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July 28, 2009

ROM exhibiting stolen Dead Sea Scrolls, interview refused

Scott Stockdale

Scott Stockdale"Dead Sea Scrolls: Words that Changed the World opens at the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) on June 27, 2009" is the title of the ROM’s press release. It goes on to describe this exhibit as a "once in a lifetime opportunity to see these historical treasures."

Meanwhile, The Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA) has issued a very different press release:

"ROM Exhibiting Stolen Artifacts. Picket this Friday (July 10) Dead Sea Scrolls Illegally Removed from Occupied Palestinian Territories...Since Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, millions of artifacts have been systematically removed, looted and excavated for Palestinian territory, endangering Palestinian culture and archaeological heritage."

The CAIA press release adds: "the Dead Sea Scrolls were excavated from Qumran in the West Bank between 1947 and 1956 by the Palestine Archaeological Museum in a joint expedition with the Department of Antiquities of Jordan and the Ecole Biblique Francaise. In 1967, the Scrolls were confiscated and illegally removed by Israel when the Israeli military occupied East Jerusalem."

Initially discovered by Bedouin goat-herders, the Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient manuscripts uncovered between 1947 and 1955 in 11 caves near Khirbet Qumran, on the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea. Dating from the 3^rd century before the common era (BCE) to the 1^st century of the common era (CE) approximately 250 BCE - 68 CE, the Scrolls contain some of the oldest-known copies of biblical books, as well as hymns, prayers, and other important writing.

From more than 100,000 fragments of text discovered, scholars have painstakingly assembled over 900 separate documents. Written mainly in Hebrew, some texts were also written in Aramaic and Greek. While most were inked onto leather, papyrus (reed paper) was also used.

ROM Director and CEO William Thorsell is quite pleased to have an opportunity to display such significant historical documents, not to mention the revenue this exhibit is projected to generate.

"The ROM is privileged to present this extraordinary exhibition showcasing these deeply significant writings," states William Thorsell, in a press release. "In doing so, the Museum will bring together archeology and culture, along with exceptional programming. Our ambitious lecture series, for instance will explore compelling ideas related to the Dead Sea Scrolls, launch provocative enlightening inter-faith discussions, and create a deeper understanding of the Scrolls. What a magnificent opportunity for us all to explore the Scroll’s place in human history and their contemporary relevance."

The ROM’s press release on its website adds: "The ROM has reviewed the recent objection that was raised by the Palestinian National Authority for the first time since such exhibitions have begun and remains satisfied that the exhibition is lawful."

Meanwhile, Palestine House Media (PMH) office in Mississauga, is calling for a boycott of the Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibition at the ROM because, "It is of deep concern to Palestine House that the ROM has shown no interest in establishing to Palestine House and to the public that the ROM’s involvement with the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit is consistent with the highest of ethical and legal standards. Indeed, the ROM’s reticence to release its legal opinion document, tends to confirm Palestine House’s suspicion that it only presents contortions of law leading to a suggestion that the ROM can probably get away with displaying the artifacts looted by Israel from the Palestine Archaeological Museum. This is not the ethical or legal standard Canadians expect of the ROM."

The CAIA press release says representatives from the Palestinian community and other organizations have attempted dialog with the ROM, but none of their concerns have been addressed.

"The ROM has refused to make public the documents it claims prove the legality of the exhibit. It has also refused to seek a UNESCO opinion on the matter."

In an attempt to get the ROM’s side of the story, I called Mr. Thorsell’s office and left several messages during the week of the July 1 holiday. Marilyn Friedman, a ROM media representative returned one of these messages and said Mr. Thorsell would be away for a few days. After inquiring what the proposed interview was to be about, she offered to, and did in fact, email the ROM’s press releases, mentioned above in this article.

On Monday July 6, I called Mr. Thorsell’s office again and was informed by a woman who answered the telephone that he was back at work. That afternoon, Lauren Schneider, who described herself as a publicist for the ROM, called in response to my continuing requests for an interview with Mr. Thorsell.

After I answered Ms. Schneider’s inquiries as to the specifics of the interview I intended to conduct with Mr. Thorsell, she asked me to explain a little about the publication that I was writing the story for.

I told her it was a new online magazine that has 60 of Canada’s top experts contributing to it and we’re calling ourselves an alternative publication because we’re not happy with the corporate media. Ms. Schneider then referred me to the ROM’s press release and said: "That’s the only statement the ROM is giving. We’re not granting any interviews."

Scott Stockdale is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

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