Friday, April 10, 2009

Dead Sea Scrolls speak

In one of the classes I teach, we talk about museums and look critically at the practices and politics of collecting and displaying, from an historical look as well as contemporary practices. In fact, we look at how historical practices continue to inform contemporary practices, and left unresolved or silenced, continue the injustices of what was taken by who to validate their own views and who then is left disadvantaged once again. An upcoming exhibit in Canada, of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, is a pertinent example of the politics of culture. Cultural exhibitions are not innocent, but motivated. This planned exhibit raises many questions concerning what is being exhibited, who "owns" the artifacts, what stories get told (and which ones wiped out or mis-represented) and by whom and how does that then reproduce contemporary unequal power relations and for what effects? The Dead Sea Scrolls were uncovered in 1947 by a Bedouin and were later stolen from Arab Jerusalem by the Israelis during the occupation of the West Bank during the 1967 war; these scrolls then became appropriated into Israeli holdings. Now they are coming to Canada to be exhibited as "ancient artifacts" of Israel--which of course didn't exist before 1948. The scrolls, however, are not decontextualized artifacts of the past but speak of the ongoing occupation of Palestine and the ongoing silencing of its history and claim to the land. The scrolls were stolen during the illegal occupation of Palestine, and both the scrolls theft and the occupation of Palestine are still ignored by the world. Palestinian representatives are asking Canada to recognize the illegality of Israel's appropriation of the scrolls, and to stop this showing of stolen artifacts.

"Beginning in June, the ROM will host a six-month exhibit of the famed Dead Sea Scrolls, organized in co-operation with the Israel Antiquities Authority.

But top Palestinian officials this week declared the exhibit a violation of international law and called on Canada to cancel the show.

In letters to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and top executives at the ROM, senior Palestinian officials argue the scrolls – widely regarded as among the great archaeological discoveries of the 20th century – were acquired illegally by Israel when the Jewish state annexed East Jerusalem in 1967.

"The exhibition would entail exhibiting or displaying artifacts removed from the Palestinian territories," said Hamdan Taha, director-general of the archaeological department in the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

"I think it is important that Canadian institutions would be responsible and act in accordance with Canada's obligations."

The Palestinians say the planned ROM exhibit violates at least four international conventions or protocols on the treatment of cultural goods that were illegally obtained.


Merche Pallarés said...

Once again, VERY UNFAIR! The Palestinians are right.
By the way, I've read the two last excellent posts (interview with Malcolm Lagauche) by Layla (arabwomanblues) and when I went to click Malcolm's webpage to see about his book, I couldn't/didn't have access! Can you try it and let me know what happens:
Thanks. Hugs, M.

marja-leena said...

Very unfair and very common practice, unfortunately! Was it the ROM that also cancelled an exhibition of Islamic art not long ago?

northshorewoman said...

Merche, sometimes links don't work, but if you cut and paste the link onto a new window (that is, open a new page) it works. That's what I did. Try it again and see if it works.

Marja-leena, I had not heard of an Islamic art exhibit being canceled at ROM, but that may very well have happened. I will check on that.

Mouse said...

I may be wrong, but weren't the scrolls written by the Essenes in the time when Israel was a country, albeit under Roman occupation? And again, I may be wrong, but weren't the Arab traders cutting them into small pieces to sell? Please do correct me if I'm wrong but I really think these scrolls belong in Jewish hands.
Regardless, I would love to see them

northshorewoman said...

Hello Mouse, the Dead Sea Scrolls are a site of struggle, that is true. There are many, many ongoing interpretations and struggles over their meanings, from the archeological to the political (and these are not outside of each other, either). Some of the questions involve who / which groups wrote them (they are in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek), what sort of texts are they (spiritual, apocryphal, and mundane/"secular"), whether they were brought to the caves for safe-keeping or were from the area, and many more areas of contentions that are struggled over at conferences, in academic papers, etc. The theory of the Essenes having written them is one theory, which has more recently been challenged by the theory of a Yahad community as authors. But that many are the writings about a pre-rabbanic Jewish community is not in dispute.

How these scrolls are taken up is a political question and who gets to claim them as "their history" (so this means how are we defining history--e.g. only from religious practice?) is also political and not outside their meanings.

The political terrain of the scrolls is huge and I can't get into it here, but a few things I will say is that their theft from the West Bank during the /67 war is rarely even noted in any academic discussions about them. Another area of reflection emerges when we look at the texts not as 'religious' documents in a narrow sense but as repositories of cultural and societal meanings, such as gender relations, concepts of purity/contamination, etc. Who "owns" these meanings?

The history of the land of Palestine includes the Jewish tribes that settled in the region; it is not a contradiction to speak of Arab Jews. Some academics will argue that the scrolls are cultural artifacts not religious texts per se (as in sacred or holy and beyond cultural and political interpretations) that tell the comprehensive history of the land of Palestine where people lived together and where histories weave together as much as they have been in battle.

And another very critical political question is how the scrolls are used by the current state of Israel to validate its Zionist usurpation and claim to the land.

One of the Israeli archeologists who controlled and promoted the mainstream (and persistent) meanings of the Scrolls for many years (that is, that they are exclusively Jewish religious documents--hence, to support the nation-building of the state of Israel-- rather than cultural texts with multiple meanings--hence, documents of multiple cultural significance), was Yigael Yadin. Yadin was politically motivated to construct particular meanings of the Scrolls--he was not innocent but a key figure personally and strategically responsible for planning and executing the ethnic cleansing
of Palestinian villages to make way for a Zionist state. As part of the Hagana, he is responsible for war crimes. You can read all about his role as architect of death in Israeli historian Ilan Pappe's book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, which I have linked to on the front page of my blog.

