The exhibition “Finds Gone Astray” opening to the public today at Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum

Today, Monday (Monday, December 31st), an exhibition called “Finds Gone Astray” will open at the Bible Lands Museum. The exhibition focuses on archaeological finds stolen by antiquities thieves which were captured by the Civil Administration’s Staff Officer for Archaeology in the West Bank.

The subtext underlying the presentation of looted artefacts couldn’t be clearer: They rob and destroy, while we salvage and protect; We are civilized, while they threaten to destroy civilizations’ tangible culture. They, even if not explicitly stated, are the Palestinians. According to this narrative, they have no interest in this heritage because it is not their own, whereas we, Jewish Israelis, are the defenders of the land’s heritage and relics of our past. In such a way, the exhibition reinforces the settler narrative which presents Jewish Israelis as being worthy of exclusive rights to the land.

In practice, it is Israel which is violating the law and creating the problematic reality in which the phenomenon of antiquities theft can thrive. The State of Israel is among the few countries in the Middle East permitting a trade in antiquities, thus creating a market for stolen artifacts.

But more problematic is the fact that through this very exhibition Israel is violating international conventions. According to Article 4 of the Hague Convention, antiquities in an occupied territory are the property of the occupied people. It is prohibited to remove cultural property from occupied territory. Bringing the artifacts into sovereign Israel is an outright violation of the convention. Moreover, the occupying power must make the antiquities accessible to the residents of an occupied territory. The exhibition “Finds Gone Astray” is located in West Jerusalem, which is not accessible to the Palestinian residents of the West Bank. Finds in the West Bank are not only inaccessible to the residents but are actually concealed from them. Yesh Din and Emek Shaveh have filed a petition to the High Court of Justice demanding information on finds uncovered in the West Bank after the Staff Officer for Archaeology refused to present information on the grounds that exposing the information would “harm Israel’s foreign relations.”

Last night’s grand opening to the exhibition was attended by Culture Minister Miri Regev, Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben Dahan, and Head of the Civil Administration Brigadier General Ahvat Ben Hur. Prior to the opening Miri Regev sent a video  where she says that the importance of the exhibition is in the fact that it “reveals the historic connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel and to Judea and Samarea.” Deputy Minister Ben Dahan said that “the archaeology reveals the extent to which this land is our home.” He also accused Palestinian antiquity thieves of “looting, and destroying in order to sever us from our land.”

We can only regret the decision of the Bible Lands Museum to cooperate with such a politically and legally problematic endeavor.