Right On: The hair on Pharaoh's head

The Foreign Ministry should launch a campaign to retrieve precious parts of the Jewish heritage.

michael freund 88 (photo credit: )
michael freund 88
(photo credit: )
Indiana Jones would be proud. The mythical archaeologist of Hollywood fame undoubtedly would have smiled at the news last week that Egyptian authorities had succeeded in recovering a few strands of stolen Pharaonic hair offered for sale on the Internet by a French postal worker. After Jean-Michel Diebolt advertised the whiskers in his possession at a sale price of 2,000 Euros, the Egyptian government lodged a furious protest with Paris, which promptly arrested Diebolt and oversaw the hairs' quick return to Cairo. The fuzz in question had belonged to the mummy of Ramses II, whom some historians have identified as the Pharaoh from the Biblical account of the Exodus. It seems that some 30 years ago, the mummy developed a fungal infection (you'll have to ask a dermatologist to explain that one…), so it was sent to Paris for analysis, where Diebolt's father relieved it of some of its hair, which has now thankfully been reunited with its original owner. But this story is about far more than just Pharaonic follicles, for it shows how a nation, with just a little bit of feisty determination, can reclaim its stolen national artifacts and looted ancestral heritage. And it's time for Israel and the Jewish people to learn from Egypt's example in this regard. VARIOUS JEWISH historical relics, such as ancient Hebrew manuscripts, incunabula and religious items, now grace the galleries and storehouses of museums worldwide, when their rightful place is here at home, in the Jewish state. Yet hardly anything is being done to retrieve them. The Vatican, for example, is said to have the largest repository of Hebrew manuscripts in the world, accumulated over the centuries as a result of church-inspired pogroms and persecutions. These include early medieval copies of the works of Maimonides and Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, along with some of the earliest-known illuminated copies of the Bible. These treasures are Jewish in content, in history and in origin, and many were ripped from the hands of their owners just moments before their massacre, forced conversion or expulsion. Why they should these stolen pieces of our heritage now sit abandoned in a Vatican basement rather than being returned to their rightful owners, the Jewish people? And how about the 14th century rimonim, the decorative silver ornaments known in English as finials which are placed on the wooden staves of a Torah scroll, that currently sit in the La Seu Cathedral in Spain's Palma de Majorca? What does it say about our sense of national pride that we allow these sacred religious objects to be displayed in a Catholic church? Similarly, there is hardly a major museum in all of Europe that does not have a collection of Jewish artifacts, at least some of which were surely obtained through dubious historical circumstances. Shouldn't we be fighting to get them back? Egypt, by contrast, has not remained silent over the fate of its national heritage. Indeed, in recent years, Egyptian antiquities officials have been waging a vigorous campaign aimed at regaining the country's countless relics that were pilfered over the centuries by various European explorers, scientists, archeologists and museums. In 2002, the Egyptian government's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) established a special department which was empowered by the state to locate and identify such objects with the aim of retrieving them. As anyone who has ever walked through the British Museum in London surely knows, much of the Nile's ancient past was carried off overseas for study and display. These include items ranging from the famed Rosetta stone, which enabled researchers to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics, to various mummies, papyri, sculptures and other historical objects. While Cairo does not always manage to convince foreign governments and museums to return the items in their possession, they occasionally do succeed, as the case of Ramses' hair recently demonstrated. AND EGYPT is not the only country to be pressing such claims. As the Associated Press reported last June, "In recent years, Italy has become more aggressive about objects it believes were wrongfully taken from its borders." In February 2006, New York's famed Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed to return nearly two dozen historical artifacts that Italian officials said had been taken illegally from the country. Other countries, such as Peru, Kenya, Turkey and Tajikistan, have followed suit, and have also started pressing to retrieve items that are part of their national and cultural birthright. Just two years ago, Ethiopia succeeded in getting back a 1,700-year old obelisk that had been looted by Italian troops back in 1937. And last July, Greece concluded a deal with the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles regarding the return of two ancient Greek artworks to the Mediterranean country. These cases all underline the fact that a country need not be economically or militarily powerful to pursue the justness of its cause. By standing firm on moral principle and historical truth, a nation can often bring about the return of its stolen goods. Israel and the Jewish people need to begin addressing this issue in a far more concerted manner. Efforts should be made to locate and trace the origins of various Jewish historical and religious artifacts being held by foreign governments and institutions. Israel's Foreign Ministry, and Jewish organizations worldwide, should then launch an international campaign to retrieve these precious parts of our heritage, using diplomacy, public pressure and other tools of persuasion to get them back. A good to place to start would be with the Vatican, which more than any other institution is responsible for much of the horrors and tragedy experienced by European Jewry over the centuries. That Rome should now be sitting on so much ill-gotten Jewish property is both morally obscene and historically unjust, and needs to be corrected. The Greeks, the Egyptians and others have managed to recoup at least some of their nation's stolen relics. With a little bit of collective resolve, there is no reason why Israel and the Jewish people can not do the same.