With thanks Eli, David S.
The saga of the ‘Jewish archives’ rumbles on: who should keep the 3,000 items – Torah scrolls, marriage records, prayer books, letters and other documents belonging to Iraqi Jews – found floating in sewage water in the basement of a Saddam Hussein’s security headquarters in Baghdad after the US had bombed the city during the invasion of 2003?
The archives were shipped to the US for restoration costing a million dollars. It will cost millions more to preserve them.
Lately, an Iraqi delegation went to Washington to demand that the ‘Jewish archives’ be returned to Iraq. The US administration seems to have signed a document agreeing to their return, but no date has been set: it could take months, if not years, as the restoration project is ongoing.
Jewish groups have, however, argued that the archives should be returned to their rightful owners. Interviewed here on Canadian Broadcasting (CBC – scroll down to Part 3 on 8th June to listen) recently, the Iraqi ambassador to the US, Samir Samadaie, argued that the archives were removed temporarily, and that they were an integral part of Iraq’s history, just as the Jewish community had been an integral part of Iraq. Ownership claims (presumably in court) would have to be made against the government of Iraq, the ambassador says.
But as the CBC interviewer points out – if these archives were so cherished, why were they not in the Iraqi national museum?
When asked how come the archives were found in the basement of the Mukhabarat, Saddam’s secret police headquarters, the Iraqi ambassador suddenly sounds evasive:” I don’t know what they were doing there,” he confesses.
“Was it possible that fleeing Iraqi Jews left them behind?” ventures the interviewer. The suggestion is that the archives never belonged to the state. They were not part of Iraq’s national heritage, but private and communal Jewish property. As Bernie Farber, president of the Canadian Jewish Congress says later in the programme, these were not artefacts, but ‘living’ objects such as Torah scrolls, still in everyday use.
In my opinion, what actually happened was far worse. These archives were forcibly seized from Jews in police raids on Jewish homes and synagogues. Jews would have been arrested and interrogated by the Mukhabarat and their books and papers used as evidence against them. No wonder the Iraqi ambassador was being cagey about how the archives ended up floating in Saddam’s basement. To say more is tantamount to admitting to the brutal oppression and ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Jewish community from Iraq. Their possessions were unlawfully taken from them.
There is another moment of ‘tension’, as Bernie Farber describes it, when the Iraqi ambassador is asked whether the archives should not go back to the original owners, or their descendants, in Israel.
“Why Israel?” he exclaims, pointing out that Iraqi Jews also resettled in the US and the UK. Neither the CBC interviewer nor Bernie Farber pick Samir Samadaie up on the fact that 90 percent of the Iraqi Jewish community is now living in Israel. But Iraq is clearly not yet ready to engage ‘in a delicate dance’ with its erstwhile enemy on this question.
However, the good news is that the Iraqis say they are prepared to do whatever it takes to restore and digitise the archives: they are promising the archives will be accessible to all. Here the Iraqi government’s attitude is in stark contrast with the Egyptian government’s, who have also declared the Egyptian Jewish community’s archives to be Egyptian state property. Egyptian Jews, however, have been prevented from accessing important personal documents, such as marriage and death certificates. They cannot even obtain photocopies.
On the question of the ‘Jewish archives’, Point of No Return understands that discussions between the US government and Jewish groups are ongoing. The return of the archives to Iraq is still not a ‘done deal.’