Humanity (as it were), because all of mankind has the right to view and admire these Godly items! He went on to give me his blessing for this noble cause.

So, I set out the road map to all the pertinent parties in Rome, which included all the above items to take us to the next level. I can tell you that the Vatican’s overall reaction to the idea was lukewarm. I sensed genuine fear of incrimination in the press or otherwise, even though I indicated quite clearly that my intention isn’t to publish my findings concerning what the Vatican has or does not have, in the New York Post or on FOX News.

However, the mood in setting our meetings was jittery and nervous. Many important meetings that were set up beforehand were suddenly put off and/or postponed to the next day, only to be postponed for yet another day, and so on. Some officials responded by simply passing the buck to a lesser authority, all with a sense of acute ambiguity.

One Father I met during the course of events even assumed I was a tourist, telling me more or less, not to waste his time. I’m happy to say that (except for him), nobody was openly disrespectful though.

I WASN’T able to get into the belly of the beast in the short amount of time I was in Rome, but no doubt, the project begs to be followed up. Next time with more resources. Needless to say, the Israeli side has been incredibly supportive. Everyone from government officials who are akin to silent partners, to the JCPA, to chief rabbis (both current and otherwise), and readers like yourselves around the world who have contacted me to offer support and information.

It’s none of my business, of course, but Israel does have leverage, some quid pro quo to offer if you will. It’s a fact that the Vatican Church owes Israel in excess of NIS 770 million in overdue property taxes to its municipalities (including interest and penalties), on church-owned properties and income. Could it be that their theology dictates that the Church is not obligated to pay taxes to the Jewish state, even though their scripture clearly states that “ is necessary to submit to authority, not only to avoid punishment but also as a matter of conscience” (Romans 13:5)?

The Vatican is currently going through tremendous internal upheaval. Perhaps the modus operandi up to this point has been that all of Jerusalem does not really belong to the Jewish State? It's hard to say.

At any rate, with reference to this museum exchange, the Israeli ambassador said that he “doesn’t see any harm in it.” In that vein, I hope I was able to establish the proper contacts, clearly present what we want, and lay down the foundation for future projects like this one and to see them to fruition, God willing.

Although for the most part, the Vatican has agreed to hear out the plan, perhaps one day it will be easier and more transparent for people, such as myself, to dream of such projects and interact transparently with Catholics without any suspicion or lack of trust.

As I said, I came as a friend and I will go back as a friend (this time with a delegation).

The writer is an investigative archaeologist, noted Temple scholar, award-winning film producer, and author of The A.R.K. Report. He is also a long-time member of the White House press pool, covering the geopolitical status of Jerusalem in general and the Temple Mount in particular. He can be reached at: [email protected]