Israel disputes release of photographs of scrolls

September 23, 1991|By New York Times News Service

JERUSALEM -- Government officials in charge of Israeli antiquities warned a major U.S. library yesterday against going ahead with a decision to make photographs of the Dead Sea Scrolls available to all researchers without restriction.

The Israelis said that the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., would be violating long-standing agreements if it carried out its plan.

But within hours of the warning, the library opened the collection, declaring its action a blow for academic freedom.

Earlier in the day, the Israelis charged that the move would set off a stampede by scholars that could prevent a "definitive interpretation" of the ancient documents from emerging.

"This is not ethical, and they shouldn't do it," said Amir Drori, head of the Israeli Antiquities Authority, a government agency thathas overall direction of archaeological work here.

The agency supervises the work of a small group of scholars who have so far had exclusive access to unpublished segments of the scrolls.

The manuscripts, dating as far back as 200 B.C., were found four decades ago in caves near the Dead Sea.

Mr. Drori said in an interview that his government's displeasure was communicated yesterday to the California library but that no decision had been reached about what, if anything, Israel might do if its objections were ignored.

Another official, Magen Broshi, a member of the committee supervising the Dead Sea Scroll research, said that legal action was being considered. It was not clear on what legal basis or in which jurisdiction this might occur.

Library officials disclosed over the weekend that they had a set of 3,000 master photographic negatives of the documents, which are written in Hebrew and Aramaic.

The negatives were left to the library by the late Elizabeth Hay Bechtel.

For decades, research control has been held by a tight group of editors, and their monopoly has enraged scholars who have been denied access to unpublished materials.

Dr. William A. Moffett, director of the library, denied that any agreement governed the library's right to make its photographic collection broadly available.

Mr. Drori told Israel radio that copies of the photographs had been sent years ago to several academic institutions overseas as insurance against the possibility that the scrolls might be destroyed in a war.

"According to the agreement," he said, "those who received them were to be in charge of only their preservation and are obviously not permitted to publish them or show them to the public without permission."

The library's decision now, Mr. Drori said, "is a violation of the agreement that we had with the people allowed to have the films."

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