It’s not as bad as Afghanistan prosecuting a man and threatening him with the death penalty for converting to Christianity, but it smacks of the same unreality: Israel is threatening to prosecute a distinguished archaeologist for purchasing some Dead Sea Scroll fragments from Bedouins who apparently found them in a Judean desert cave near Ein Gedi. The charge: buying looted antiquities. The archaeologist says he was rescuing them.
Professor Hanan Eshel is former head of Bar-Ilan University’s department of archaeology and a widely recognized Dead Sea Scroll expert. Like most Israeli academics, however, Eshel doesn’t have the ready cash to purchase Dead Sea Scrolls, so his university tapped an available fund to provide him with $3,000 to purchase four fragments of Leviticus torn from an ancient Torah scroll. He promptly published the contents, together with a scholarly analysis, in an academic journal and gave the fragments themselves to the state.
When retired general Shuka Dorfman, now head of Israel’s Antiquities Authority, heard of Eshel’s purchase, he had the scholar arrested and grilled for hours at a police station. Reporters and photographers were stationed outside to capture the prospective defendant’s release from the police station, and Eshel’s passport was confiscated, forcing him to cancel his appearance at an academic conference in the United States. The passport has since been returned.
Israel’s official Archaeological Council unanimously protested Eshel’s arrest, all to no avail. Dorfman obtained a legal opinion from the Antiquities Authority’s legal counsel and the Attorney General to the effect that Eshel had no more immunity from prosecution for purchasing looted antiquities than any other citizen.
An ad was placed in Haaretz signed by 59 leading academics — including Harvard’s Frank Cross and New York University’s Lawrence Schiffman, former president of the Association for Jewish Studies — which charged that Eshel’s “treatment as an ordinary criminal is a vengeful act — unwise, unfair, and unparalleled in the attitude of a public institution toward a scientist.”
“We are convinced,” the ad concluded, “that Eshel rescued the scroll fragments, which otherwise could have been lost.” The ad has had no effect.
What lies behind this inanity? Aside from personal animosities, Eshel’s prosecution reflects a movement within the academic community, especially in the United States, to fight looting by ignoring the loot — forbidding it from being bought, exhibited in a museum or published. The idea is that this will stop, or at least reduce, looting, but it is universally agreed that looting is worse than ever. This approach has had absolutely no effect on looting; it has simply driven the trade in looted antiquities underground. Instead of looted antiquities from the West Bank coming into Israel, they now go through Jordan into private collections in East Asia. And the scholarly community never hears about these items.
Every sane person opposes looting. But once the loot appears on the market, it must be rescued, especially if it has important information to impart. A generation ago Israel realized this when it purchased the looted Dead Sea Scrolls from middlemen who had obtained them from the looters. And recently, the text of the apocryphal Gospel of Judas was released, more than 25 years after being looted in Egypt. The National Geographic Society paid over a million dollars just for the publication rights in order to rescue the text for posterity.
But that is not the current attitude of some members of the academic establishment, including the Archaeological Institute of America, who would simply ignore any looted antiquity. This may sound unbelievable. So here is an exchange recently published in the New York Times:
Philippe de Montebello, chief executive of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York: “Archaeologists say we should not buy [looted antiquities]. Then what should be done with them? Condemn them to oblivion?” …
James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago: “Or what about the Dead Sea Scrolls? We don’t know where they were found. Some Bedouin showed up with them. Should people have said, Nope, sorry, we can’t touch them?” …
de Montebello: “If one of those [cuneiform] tablet fragments Elizabeth Stone [Professor of Archaeology at State University at Stony Brook] spoke about earlier chanced upon her desk with a fascinating inscription on it but no legitimate provenance, she would not be allowed to publish it: the Archaeological Institute of America forbids it.” …
Elizabeth Stone: “And I won’t.”
de Montebello: “Does that advance knowledge?”
Elizabeth Stone: “No, but when you publish, as a scholar, you’re authenticating the object. And when you authenticate it, its value goes up.”
Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy at Princeton University: “It seems to me there’s a kind of unreality about many of these responses to the problem of looting.”
At the present writing the case against Eshel is being pursued, although it is hard to imagine he will go to jail. Yet it is surely perverse to interpret the Israeli law to apply to a case like Eshel’s.
One wonders: If Eshel is guilty, are there other cases? An important Moabite inscription carved in stone recently came onto the antiquities market. The Israel Museum very much wanted it. So New York philanthropist and former hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt purchased it for $350,000 and gave it to the museum as a long-term loan. It is now proudly displayed in the museum. Will Steinhardt be arrested on his next trip to Israel?
Whatever the outcome of the Eshel case, one thing is clear. No Dead Sea Scrolls will ever turn up in Israel again. n
Hershel Shanks is editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review and has written a number of books on biblical archaeology.