Last week I attended the grand opening of “Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Biblical Times,” the exhibit housed in Discovery Times Square on West 44th Street in Manhattan. During the reception, we were regaled by addresses from Consul General for Israel Ido Aharoni, the head of the Discovery Times Square museum, and other dignitaries. Neshama Carlebach and a gospel choir from the Bronx performed inspirational Hebrew songs.
The highlight, of course, was the exhibit itself. It was not only about the Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of fragments comprising some 900 scrolls dated from around 250 BCE to 60 CE. It was an archeological history of ancient Israel, from the Iron Age, 1,200-1,000 BCE, through the destruction of Jerusalem’s Second Temple in 70 CE.
On display was a four-room Israelite house from the eighth century BCE, which included utensils, pottery, and other household items. There were 2,700-year-old fragments outlining the writings of Eliashib, son of Eshiyahu, the commander of the Judean fortress in Arad, who was asked to give wine and flour to the soldiers in the stronghold. Many artifacts from Jerusalem, the City of David, were also on display.
And, of course, there were the Dead Sea scrolls themselves. According to the exhibition’s catalogue, “These two-thousand-year-old parchments and scraps of parchments demonstrate that in the days of Hellenic and Roman control of Judea and the land of Israel, the Hebrew Bible was already a highly regarded collection of items upon which the people of Israel relied to understand the history and relationship with their G-d.”
Many of the scrolls are non-biblical and represent legal writings, commentary, liturgical texts, and musings addressing such questions as where one fits into God’s plans and how to live when confronted by imminent Roman conquest.
The exhibit puts into context that ancient Israel was “a place, a nation, and also the fount of a new faith that has extraordinary impact down to our own age.” The Hebrew Torah has served as a source for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and has swayed religious thinkers, philosophers, political leaders, institutions of higher learning, and seats of government for two millennia. Ancient Israel was the cradle of religious civilization.
Meanwhile, about a mile to the east, at the United Nations, the executive committee of UNESCO — the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — voted 40 to four to recommend admission of Palestine as a member state. On Monday, in a landslide vote, UNESCO members approved full UNESCO membership for the Palestinians.
Israeli diplomats believe that this unilateral approach by the Palestinians appears to be a continuation of its effort, originally postured by Yasser Arafat, to deny the historical and religious Jewish connection to the Land of Israel. Palestinian membership in UNESCO, which is perhaps best known for declaring “World Heritage Sites,” could mean that such holy sites as the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem could be designated “Palestinian” Heritage Sites, without any connection to the Jewish Bible.
Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, also noted that Mahmoud Abbas, in his recent speech to the General Assembly, spoke only about Muslim and Christian connections to the land, in direct contrast to the remarks of King Hussein of Jordan during his 1995 visit to the United States, where he explicitly recognized the ongoing attachment of all three monotheistic faiths to the Land of Israel.
When the issue of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state first arose in the context of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, I viewed it as being easy for the Palestinians to accept. After all, this has been a reality for close to 64 years. Instead, some of their leaders have chosen to conjoin the delegitimization of Israel as a Jewish state and efforts to expunge Jewish history.
Negotiations can’t be productive if one side does not recognize the other’s history. If the Palestinians are in need of this history lesson, they might do well to visit the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, a shining reminder of the glory of Jewish history and the Jews’ deep connection to Eretz Yisrael.