Excerpt from A Prophet Amongst You, Neil Asher Silberman, Addison-Wesley, Reading, 1993.


Moshe Dayan

Moshe Dayan. By IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=86542240

The afternoon of June 5, Eshkol’s cabinet remained convened for continuous consultations. Israeli progress into Sinai was proceeding according to schedule, and with operations against the Jordanians beginning, certain of the ministers—particularly Allon and the newly appointed minister-without-portfolio Menachem Begin—exerted considerable pressure for the IDF to capture the Old City of Jerusalem. During the night the decision was taken. An Israeli paratroop brigade under the command of Colonel Mordecai “Motta” Gur launched an attack against heavily fortified Jordanian positions to the north of the Old City under the cover of an intensive artillery barrage. By dawn on June 6, Gur’s battalions had opened a secure route to the original campus of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus and had fought their way through the streets of East Jerusalem. One of the battalions had reached the Rockefeller Museum, overlooking the Old City walls. At this point Yadin was once more brought back into active planning, because the capture of the Rockefeller Museum (still officially known in Jordan as the Palestine Archaeological Museum) was a significant and sensitive political development. The museum, nationalized by the Jordanian government the previous summer, was the main repository and study center for the tens of thousands of Dead Sea Scroll fragments that had been retrieved during the 1950s by archaeologists and bedouin from caves along the western shore of the Dead Sea.

Yadin immediately called Carmella. He was impatient to discover whether the Jordanian authorities had removed the precious ancient documents from the museum before the start of the fighting. If the scroll fragments were still there, he was determined to make sure that they were not stolen or destroyed. He instructed Carmella to contact Avraham Biran, director of the Department of Antiquities; Nahman Avigad of the Hebrew University; and Joseph Aviram of the Israel Exploration Society. She was to tell them to proceed immediately to the combat headquarters of the paratroop brigade and obtain an escort to the Rockefeller Museum. The three men assembled at Gur’s headquarters (temporarily in the Tnuva milk plant in northern Jerusalem) and were taken in a military convoy across the front lines. When they arrived at the museum, shots were still being exchanged between Israeli forces and Jordanian defend¬ers ranged in parapets in the nearby city walls. The archaeologists scram¬bled into the fortresslike building through a back entrance, and with the help of some soldiers and a museum watchman, they were led into the laboratories where the preserved scroll fragments were kept. Most of the fragments, mounted between glass plates, were packed in wooden crates, apparently for transfer to Amman. Biran, Avigad, and Aviram soon left and reported back to Yadin. On the following morning, June 7, Gur’s paratroop forces made the final assault on the Old City, entering through the Lions’ Gate. By afternoon, all of Jerusalem and its outlying suburbs as far south as Bethlehem were under Israeli control.

At this point Yadin realized that he might be able to gain yet another great treasure, both for himself and for the State of Israel. For seven years he had been engaged in inconclusive, secret negotiations with a middle¬man of questionable credentials for the purchase of a complete—and so far unknown—Dead Sea Scroll. In the summer of 1960, after his first triumphant campaign in the Judean wilderness, he had received a letter from a Virginia minister named Joseph Uhrig, who explained that he was in a position to facilitate the sale of “important, authentic discoveries of Dead Sea Scrolls.” Reverend Uhrig claimed to be acting as the exclusive agent for a Bethlehem antiquities dealer named Khalil Iskander Shahin, better known as Kando, who was well known for his ties to the Ta’amireh bedouin. In fact, it was common knowledge among scholars that Kando had facilitated the sale of most of the Dead Sea Scroll material now stored in the Rockefeller Museum. Uhrig now claimed that Kando was in possession of ten scrolls of gazelle and goatskin, one of bronze, and one of pure gold. The asking price was as outlandish as the description- a million dollars for each. Yadin was unwilling to disregard this offer, how¬ever, and after an exchange of letters in the autumn of 1960, he was shocked to receive from Uhrig a large and beautiful manuscript fragment that had been wrapped in a napkin and stuck between two pieces of card¬board, then sent in a plain manila envelope by regular mail.

