Prevent the transfer of the library and archaeological artefacts from the Rockefeller Museum

 May 4, 2016

The organization Emek Shaveh petitioned the High Court of Justice demanding it prevent the transfer of the Rockefeller Museum’s archaeological library as well as all the archaeological artefacts located in the museum. The petition was filed following a decision by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) to move the library and its offices to West Jerusalem. In the last decade the IAA has been transferring many archaeological finds from the Museum’s storage rooms to the west of the city.

The Rockefeller Museum was founded by the British as an international antiquities museum and served as a meeting place for Israeli, Palestinian, and international scholars and visitors. Its location in East Jerusalem is symbolic and practical—enabling research and cultural dialogue and representing the notion that the land’s antiquities belong to everyone. The transfer of archaeological finds and the Rockefeller library to West Jerusalem is part of the Israeli trend of establishing facts on the ground regarding politically controversial issues. Legally this is the first petition made in a case where Israel is violating the international law against the transfer of archaeological finds from an occupied territory.


The Rockefeller Museum was built during the British Mandate (1938) and was the major museum of antiquities in Palestine. The museum was built with the contributions of John D. Rockefeller, who in addition to building the museum allocated a million dollars for its operations. The museum complex includes exhibition halls, storage rooms for archaeological artefacts, and a valuable library. The vision of the founders was to establish an international museum administered by an international council. Its board included representatives from Britain, France, USA, Sweden, the Arab countries, and a representative of the Jewish community.

The museum holds many important archaeological finds from the Jerusalem region and elsewhere in Israel/Palestine. Among the prominent finds are ancient human bones from caves in the Carmel in the north; a collection of gold jewelry discovered in the Tel al-‘Ajjul and Beit Shemesh; an ivory treasure from Megiddo; the Lachish Letters; stucco reliefs from the Umayyad palace in Khirbat al-Mafjar near Jericho; and carved stone lintels from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher dating to the Crusader period.

The museum maintained its international status until 1966 when the Jordanians decided to nationalize it. After the 1967 war, Israel took over the management of the museum and the Israel Antiquities Authority’s offices were housed there. The archaeological artefacts, the library, and the displays remained in place until the beginning of the 21st century. In the last decade the IAA began transferring archaeological finds out of the museum’s storage rooms. Over the course of the coming year it plans to transfer the entire library to the IAA’s new offices in West Jerusalem.

The Library

The oldest the books date to the 16th century and include rare manuscripts of pilgrims and scholars of the country. During Jordanian rule in East Jerusalem no new books were added to the library. Since 1967, Israel turned it once again into a substantial archaeological library and today it contains almost all reports on archaeological finds in Israel and the region.

The museum and library as vehicles for cultural and scientific dialogue

The idea that gave birth to the Rockefeller Museum is that the remains of the past must be accessible to anyone who cherishes and is interested in them, that they do not belong to one side or another, and must not be dragged into a national, religious, or political conflict. For decades, Israeli, Palestinian and other researchers have used the Rockefeller Library.

The museum, based on finds excavated during the British Mandate, represents the story of the major sites in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Leaving the finds at the Rockefeller Museum is vital for future negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on the museum and the cultural treasures it holds. Leaving the museum in its present form has a symbolic significance that embodies Israel’s recognition that a) the museum’s past and its legacy are shared, and b) it is necessary to protect and promote scientific and cultural cooperation. Maintaining the museum and its contents intact would reinforce the status of Jerusalem as an international city and would reflect well on the Israeli authorities, who would be seen to be respectful of international law.

The petition in brief

Emek Shaveh’s petition requires the State, for the first time, to deal with international law that prohibits removal of archaeological finds from an occupied territory. We are asking the State to stop emptying the Rockefeller Museum of its important archaeological artefacts and to cancel the plan to transfer the archaeological library. The ownership of the archaeological finds is a complex international issue, one which challenges museums all over the world. Obviously, the legal question in the case of the Rockefeller Museum is very different from other cases such as the well-known removal of the Parthenon sculptures (known also as the ‘Elgin marbles’) from Athens to the British Museum, or the removal of the Nefertiti statue from Egypt to a museum in Berlin. A significant portion of the artefacts in Rockefeller originate in sites from within Israel such as Megiddo, Caesarea, Ashkelon, Lachish and more. On the other hand, there are also important finds from Jericho, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.

It appears that the finds’ significance, and the diversity of the places from whence they were excavated, strengthens the argument that the just solution would be to leave them in the museum until it is discussed as part of political negotiations over the status of Jerusalem. Preserving the Rockefeller Museum is in Israel’s interest. We hope that the High Court decides to stop the unilateral process and enable the museum to continue to serve its original intended purpose—to form the basis of cultural and research-driven dialogue and cooperation.


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