Oct 4 2013

Iraq didn’t want its Jews. Why should it get their inheritance?

Next week (October 11th), an exhibition of Jewish artifacts dating back hundreds of years will open at the National Archives Museum in Washington DC. The story of how this invaluable collection reached the United States is an odyssey in itself, which chronicles the demise of the Babylonian Jewish Diaspora.

The Iraqi Jewish Archive was found in 2003 – a few days after the American takeover of Baghdad. A group of American soldiers entered the flooded headquarters of Saddam Hussein’s Intelligence agency (Mukhabarat). In the basement, under four feet of water, they found tens of thousands of books, artifacts and documents belonging to the Jewish community – materials that had been seized mainly in the 1960’s from synagogues, schools and other Jewish institutions.

Among the findings were Torah scroll fragments, a bible published in Venice in the 16th century, an 18th century Babylonian Talmud from Vienna, a Scroll of Esther of uncertain date, a Zohar book from 1815, and a 1902 Hagada of Passover published in Baghdad. Other items included books printed in Vienna, Livorno, Jerusalem, Izmir, and Vilna.

With limited treatment options in Iraq, and with the agreement of the-then Iraqi ministry of culture, the badly damaged materials were shipped to the United States for restoration and preservation. Due to the importance of the findings and the sensitivity of the operation, high-level figures were involved in the process, including former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. The Iraqi government did not oppose the removal of the Archive, but demanded that it be returned, eventually.

The US announced that it will ship the entire collection back to Iraq in June 2014 after two exhibitions of select documents in Washington and New York. Thus, the Iraqi Jewish Archive has become contested cultural property – Iraqi government officials, as well as Jewish communal organizations, are both staking opposing claims to these artifacts and records.

Stanley Urman, executive vice-president of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC), says that the Jewish community will do everything it can in order to keep the Archive out of Iraq. “While the Jewish community is certainly grateful for the restoration work done by the US,” says Urman, “the agreement with the Iraqi government was based on a false premise” according to which the Archive is part of Iraq’s patrimony rather than of Iraq’s Jewry.

The once-famous Jewish community of Iraq practically ceased to exist in the beginning of the 1950’s after years of persecution, dispossession and discrimination. In the decade preceding their mass exodus from Iraq (mainly to Israel), the Jews suffered random outbreaks of rioting and violence.

The Iraqi government, on the other hand, claims that the Archive is a national Iraqi heritage, and that the US must fulfill its obligation according to the agreement.

In the last decade several governments asked to retrieve treasures that were seized by foreign countries. Greece, for example, demands to this day that the Elgin Marbles, originally part of the Parthenon and now on display in the British Museum, be sent back. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Egypt has been asking the Neues Museum in Berlin to return the Nefertiti Bust, one of the most famous sculptures of the ancient world.

But the Jewish Archive is altogether different. While in the case of Greek and Egypt, the treasures are indeed part of the national patrimony, the Jewish Archive cannot be seen as part of Iraq’s patrimony. If that indeed had been the case, the Archive would have been kept in the National Museum of Iraq and not on the floor of the intelligence unit’s headquarters.

One can ask a broader question: if Jews and their artifacts had been such a crucial and central part of Iraqi culture, why did the Iraqi government do everything it could in the middle of the 20th century to get rid of them? To paraphrase the famous Biblical saying, did they kill them and then inherit them?

Not a day goes by without violence in Iraq. Mosques are being bombed and people are being killed. Under these circumstances, it seems that even if the Iraqi government wanted to vouch for the safety of the Archive, it would not be able to do so. Therefore, there is only one conclusion: the Iraqi Jewish Archive should remain with its rightful Jewish owners.

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