The Dead Sea Scrolls

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Canada has quite properly refused a request by the government of Jordan to seize the Dead Sea Scrolls, now on display at the Royal Ontario Museum, on the grounds that they were taken by Israel from East Jerusalem, then under Jordanian control, in 1967. This is the correct decision, for three reasons.

First, barring truly extraordinary circumstances, such as the likelihood that the claimant will destroy or conceal them, or clearcut evidence of ownership, items on international loan such as these should be exempt from such seizures lest museums cease to make such loans.

Second, Jordan has no legal claim to ownership. Prior to 1948, Judea and Samaria (the “West Bank”) as well as East Jerusalem were part of the British Mandate of Palestine. These areas were intended by the United Nations to become part of a Palestinian Arab state, but the Arabs rejected the partition plan and attacked Israel. In the course of the war, Jordan captured these areas, annexed them, and continued to occupy them until 1967 when Israel successfully repelled another Arab attack. No country other than the United Kingdom recognized the Jordanian annexation as it was the result of an illegal war of aggression and represented the seizure of territory to which it had no claim.

Third, Israel has a far stronger moral claim to the Dead Sea Scrolls than Jordan or the Palestinian Arabs. They were written by Jews in Israel about Jewish religion and related topics. They were not written by Arabs or in Arab lands and do not deal with topics of particular concern to Arabs or Muslims. In short, they are part of Jewish heritage, not Arab heritage.

An additional factor is the history of the handling of the scrolls. In spite of their clear relevance to Jewish history, while they were under Jordanian control, Jewish scholars were not permitted to see them. Only as a result of the liberation of Jerusalem in 1967 did the scrolls become accessible to Jewish scholars. In other words, while the Scrolls are in Israeli custody, we can be assured that they will be accessible not only to those most directly concerned, Jewish scholars, but to all. In Arab custody, there is a grave risk that access will be restricted. This is an instance of a more general pattern: under Jordanian occupation, Israelis were denied access to Jewish holy places such as the Temple Mount and Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron.

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