On Wednesday, January 30, a small group of Israeli human rights activists gathered outside the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem to protest the display of looted archaeological artifacts from occupied Palestinian territories in a controversial new exhibition.
Finds Gone Astray, which opened on December 30, features 40,000 artifacts that the Archaeology Department of the Civil Administration (ADCA) — Israel’s military government in the West Bank — confiscated from looters and unauthorized dealers in antiquities over the past 50 years. The items were stolen from sites in occupied Palestinian territories, Syria, and Iraq. The protestors demand the immediate removal of the exhibition and the repatriation of the stolen items to the Palestinian Authority.
A statement released by the Bible Lands Museum says, “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.” The Israeli mainstream press lauded the exhibition for displaying the “preserved” items, but in January, Michael Press reported a number of ethical and legal problems that cast heavy doubts over the exhibition’s legitimacy. Among those are clear violations of the 1954 Hague Convention for protecting cultural property in armed conflicts, a treaty that Israel joined in 1965, and the convention’s First Protocol, which prohibits the transfer of artifacts out of an occupied territory.
“A thief that steals from a thief is still a thief. He has to return the stolen goods and is not exempt from punishment,” Tsilli Goldenberg, one of the organizers of the protest, said in a conversation with Hyperallergic. Goldenberg, along with a handful of protestors, carried their banners at the entrance to the museum on a particularly cold Jerusalem evening, and were largely ignored by guests who arrived to attend a lecture on “Kabala and the Evil Eye.”
This exhibition, as Goldenberg points out, is an unprecedented occurrence at an Israeli museum, She said, “The IDF [Israel Defense Forces] has been stealing archaeological items from the Occupied Territories for years, but this is the first time they are exhibiting them outside the Occupied Territories in West Jerusalem where most Palestinians are denied entry.”
Goldenberg refers to a long history of unauthorized archaeological excavations and illegal trade in antiquities in Israel. Some of the lootings were carried out by high ranking Israeli officials, most famously Israel’s former Chief of Staff and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. In 2015, Haaretz Newspaper revealed that Dayan used his government positions to order the digging of sites using IDF equipment and manpower and traded in the artifacts for personal gain. Dayan’s illegal trade in antiquities has been known to the public in Israel since the 1970s, but authorities have turned a blind eye to his growing collection of stolen artifacts.
A closer look at Dayan’s story provides evidence that other museums in Israel are guilty of displaying looted artifacts from the Palestinian Territories. In 1986, five years after Dayan’s death, his wife Rachel sold their collection to the Israel Museum for $1 million. After facing backlash from archaeologists, the Israel Museum defended the acquisition by claiming that the collection’s purchase by private donors for a discount price prevented it from being sold to collectors outside Israel “who would have paid double for it.” This argument was later proven false when 165 items originally from Dayan’s collection were auctioned at the Thomaston Place Auction Galleries in Maine in 2007. The items belonged to the collection of Irving Bernstein, a former leader of the United Jewish Appeal and personal friend of Dayan. Bernstein’s heirs, who put the artifacts on sale, said that Dayan had “gifted or sold” the items to their father in the years prior to 1970. The family kept the rarest items to themselves (an additional 35 pieces,) while the rest were sold at bargain prices: a tenth-century BC redware male figure was sold for just $7,150, while a 50-inch tall terracotta amphora from 300 BC sold for $7,700. The top seven buyers received an autographed copy of Moshe Dayan’s 1978 book Living with The Bible, which describes his “archaeological pursuits” in Israel.
Itai Mack, a Human Rights lawyer and one of the organizers of the protest, wrote in a press release published on the leftist website Gush Shalom that beyond violating International Law, ADCA’s collaboration with Bible Lands Museum on this exhibition is “part of Israel’s attempts to advance its De Facto annexation of the West Bank and normalize its occupation of the Palestinian Territories.” An exhibition of this kind, he added, should only be shown in the West Bank, where it would be accessible to all Palestinians. “The archaeological finds must be returned to the Palestinian People, to whom they belong,” Goldenberg added.
So far, Mack and Goldenberg’s outcry has gained no attention from the Israeli press, and the museum shows no signs of reconfiguring the exhibition. In a response sent to Hyperallergic, the museum wrote:
One of the most important tasks of a museum in our age is to preserve and protect the cultural heritage with which we are honored to present. The exhibition Finds Gone Astray is an unusual opportunity to bring to light artifacts that have never been made available to the public before. The Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem operates in accordance with the laws of the State of Israel and complies with the international conventions for preservation and protection of cultural heritage adopted by UNESCO. These artifacts are on temporary loan and will be returned to their previous storage facilities when the exhibition closes in May. We can only hope that they will once again be put on display in future exhibitions where students, scholars and the general public will be welcomed to appreciate, learn from and enjoy them.