Press release: The Supreme Court permits the transfer of a library and archaeological artifacts from the Rockefeller Museum to West Jerusalem

 July 21, 2016

In May of 2016 the Emek Shaveh organization appealed to the Supreme Court demanding not to transfer the Rockefeller Museum’s archaeological library and its archaeological artifacts. The petition was submitted following the Israel Antiquities Authority’s decision to transfer the library to West Jerusalem along with a collection of coins recently taken out from the museum. The Supreme Court decided to turn down the appeal, claiming that the Antiquities Authority is licensed to transfer them from Rockefeller museum to West Jerusalem. The Supreme Court further claimed that the Israeli law in East Jerusalem overrides international law, which prohibits the removal of cultural property from occupied territories. It is important to note that in our appeal we did not claim that it is necessary to disregard Israeli law, but rather, since this case is a matter of a customary international law, it is necessary to abide by it. This implies that in the future, if and when political negotiations take place regarding the future of East Jerusalem, it will also be difficult and even irrelevant to discuss the future of the artifacts and the library that was transferred to Israel.

On Tuesday, July 19 the court decided that the Israel Antiquities Authority is responsible for antiquities at the Rockefeller Museum and has the right to transfer the library and the archaeological artifacts from the museum to West Jerusalem. In doing so, the Supreme Court ruled that the archaeological artifacts at the Rockefeller Museum, most of which have been there since the British Mandate, are under Israeli possession, and Israel thereby has the right to take them. The Supreme Court ruled that the decision is to be based on Israeli law and that international law is irrelevant in the case of the Rockefeller Museum. It was stated that the fact that artifacts were taken out of the museum twice since the 1930s (the Dead Sea Scrolls and the coin collection), proves that there was never a policy to conserve the museum’s current state, and the Antiquities Authority’s decision to transfer the library and other artifacts would not be prevented.


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.

In conclusion

The Supreme Court treated the artifacts in the museum as part of East Jerusalem – which is annexed to Israel, completely disregarding the fact that part of the artifacts originate in the West Bank from excavations that took place there during the British Mandate. The Supreme Court preferred to ignore the international law, which prohibits the transfer of cultural assets from an occupied territory to the domain of the occupying power. It also ignored the fact that Israel, too, has attributed a special status to the museum over the decades. The court’s decision resulted in authorizing Israel’s right to the archaeological artifacts in the museum and to the assets of the library. This implies that in the future, if and when political negotiations take place regarding the future of East Jerusalem, it will also be difficult and even irrelevant to discuss the future of the artifacts and the library that was transferred to Israel. The symbolic significance of this ruling is that Israel turned its back on a vision of the museum as a multicultural site open to the general public, where knowledge of the magnificent, diverse past of the space would be preserved for anyone who was interested in researching it or learning about it.

Link to the ruling (Hebrew) click here

Back to top