At last, I have seen the Dead Sea Scrolls. There they were, under their protective, cool-heated screens, the very words penned on to leather and papyrus 2,000 years ago, the world's most significant record of the Old Testament.
I guess you've got to see it to believe it. I can't read Hebrew – let alone ancient Hebrew (or Greek or Aramaic, the other languages of the scrolls) – but some of the letters are familiar to me from Arabic. The "seen" (s) of Arabic, and the "meem" (m) are almost the same as Hebrew and there they were, set down by some ancient who knew, as we do, only the past and nothing of the future. Most of the texts are in the Bible; several are not. "May God most high bless you, may he show you his face and may he open for you," it is written on the parchments. "For he will honour the pious upon the throne of an eternal kingdom."
The story of the discovery of the scrolls is, of course, well known. An Arab Bedouin boy, Mohamed el-Dib, found them at Khirbet Qumran in a cave in what is now the occupied West Bank of Palestine in 1947, and handed them over to a cobbler turned antiquities dealer called Khalil Eskander Shahin in Jerusalem; they eventually ended up in the hands of scholars – mostly American – in the Jordanian side of Jerusalem. Then came the 1967 war and the arrival of the Israeli army in East Jerusalem and... well, you can imagine the rest.
Now, I have to say that I looked at these original texts in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, a tale that was bound to engender a whole series of questions, not least of which is Canada's softly-softly approach to anything approaching controversy. At no point in the exhibition, jointly arranged with the professional (and brilliant) assistance of the Israel Antiquities Authority, is there any mention, hem hem, of the West Bank or occupation. Or how the documents found there came to be in the hands of the Israelis.
So cautious are the dear old Canadians – who should by now have learned that concealing unhappy truths will only create fire and pain – that they do not even mention that "Kando", the first recipient of the scrolls, was Armenian. Of course not. Because then they would have to explain why an Armenian was in Jerusalem, not in western Turkey. Which would mean that they would have to mention the Armenian Holocaust of 1915 (one and a half million Armenian civilians murdered by Ottoman Turks).
This would anger Canada's Turkish community, who are holocaust deniers. And in turn, it would anger the Israel Antiquities Authority, who do not acknowledge that the Armenian Holocaust ever happened, there being only one True Holocaust, which is that of the Jews of Europe. The Jewish Holocaust is a fact, but the Armenian variety – a trial run for Hitler's destruction of six million Jews – cannot be discussed in Canada. Nor indeed in America, where Obama gutlessly failed even to use the word "genocide" last April.
Then we come down to the exhibition itself. Poor old Canadians, they had to publicise the whole fandango as a form of "unity" – there being three monotheistic religions, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, geddit? – but alas, the scrolls are not written in Arabic and the sole gesture to the Islamic faith is a single 200-year-old illuminated Koran. The museum bookshop also devotes a small heap of books on Islam to bolster their claim to "unity". The exhibition, according to the museum's director, William Thorsell – in a lamentable piece of pseudo prose – "will launch provocative enlightening inter-faith discussions". Here I reach for my sick bag.
Because the message of most of the videos showing around the exhibition (this being the age of multitechnical as well as multicultural wellbeing) make it clear that Judea and Samaria (the West Bank to the rest of us) is originally Jewish. And so it was, by God. The poor old Philistines lived on the sea coast. But when I suggested a swap to a bunch of Israeli settlers some years ago – to be fair, they roared in good-humoured laughter at my horrible suggestion that Israel might be given to the Palestinians in return for the occupied West Bank – the idea did not commend itself to them. They wanted Tel Aviv and all of internationally recognised Israel plus the West Bank. (At the time, they also wanted to keep Gaza, partly on the grounds – according to one of them – that this was where Jonah was puked up by the whale.)
No such claims soil the Ontario exhibition. "Words that Changed the World" is how the organisers coyly entitle their exhibition, "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see these historical treasures". But up come the spoilsports, namely the Canadian "Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid", to suggest that the scrolls, originally in the hands of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities and the Ecole Biblique Française, were "confiscated and illegally removed by Israel" in 1967. The Royal Ontario Museum, the protesters say, is showing "looted" property which it has no right to exhibit. The Palestinian Authority itself has intervened, arguing that the museum is "displaying artefacts removed from the Palestinian territories". (Let us not, O Reader, mention the Elgin marbles, albeit that the Brits don't occupy Greece.)
So the museum has started to clam up. "We're not granting any interviews," according to a snotty spokeswoman for this esteemed institution. I can well see why. The museum claims it has documents to prove the legality of the exhibition. But it won't show them. Nor will it consult Unesco for its opinion. Plenty of unity there, of course.
Needless to say, if the Saudi government were to exhibit its Islamic treasures in Toronto, I doubt very much if it would mention the large Jewish community that once lived in Arabia. Any more than a recent Turkish cultural exhibition at the Royal Academy mentioned the – ahem, ahem again – contribution of the Armenians to Turkish history. Mind you, given the fact that the photographs of the Dead Sea Scrolls are infinitely clearer and more decipherable than the originals stared at by The Independent's Middle East correspondent, I do wonder if these precious documents really need to be flown around the world.
But I guess it's the same old story: seeing is believing. Providing you're not a Palestinian or an Armenian or anyone interested in property rights.