Breaking the scroll cartel

September 27, 1991|By William Safire

Pasadena, Calif. -- A LITTLE band of willful academics, representing no interest but their own arrogant selfishness, have for 40 years kept clutched to their scholastic bosoms a substantial portion of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

These treasures are the ancient documents found in a West Bank cave that cast light on the religious politics roiling the world between 200 B.C. and a century after the birth of Christ.

The Kingdom of Jordan first made a deal with a tight coterie of scholars to decipher and publish the precious texts; after the 1967 war, the government of Israel went along with this cozy arrangement, which meant that the non-biblical portions of the scrolls would be dribbled out by the favored academics over a period of decades.

Now the cartel has been broken. The Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., refusing to be pushed around by scholastic monopolists at Harvard, Notre Dame and Hebrew University, has this week made available to all other libraries microfilm of the complete set of scrolls -- all 3,000 negatives. Freedom of information now extends clear back to the era that made possible the emergence of Jesus.

Of course, the Judases to academic freedom who are now subject to scholarly competition are furious. Harvard's John Strugnell, cartel boss until he was kicked out last year for what was reported to be anti-Semitism or incompetence, sees an assault on "the intellectual investment of the individual scholars who are preparing these editions."

Their private preserve has been invaded by Philistines: they claim that this may lead to hurried publication and shoddy, non-establishment research.

Here in the Huntington Library near Pasadena, William Moffett, the library's director, punctures that pompous balloon: "I've never known a real scholar to be intimidated by the possibility of somebody else's shoddy research."

He showed me the negatives, some of which may cast light on the psychology of Masada, where Jews committed suicide rather than surrender. "We could not go along with protecting the position of anachronistic privilege."

Here's what happened. A farsighted and irascible philanthropist named Betty Bechtel built an ancient manuscripts center in Claremont, Calif., and persuaded Israeli officials to deposit a microfilm of the scrolls there in case of new war in the Middle East.

But she was a pest; the trustees she appointed ultimately kicked her off the board, keeping the microfilm in their center's vault.

They did not reckon on the fury of a philanthropist scorned. She kept her own separate copy on two small spools, which museum officials refer to informally as her "scroll in the hole." In 1980, she slipped them to the Huntington, with a hundred G's to build an air-conditioned vault. When that indomitable old lady died in 1987, title to her private set passed to the library.

The cartel got wind of the extra set's existence and imperiously sought its return to monopoly control. Moffett, an Oberlin history professor who became library director last year, bridled at this intimidation and his board backed him up: as a result, the negatives are available to all scholars through inter-library services. We shall know the truth and the truth shall make us free.

The original scrolls found in the West Bank, first claimed by Jordan, are now owned by Israel; if Bush establishes a PLO state, Yasser Arafat is sure to claim ownership. However, the intellectual property -- the thinking and writing of the ascetic sect called the Essenes, infinitely more valuable than the crumbling scrolls -- is the common heritage of civilization, even including independent scholars.

One minor irritation: Some insular jerks in Jerusalem's antiquities bureaucracy, long the captive of the cartel, have been quoted making threats of legal action against the Huntington for setting the information free.

I am privately assured it will not happen, but Prime Minister Shamir should shut them up: He should publicly welcome the dissemination of the scrolls' contents, symbol of the winds of freedom that must one day rock the cradle of civilization.

H:

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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