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Last month, the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem unveiled a new exhibition, Finds Gone Astray, to great fanfare. The exhibition presents a heartwarming story: artifacts rescued when antiquities trafficking was thwarted over the last 50 years. The opening received extensive coverage in all the major Israeli news outlets. “Jerusalem Museum to Display Looted Near East Artifacts,” one headline read.
But, to those familiar with the Bible Lands Museum, the headline reads as something of a joke. The museum was founded by Elie Borowski to house his collection of unprovenanced antiquities. Borowski was an antiquities dealer and collector who was well known for his ties to the illegal antiquities trade. When the museum opened in 1992, his wife Batya — the museum’s co-founder and former director — openly admitted to the Baltimore Sun that the museum’s collection was stolen: “You’re right. It’s stolen.” Her defense was that the Borowskis hadn’t stolen the artifacts themselves, but instead had “saved and preserved so much of our history and heritage” by their collecting activities — “our” heritage, as if they bought (and then profited from) those stolen antiquities for us.
Despite this shady history, the museum has a quasi-official status in Israel. Then mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek — himself a collector of antiquities — encouraged Borowski to move his collection to Jerusalem and display it there. The city donated land to Borowski for the project. This is not just any land, but is what is now known as “Museum Hill” — across from the Israel Museum (the country’s national museum) and the new campus of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), the government authority that oversees archaeology. And virtually across the street is the building housing the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
Certainly the Bible Lands Museum is no stranger to questionable displays. Visit the museum now and you will be able to see some of the Al-Yahudu tablets, cuneiform texts that describe the Jewish community in exile in ancient Mesopotamia. But these are unprovenanced texts from a private collector who has failed to provide information as to their origin. And they are texts that were almost certainly looted and smuggled out of Iraq in the wake of the Gulf or Iraq wars, in violation not only of Iraq’s antiquities laws but also of a UN Security Council resolution.
But the current exhibition, with its unintentionally ironic title Finds Gone Astray, is another matter altogether. Finds Gone Astray showcases a selection of the roughly 40,000 artifacts seized over the last 50 years by the Archaeology Department of the Civil Administration (ADCA) — the Civil Administration being the name for Israel’s military government in the West Bank. The artifacts include both those illegally excavated by looters in the West Bank as well as those confiscated at the border as people tried to smuggle them into the West Bank.
The exhibition has so many ethical and legal violations that it’s hard to know where to begin.
The Bible Lands Museum’s press release, followed by news reports from several sources, lauds the exhibition as a “unique cooperation” between the museum and the ADCA. This much is true, and it is stunning. Never before have the ADCA and its head, the Staff Officer of Archaeology (SOA), participated directly in an exhibition and opened its warehouses to share its finds. The SOA and his archaeology department are notoriously secretive — so much so that when Tel Aviv University archaeologist Raphael Greenberg successfully sued the previous Staff Officer in 2007 to obtain access to the ADCA’s closed database of sites, he was overwhelmed by the thousands of excavations and surveys that had taken place in the West Bank since 1967. But all of this activity, every single excavation and survey, is in violation of international law. Specifically, the 1954 Hague Convention tightly restricts archaeological activity in occupied territory. Archaeology by the occupying power is restricted to salvage work, and then only in cooperation with the authorities of the occupied territory. Needless to say, none of this activity has been coordinated with the Palestinian Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage.
The Israeli government’s position is that the West Bank is not occupied territory but the Israeli territory of Judea and Samaria, and so the 1954 Hague Convention and other laws of war, which govern occupation and other aspects of armed conflict, do not apply. This view appears to be endorsed by the Bible Lands Museum. Its signs use the terms Judea and Samaria for the West Bank, and refer without context to the “establishment of the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria in 1967.” However, the international community outside of Israel is unanimous in understanding the West Bank as occupied territory.
The artifacts on display in Finds Gone Astray are somewhat different: they were not obtained by excavation or survey work but confiscated from looters and smugglers. But international agreements governing occupied territory are still relevant.
A recent example provides a glimpse of how the ADCA’s confiscations work, and how international law matters. Last April, NPR’s Daniel Estrin and Haaretz’s Nir Hasson reported on the case of a medieval Torah scroll originally stolen in 1995 from the Samaritan community in the West Bank. The scroll was smuggled to Jordan, but little more was known of its fate until 2013, when the ADCA confiscated a single parchment panel from the scroll at the Allenby Bridge (the West Bank’s border with Jordan). The man from whom it was seized was an Israeli Arab who claimed he had bought the panel in Amman. Five years later, the panel was still held by the ADCA. The man who had bought it in Jordan tried to sue for its recovery, but the ADCA and the IAA (which governs archaeology in Israel proper) conspired to confuse the issue of who possesses the panel. The ADCA had turned it over the IAA temporarily but then took it back.
