Israel has pulled out of a planned exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Germany because officials there have refused to ensure the biblical and archaeological treasures will not be seized.
The Jewish state had asked Germany to provide a guarantee the exhibit would be returned to Israel in the event the Palestinian Authority or the government of Jordan claimed ownership of the antiquities discovered in caves in Qumran, near the Dead Sea.
Twelve years ago, Germany became the first country to exhibit a segment of the scrolls outside the Middle East, according to James Snyder, then director of the Israel Museum.
The Frankfurt Bible Museum announced it has canceled the exhibit scheduled for a September 2019 opening. Its director, Jürgen Schefzyk, said he regretted the German government’s decision, adding that neither Holland nor Austria would have hesitated to issue general immunity guarantees.
According to German news reports, the government guarantee, had it been issued, would have blocked Palestinian or Jordanian authorities from contesting the provenance of the scrolls, which are among the oldest known texts related to the Hebrew Bible.
The first scrolls in the cache were discovered in 1946 by Bedouins in the West Bank, which since 1967 has been under Israel’s control. In 2010, the Jordanian antiquities department demanded the return of some of the scrolls, which it said Israel had taken illegally from a museum there in the 1967 war.
The Frankfurt Bible Museum, which is largely funded by a local Protestant umbrella organization, reportedly has worked closely with Israeli Antiquities Authority officials for years. Before lending the scrolls, Israel required a guarantee from Germany that they would be returned.
Boris Rhein, the culture minister from the state of Hesse, told German news agencies that the German Foreign Ministry and federal commissioner for cultural affairs considered the ownership of the scrolls to be unclear. Rhein said he would have gladly issued the guarantee himself, if he could.
Uwe Becker, the deputy mayor of Frankfurt, expressed outrage over the German government’s decision not to recognize the Dead Sea Scrolls as Israeli property.
“If Germany is unwilling to clearly express the legal status of the fragments of Qumran as Israeli world cultural heritage goods, it would dramatically change the coordinates in our German-Israeli relations,” he told the Jerusalem Post. “And it would mean the construction of a wall toward the places of the birth of Christianity in the holy country, because it would be the same for Bethlehem, Jericho, east Jerusalem and many other places of Jesus’ work.”
“The Qumran scandal is not acceptable,” said Becker about Germany’s refusal to protect the Dead Sea Scrolls in Frankfurt.
Becker said that the German government’s decision to not guarantee a return of the Dead Sea Scrolls also damages Germany’s relations to Christianity in the Middle East. He noted that in consideration of “Palestinian sensitivities the special relationship to Israel weighs more significantly.”