The Palestinian Authority says the exhibition is a violation of international law because much of its material was taken from near Bethlehem and Jericho, both in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. An Israeli group of archaeologists and activists complains that the museum, however unwittingly, is helping the Jewish settlement movement advance its contention that the West Bank should be part of Israel and not a Palestinian state.
“What the Israel Museum is doing is like coming and saying, ‘Listen, the heritage of the West Bank is part of our heritage first of all,’ ” said Yonathan Mizrachi, an archaeologist who helped found the Israeli group, Emek Shaveh, in 2009. “It’s part of the idea to create the narrative that those sites, no matter what the political solution,” are “part of the Israeli identity.”
James S. Snyder, the director of the museum, dismissed such criticism as propaganda and political opportunism. The Oslo Accords signed by the Israelis and Palestinians in the 1990s provide for Israeli involvement in archaeology in the territories until the resolution of the overall conflict, and Mr. Snyder said that at the end of the exhibition, the museum plans to return the artifacts to the West Bank, to Israel’s civil administration, which he said would arrange for their return to the sites from which they were taken or to store the material until “the site can be prepared for its care and/or display.” He noted that the museum had spent a “huge” sum — he would not specify how much — to restore and make available for public consumption artifacts that might otherwise have been lost, like many of the antiquities in Iraq and Egypt.
“We’re not about geopolitics, we’re not about minefields, we’re about trying to do the best and the right thing for the long term for material cultural heritage,” Mr. Snyder said. “Our goal was to invest in the preservation of this material and return it to the sites. We are but custodians, and we are always ready for it to be where it belongs.”
But Hamdan Taha, director of the Palestinian Authority’s department of antiquities and cultural heritage, said that while Oslo provides for Israel’s excavation in the West Bank, exhibiting the material was another story. He complained that the Palestinians were never consulted about the project, which he called “an aggression against Palestinian cultural rights in their own land,” and said it would “not help to reconstruct peace between the Palestinians and Israel.”
The exhibition is dedicated to the memory of Ehud Netzer, a Hebrew University archaeologist who spent 40 years searching for Herod’s burial place before discovering it in 2007 at Herodium. He died after being injured in a fall at the site in 2010. The tholos, a circular set of columns that topped the tomb, is partly rebuilt in the exhibition, along with the sarcophagus said to be that of Herod and two others.
The many rooms are filled with pottery, coins, busts and frescoes that illustrate the legend of Herod. The king has been admired by historians for his remarkable buildings, but condemned for the murder of his wife and children, among many others. His Judaism was questioned, and he was often denounced as a puppet of Rome, an image the exhibition does little to defy as it explores his relationships with Antony and Cleopatra, Augustus and Marcus Agrippa.
Shmuel Browns, a tour guide and expert on Herodium who helped Netzer excavate the site as a volunteer, said he was awed by the meticulous reconstruction, particularly of a large basin adorned with several heads that was found in pieces in two disparate places at the site, now an Israeli national park.
“They’ve built things from what was found that you could never imagine from what you saw at the site,” Mr. Browns said. “The message is very, very strong about who Herod is and what he did. He wasn’t intimidated by topography, he wasn’t intimidated by material, he wasn’t intimidated by lack of water.
“He’s a fascinating character,” Mr. Browns added. “He just got very, very bad press.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: February 15, 2013
An article on Thursday about the Israel Museum’s new archeological exhibition devoted to King Herod and the controversy generated because many artifacts were taken from West Bank territories occupied by Israel since 1967 referred incompletely to plans for returning the items. The Oslo Accords signed by the Israelis and Palestinians in the 1990s provide for Israeli involvement in archaeology in the territories until the resolution of the overall conflict, and the museum director, James S. Snyder, said that at the end of the exhibition, it plans to return the artifacts to the West Bank, to Israel’s civil administration, which he said would arrange for their return to the sites from which they were taken or store the material until “the site can be prepared for its care and/or display.” There are no plans to hand the items over to the Palestinians at the end of the exhibition.