The Man Who Bought the Dead Sea Scrolls

By Isaacs, Marty | Contemporary Review, November 1992 | Go to article overview
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The Man Who Bought the Dead Sea Scrolls


Isaacs, Marty, Contemporary Review


ABRAHAM G. Levin's claim to fame is due to the fact that he looks more Irish than Jewish. Levin is a big, robust looking man with a beefy, pink complexion, who, as a young lawyer had just won his first major case and was sitting in his New York office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza savouring the sweet taste of victory when the jangling of the telephone interrupted his thoughts. Levin switched his gaze from the gaily-coloured scarves of the ice-skaters, twenty-one stories below, to the black instrument on his desk. As he lifted the receiver he had no way of knowing that he was about to be asked to become a player in a clandestine operation on behalf of the State of Israel.

The voice on the other end was that of Leo Guzik, the opposing attorney in the just completed case. Expecting to be drawn into a discussion about some fine point of law, Levin, who having had no previous connection with the fledgling Jewish State, was taken completely by surprise when he heard Guzik say: |Certain people at the Israeli Embassy are anxious to speak with you'.

The events leading up to Guzik's phone call to Levin began in November 1947, when Elazar L. Sukenik, Professor of Archaeology at the Hebrew University, received a message from Feide Salahi, an antiquities dealer in Bethlehem. Salahi advised Sukenik that a Bedouin had brought him several rolled parchments which contained Hebrew writing. The man claimed that he had found them in a cave along the shore of the Dead Sea, not far from Jericho. Was the professor interested?

Sukenik was more than interested. Being an archaeologist he was excited at the prospect of examining any remains with writing. The high point of any excavation was when a jar handle bearing an inscription was unearthed. If the parchments turned out to be genuine it would be like discovering an ancient library. But first things first. Before he could meet the Arab antiquities dealer, Sukenik had to figure out a way to get to Bethlehem.

The problem was that only a few days before, the United Nations had voted to partition Palestine, and according to the terms of the mandate, Bethlehem had been placed |off limits' to Jews.

Despite the danger, the archaeologist in him couldn't resist; so Sukenik, in spite of protestations by his wife and son, Yigal Yadin, at the time military commander of the Hagana (Jewish self-defence forces) and the future excavator of Massada, the professor donned a jabalyia (traditional Arab dress) and, disguised as a Moslem, boarded an Arab bus for Bethlehem.

When he arrived, the dealer produced two clay jars, the same ones he claimed the parchments had been found in. In addition to being an archaeologist, Sukenik was also a biblical scholar, and after carefully unrolling the edge of the first of the four scrolls the blood drained from his face as he read the first sentence. It was written in beautiful Biblical Hebrew, the language of the Psalms, the written language of his people two-thousand years ago.

Despite his inner excitement the historical significance of the moment was not lost on the professor. The finding of these ancient books of his ancestors came on the eve of Independence. After two thousand years of being forced to live in the diaspora, modern-day Israel was once again about to declare its Statehood. If the scrolls proved to be authentic it would turn out to be the highlight of Sukenik's long and distinguished career.

Hurrying back to Jerusalem with a scrap of parchment hidden under his jabalyia, the first thing Sukenik did was submit the sample to chemical tests, which dated them to the first century AD, give or take a hundred years. Armed with the test results he immediately contacted Teddy Kolleck, who at the time was Director General of the Prime Minister's Office, and got the immediate and enthusiastic backing of the Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, who pledged to provide the necessary funds to purchase the priceless scrolls, whatever the asking price.

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