Archives exhibit drew 16,000 visitors

 The Iraqi-Jewish archive (IJA) exhibition has had more interest than any other temporary exhibit at the NARA (National Archives) building in Washington. Now it transfers to New York, where it will be on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage from 4 February to 18 May before its purported return to Iraq in June – much to the outrage of the documents’ Jewish owners. It’s an opportunity for the Jerusalem Report to  explore the subject in depth in this beautifully laid-out feature by Renee Ghert-Zand (with thanks: Edwin): 

The books and documents of the Iraqi-Jewish archive before restoration

“The Iraqis don’t really care about the archive,
” says Harold Rhode, who helped
recover the material from the Mukhabarat
offices basement. In 2003 Rhode was an
Arabic and Hebrew-speaking policy analyst with the Office of Net Assessments in the office of the US Secretary of Defence assigned to the CPA.

Rhode explains
the Iraqi stance in terms
of the Arabic concept of
ayb

(shame), meaning
that no one wants to be blamed for giving in
to the Americans or Jews and handing over
the records.

“Any Iraqi who does so will be
shamed in others’ eyes, which in Arab society
must be avoided at all costs,” he explains to
The Jerusalem Report.

 In order to avoid this problem, Rhode says
the Iraqis must appear as if they are being
magnanimous, that they control the issue.
If they are seen as the controllers, then they
might allow the records to stay for a longer
period of time in the US.

“The
idea that the
Iraqis will publicly give up control here is out
of the question.
They cannot do so,” he notes.

The impending return of the archive to Baghdad is cause for great concern .

” There are currently hundreds of Torah scrolls in the basement of the National Museum of Iraq where they are exposed to mold and rats. That doesn’t bode well for the return of the IJA to Iraq” Rhode says.”Besides who’s to say a group won’t along and blow the whole thing up?”

The Iraqi government’s possible argument
that the removal of the IJA is part of the
“rape” of the country’s culture following
the invasion of Iraq, and that it should
consequently be returned, holds no water for
Iraqi Jews like Joseph Dabby.

 Following his
imprisonment three times on trumped-up spy
charges, Dabby escaped Iraq via Iran in 1971.
After several months as a refugee in Holland, he 
is today the chairman of Kahal Joseph, a
congregation of 500 Iraqi Jews.

Dabby believes his own government is
betraying him and his fellow Iraqi Jews.
“I feel terrible because we always think of
the US government as a fighter for fairness and justice,” he shares with The Report.

“I
personally don’t think the US government
will do anything. It’s making a bad decision
based on political motivations.”

Now that London resident Edwin Shuker has discovered his certificate from Fran Iny’s school in the NARA exhibition he would be extremely disappointed to see it
go anywhere but into “a single collection in safe and secure location freely accessible to
the community and its future generations.”

“As a12-year-old boy, I felt as
if I had stepped out of a time machine back
into Baghdad in the dark period prior to our
escape in 1971. I cried uncontrollably with the
emotions of a frightened child unsure about
the future,” Shuker tells the Report.

Shuker’s school certificate was discovered in one of the 27 aluminium trunks filled with artefacts that had been floating in four feet of water. After the items were removed from the water they were dried out in the
sun; but Baghdad’s humidity caused them to
become moldy. NARA was consulted, and
the decision was made to freeze the materials
to prevent any further damage.
Somehow, a freezer truck was secured in
the war zone.

According to Rhode, the initial stages of
the salvage operation were made possible
by a donation of $15,000 from New York
investment banker and philanthropist
Harvey Krueger. Once the US government
came on board, it allocated several million
dollars through the State Department for the
recovery and conservation of the materials.
It obtained a $98,000 grant from the National
Endowment for the Humanities for the
project.

“The water smelled horrid,” recalls Doris
Hamburg, NARA’s director of preservation
programs. She was brought to Baghdad
by military transport to assess the damage
and make recommendations on how to best
preserve the books and documents.
“We had to stop the clock,” Hamburg says
about the decision to freeze the materials in
the refrigerated truck. There were no options
for vacuum freeze-drying in the region; so in
August 2003, the trunks were transferred to

Park, Maryland, facilities for conservation
and imaging. With funding coming in stages,
the project took a full decade to complete.
According to Hamburg, all the items were
stabilized for digitization. This included
remediation for mold, repairs for handling
and boxing for storage.

The 24 artifacts that
were chosen for the exhibition received full
conservation treatment, including washing,
paper as needed.
“The exhibition has surpassed our wildest
expectations,” says NARA spokeswoman
Miriam Kleiman, noting that there were
16,000 visitors to “Discover and Recovery”.

“We thought it would have a narrow interest, but we have
had more media interest in this than for any
of our other temporary exhibitions,” she says.

Creating the exhibition posed new and interesting challenges for the NARA team.
Most obviously, NARA rarely exhibits
material that does not come from its
collection of federal records. However, even
more challenging was the fact that curators
were putting together the exhibition as the IJA work was beginning.

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2 Comments

  • in order to spare the Iraqi govt from `ayb, why don't representative Jewish groups go to court in the USA to demand transfer of the items to Jewish control, such as the Babylonian Heritage Center or a like institution.
    The legal route, a court suit, seems the best way to go. Demand the objects as Jewish/Iraqi Jewish property.

    Reply
  • You would think that with the resurgence of Al-Qaeda and Iran ready to intervene openly as opposed to covertly, that the Iraqi government has better things to trouble itself over than insisting on the return of documents of value largely to the people from whom they were confiscated and that they are so closed to the question of compensating exiled Iraqi Jews.

    Reply

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