So, one of my (many) questions to those by accepting the Scrolls as simply historical, religious documents belonging rightfully to the state of Israel, is why are we not shown the the blood on the scrolls? The Palestinian blood spent to get those scrolls and control their meanings by framing them in an Israeli museum that wipes out the history of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine?

There was a huge outcry about Hitler's art a few years back. About the moral right of buying or even putting into public space the art of a man responsible for ethnic cleansing. My question is why is there no outcry about the acquisition of the scrolls and how they were gotten and shaped by one of the men responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine?

And further, the scrolls can not be viewed outside their framing within the larger archeological /political context of the state of Israel and its continuing appropriation and control of Palestinian artifacts, one example being the dig at Tel es-Safi.

northshorewoman said...

also, a big question, why the Israeli interest to dig villages for their archeological artifacts and uncover their histories, yet not dig out the history of the destruction of Arab villages by Zionist bands to create the state of Israel? Why no attention to dig out this history?

Ruby said...

Hey Mouse ...YOu are right but this is not a site you are going to ever find that out! YOu also wont hear much positive said about isrealis or jews so maybe its better not to come here for accurate information. Northshore woman's website is presently listed as a hate site.
Here's a few questions on the rights of the so-called Palestinians to the land that is now Israel - What were the borders of "Palestine" before the Ottoman Turks and subsequent British occupation? Who were the leaders of "Palestine" prior to that period? What was the currency used by the independent state of "Palestine"? When did "Palestine" form as a recognizable national entitity?

Since you can't answer any of those questions, at least not truthfully, let's recognize the Jews have been in what is now Israel, Judea and Sammaria (the so-called West Bank), since roughly 2000 years before Christ, and let's recognize that based on having had recognized borders (that many invaded, including the Babylonians, Syrians and Romans), political leaders starting with King David, currency - shekels. So tell me - where was Palestine?

Agree.. it is about time to start writing about a more balanced view of the Arab countries. Beheading, racism and anti-Semitism, human rights depravation, religious intolerance, tortures of their own citizens, tortures of Canadian citizens, sexism, exploitation of women, constant wars, dictatorship, unequal distribution of wealth, grandiose deprivation of opportunities of their own people, mass illiteracy.....

northshorewoman said...

Ruby, your racism and hate are as evident as Avigdor Leiberman's, Israel's new foreign minister.

northshorewoman said...

bye-bye, Ruby. You sound exactly like Gaby, another racist hasbara-spouting ill-informed pro-Zionist anti-Arab web-trawler. I'm not interested in re-inventing the wheel with you. Go inform yourself.

Anonymous said...

As one of the many, many, many Jews exiled and robbed by Arab states (Mizrahi), I must say you live in complete fantasy. The scrolls are so clearly part and parcel of the Jewish traditions of the time, containing not just fragments but whole texts of the Old Testament. Of course the Dead Sea Scrolls belong to the Jewish people, just as the Elgin Marbles belongs to the Greeks and the Dome of The Rock belongs to the Palestinian Muslims. It's bizarre and somewhat sickening to hear you try to delegitimize what is so thoroughly a Jewish set of texts.

northshorewoman said...


I am afraid you do not understand my position. I am not denying that the Dead Sea Scrolls belong to Jewish religious history, too. The Dead Sea Scrolls, however, do not belong to Israel. There is a difference. Artifacts "belong" to many peoples who invest them with historical meanings, symbolic meanings, and diverse narratives. Who safeguards and are the stewards of these treasures is, of course, a key question.

You need to learn the difference between Jewishness, the state of Israel, what Palestinian means (Jesus, for example, was a Palestinian, too), theft during war, and a whole host of other complicated issues associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Jewish people claim the Dead Sea Scrolls for many reasons, and I can respect and understand their attachment to them. However, the state of Israel is using the Dead Sea Scrolls to re-write history and wipe out Palestinian history.

Anonymous, if you live in Israel, go to the Tel Aviv Museum and tell me what histories do you see there? Whose names and histories are left out? ANd why is that?

Anonymous said...

Bluntly, you are quite out of your depth. My family (and hundreds of thousands of others) lived as Jews in the Arab world for literally millennia. Our history was truly eradicated by the Arab governments = our people imprisoned and exiled, our property stolen, our places of worship and graveyards desecrated and destroyed.

Somehow this escaped the notice of people like yourself. Look for the Jewish history in the museums of Egypt, of Iraq, of Jordan, of Syria - I have been to Israel, and I have walked through Mosques and I have seen beautiful examples of Islamic art and architecture in the museums there -

I'm noticing quite how bizarre and distorted your posts and commentary are = referring the Yigael Yadin as an "architect of death"? - You clearly have some irrational grudge against Israel -

northshorewoman said...

Hello Anonymous,

No, I am not unaware of the Jewish Iraqis, Jewish Moroccans, Jewish Egyptians, Jewish Iranians, Jewish Lebanese and Jewish Palestinians, among other Jewish people of the Middle East and Arab world. I don't deny their histories at all. I am o aware of the many ways that they were encouraged/felt compelled to go to the state of Israel when it was created.

I don't deny these histories. Go and read my blog before making ignorant statements.

jenefer lopez said...
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