Protesters Take to the Streets (and youtube) in Dead Sea Scrolls Dispute

There are few ancient history exhibitions that actually lead people to take to the streets in protest – but the Dead Sea Scrolls is one of them.

Last Friday a few dozen protesters took to the streets outside the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto to protest against the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit.

At the same timea group of supporters of the exhibit staged a counter-protest right across the street.

Videos, from both sides of the protests, have recently migrated onto youtube.

Its the latest chapter in a series of events that have been playing out in the city since the exhibit was announced last autumn.

So What’s Their Beef?

To understand the protests you have to examine the context of the scrolls’ discovery. The scrolls were discovered at the site of Qumran between 1947 and 1956, although it’s not certain why they were there. Now, Qumran is actually in the West Bank, not Israel proper. At the time of the scrolls’ discovery, the area was controlled by Jordan and many of the scrolls were housed in the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem.

The fact that Israel has the scrolls is, needless to say, a sticking point with the Palestinians.

A video from the main protest

Avideo from the “counter-protest” across the street

A second video from the “counter-protest”

After the Six Days War in 1967, Israel took over the West Bank. The scrolls in the Museum, and the site of Qumran, came under the auspices of Israel.

Today the West Bank is controlled by Mahmoud Abbas Palestinian Authority. The fact that Israel has the scrolls is, needless to say, a sticking point with the Palestinians.

So, when the Toronto exhibit was announced the Palestinian Authority objected. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad wrote to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and demanded that the exhibit be cancelled.

Harper refused and the museum got a legal opinion saying that the exhibit they were showing was in keeping with international law.

But thats not the end of it.

Toronto based Palestinian groups objected. Palestine House, a major GTA cultural centre, sent out a press release denouncing the ROMs position.

The protests racheted up a notch last Friday when a small band of protesters converged on the ROM to protest against the exhibit. In response to the protest a group of supporters of the Dead Sea Scrolls, waving Israeli flags,took to the streets at the same time as the Palestinian protesters to wage what is known as a counter-protest. (Yes, a protest to protest a protest)

Dueling videos of the protests can be seen on youtube and we have embedded them here in this blog.

But, perhaps the strangest turn of events came when the owner of a local restaurant, Le Select Bistro, published a call for a boycott of the scrolls exhibit on his website.

The principle of free speech is more important than anything else, owner Frederic Geisweiller told The National Post, adding that his staff has been harassed and threatened over his words. An effect on my business doesnt have me shaking in my sandals.

The protests have started to receive attention media attention in Israel with the Jerusalem Post publishing a lengthy article just yesterday.

In the end its not likely that the protests will result in any changes to the exhibit. The museum believes that the exhibition is legal. Prime Minister Harper supports it, as does the Premier of Ontario (a position similar to a U.S. governor) Dalton McGuinty, who actually took part in the opening of the exhibit.

But, without a doubt, the protests (and counter-protests) have brought the issue of artefact repatriation a little closer to home for the citizens of Toronto.