“In none of the hearings was it suggested that the document be given back to the Samaritan community,” as Hasson pointed out, because the Civil Administration does not return items to areas under Palestinian control. Under the Oslo Accords, the West Bank is divided into three areas: Area A is under full Palestinian control; Area B is under Palestinian civil and Israeli security control; and Area C is under full Israeli control. Most Palestinians in the West Bank live in Areas A and B, while all Israeli settlements are in Area C. In effect, this policy means that the Civil Administration will return stolen items to Jews but not to Arabs (or Samaritans). This amounts to pillage. And pillage is a basic violation of the laws of war in general, not just the 1954 Hague convention. Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) puts it simply: “Pillage is prohibited.”
On top of this, the exhibition is in West Jerusalem — that is, the objects have been removed from the West Bank. Transferring artifacts out of occupied territory is a violation of the First Protocol to the 1954 Hague Convention. Hizmi and the museum maintain that this is not a permanent transfer but merely a loan. However, the text of the protocol is clear in stating that no transfer is allowed by an occupying power, whether permanent or temporary.
Yonathan Mizrachi (director of Emek Shaveh, an organization working against the use of archaeology for political ends in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) points out that the exhibition furthers a dangerous, longstanding narrative: that Jews protect the past while Arabs act to destroy it. The irony is that this very exhibition helps put the lie to that idea: the ADCA is a party to theft of antiquities from the West Bank and has put them in a museum founded by a dealer and collector who — through purchasing trafficked antiquities — created major incentives for further looting, which is a highly destructive process.
Mizrachi sees the exhibition as ultimately a political ploy. It is hard to argue with him. Despite its small size — apparently just some 30 items on display — the exhibition is clearly seen by the government as important. Scheduled to appear at its opening on December 30th were the deputy defense minister; the head of the Civil Administration; the head of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), which oversees the Civil Administration as well as policy toward Gaza; and the head of the IAA. (Culture Minister Miri Regev was supposed to attend but gave a video greeting instead.) These officials emphasized the show’s role in preserving Jewish heritage, even though, as Nir Hasson observed in Haaretz, many of the artifacts (like oil lamps with crosses) had no association with Jews.
So much for antiquities confiscated in the West Bank — but many of the artifacts on display were seized at the border, in attempts to smuggle them into the West Bank from other countries. Among these are a handful of clay figurines from Syria and a half-dozen bowls used in magic rituals in late antique Mesopotamia. The bowls are a selection of some 30 bowls said to have been seized at the Allenby bridge crossing around 15 to 20 years ago. Like the Al-Yahudu tablets, they were almost certainly illegally excavated in, and smuggled out of, wartime Iraq. While about 1,000 of these bowls were known prior to the Gulf War, since that time hundreds more have appeared on the antiquities market worldwide. Archaeologist Morag Kersel, a professor at DePaul University who studies Middle Eastern antiquities trafficking, has noted that incantation bowls suddenly started appearing in Jerusalem antiquities shops around 2003 — that is, the year the Iraq war began. Kersel told Hyperallergic that she personally observed bowls of this type in at least half the Jerusalem shops, totaling perhaps a few dozen bowls. (Kersel also noted that since 2016, when the IAA clamped down on the illegal antiquities trade, she has only noticed two incantation bowls for sale in Jerusalem.)
Typically, when a country thwarts attempted antiquities smuggling at border crossings, the artifacts are repatriated to their countries of origins. Instead, the ADCA has held onto these antiquities, in some cases for decades, and is now triumphantly putting them on display. Israel has no formal diplomatic relations with Syria or Iraq, since these countries do not recognize Israel. But lack of diplomatic relations has not prevented the repatriation of artifacts. In 2017, the Manhattan district attorney’s office seized a Persian relief from an ancient art dealer after it was identified as stolen from the site of Persepolis in Iran in the 1930s. On the order of the New York Supreme Court, the relief was repatriated, being turned over to the Iranian ambassador to the UN last September.
Then there is the scholarship. The timing of the opening coincided with the publication of the first of a projected four academic volumes dedicated to the artifacts that the ADCA has seized over the last 50 years. It is a problem that the ADCA sees fit to publish artifacts of which it may not be the legitimate owner. It is a problem that a group of scholars is publishing these unprovenanced artifacts, legitimizing the seizure and removal of cultural heritage by an occupying power. It is even more of a problem that at least one of the scholars (Rick Hauser, an expert on ancient figurines) uses this highly dubious context to champion the scholarly study of all unprovenanced artifacts — even as study of unprovenanced artifacts clearly inflates their value, creating incentives for further looting.
But for Amanda Weiss (Batya Borowski’s daughter, Elie’s step-daughter, and the current museum director), all of this is a positive. “Finds Gone Astray is a unique opportunity to shed light on the importance of preserving the history of our region and protecting our ancient sites,” Weiss states in the museum’s press release. Once again, we hear that the exhibition stands for preservation of the past. While Finds Gone Astray and the Bible Lands Museum may be particularly egregious examples, museums and their exhibitions are regularly plagued by serious ethical and legal problems. And they regularly try to minimize these problems by pointing to the idea of preservation. But this deflection merely highlights the problem when saving heritage is made the highest value in dealing with the past. The idea of saving antiquities is typically invoked to cover for individuals’ and institutions’ own shady behavior. And it is typically invoked when preserving an artifact is considered more important than preserving the lives of human beings. At that point, we may rightly ask, what is the point of preservation?