This fragment proved to be a part of an otherwise complete Dead Sea Psalms Scroll in the Rockefeller Museum, so clearly Reverend Uhrig’s claims were not pure fantasy. Yadin agreed to a purchase price of $7,000 for the fragment, but he cautioned Uhrig that the price of any complete document had to be reasonable—Yadin had, after all paid only $250,000 for four complete scrolls in 1954. The correspondence continued through the spring of 1961, and after Uhrig’s repeated trips to Jordan and meetings with Kando, it became clear that there was only one scroll for sale and that the asking price was $100,000 in cash. Feeling that the purchase was now possible, Yadin solicited contributions from his philanthropic contacts in England and the United States. The negotiations continued while Yadin was in London after the final season of the Bar-Kokhba expedition; there he received another fragment in the mail from Reverend Uhrig, this one supposedly detached from the scroll that was for sale. Yadin had no question about the authenticity of this document. The handwriting was similar to that of other Qumran manuscripts, and the broken lines of text contained intriguing references to sacrifices and to a high priest. Yadin contacted an American lawyer-acquaintance to draw up a contract, hoping to conclude the matter during his lecture tour of the United States in the fall of 1961. But Uhrig proved unable to make good on his commitment. After Yadin expressed his sincere interest in making the purchase, the asking price suddenly skyrocketed to an incredible $750,000. Angrily, Yadin threatened to terminate all negotiations; a new purchase price was then agreed upon—$130,000, with $10,000 to be paid as an immediate advance. Uhrig, in his capacity as Kando’s exclusive agent, signed a contract in November. But this legal document proved worthless. When Yadin met Uhrig face to face in New York, the reverend offered only excuses, claiming that Kando was now demanding $200,000. To make a sad story shorter, Yadin soon lost all contact with Uhrig and was unable to recover his $10,000 deposit. The scroll remained in the hands of Kando in Bethlehem.

But on June 8, 1967, the boundary between Yadin and Kando had fallen. As the personal military adviser to the prime minister of Israel, Yadin had unique means at his disposal to persuade the Bethlehem antiquities dealer to part with his scroll. He briefly explained the situation to Eshkol, Dayan, and Rabin and received permission to direct an unorthodox mission – to send a small detachment of intelligence officers to locate Kando and recover the ancient document. Despite confusion about Kando’s real name, the officers eventually located Kando’s home in Bethlehem. At first Kando denied knowing anything about ancient scrolls, even when the officers repeatedly reassured him that he would receive a fair price. But Kando had not made his fortune in the antiquities trade by being forthright or unnecessarily talkative. Only after a lengthy and increasingly unpleasant interrogation of both Kando and his son Anton at a military installation did they eventually understand how serious the Israelis were. On the evening of June 8 the officers accompanied Kando and his son back to Bethlehem and retrieved the scroll, which was wrapped in cellophane and kept in a shoebox, from a specially constructed hiding place under the floor tiles of Kando’s bedroom. Wasting no time, they made their way to the IDF headquarters to inform Yadin of their success.

Yadin was by this time involved in a more pressing matter. The Ministerial Committee on Defense convened late on Thursday night to make one of the most crucial decisions of the war. Tensions with Syria the previous winter and spring had been one of the causes of the confrontation. Even though Egypt had been militarily humiliated and Jordan stripped of its control of the West Bank, the Syrian leadership—for all its bombastic, radical rhetoric—had yet to enter the war. Emergency discussions were under way at that very moment in New York at the UN Security Council. With Egypt and Jordan both having agreed to a ceasefire, time was running out, General David Elazar, head of the northern command, was strongly in favor of taking offensive action against Syria. So were the representatives of a number of northern settlements who had endured Syrian shelling from positions on the Golan Heights. So were Allon and Eshkol. “There was extraordinary pressure to conquer the Golan,” Yadin recalled of that meeting, “But Dayan had two considerations against it- the fear of a Soviet reaction… and also a fear of the operation itself, that perhaps it would be extraordinarily difficult.” Dayan, adamant, effectively vetoed any offensive operations, and the meeting was adjourned around midnight. During these discussions Yadin was summoned to the corridor, where he was presented with the shoebox from Bethlehem. Even though he went to bed that night secure in the knowledge that he had at last obtained his ancient treasure, Yadin—and Prime Minister Eshkol and Chief of Staff Rabin—awoke on the following morning to an unpleasant surprise.

During the night Dayan had flagrantly violated the agreement signed seven days before in the Jordan Restaurant—in the presence of Yigael Yadin. Without consulting either Eshkol or Rabin, Dayan had telephoned General Elazar directly, ordering him to open a new front against the Syrians. Eshkol was shocked; Rabin was outraged, Yadin would later characterize it as “a typical move for Dayan,” But luck in war was still with him. On the following evening, June 10, after nearly twenty-four hours of fierce fighting against the Syrians, the Six Day War was finally over, with Israel in possession of the Golan Heights.

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