Future of Iraqi-Jewish archive still not secure

Latest instalment in the saga of the Iraqi-Jewish archive, shipped from Baghdad for restoration in the US, but still being claimed back by the Iraqi government as its rightful property. The archive exhibit of 24 items is now on view at the Richard Nixon Library in California, but more obvious venues have turned the exhibit down as not relevant enough to the ‘American-Jewish experience’. Tom Tugend reports in Jewish Journal:

On Sept. 4, an exhibition including 23 of the recovered items, along
with videos of the painstaking restoration effort, will open at the
Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda.

The 2,000-square-foot exhibition, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving
Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” will continue through Nov. 15 at the Orange
County site.

Among the show’s highlights are a Hebrew Bible with commentaries
published in 1568, a Babylonian Talmud from 1793, a hand-lettered and
decorated haggadah, and a lunar calendar in Hebrew and Arabic.

One section of the exhibition shows how the moldy mass of material was
saved by the National Archives experts. “Every page had to be vacuumed,
freeze-dried, preserved and digitized,” (archivist Doris) Hamburg said. On the Sept. 4
opening day, Hamburg will give a free public lecture at 10 a.m. at the
Nixon Library.

After restoration: Passover Haggadah from Vienna, 1930. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

The exhibition is of particular significance to the roughly 3,000 Jews
of Iraqi descent in Los Angeles, who make up the largest concentration
among the estimated 18,000 to 20,000 Iraqi Jews in the United States.
Other sizable communities are in New York City; Washington, D.C.;
Arizona; Connecticut; Florida; and New Jersey.

The spiritual center of the Los Angeles community is Congregation Kahal
Joseph, a Sephardic synagogue on the city’s Westside. It has a
membership of some 400 families, about 90 percent of which are of Iraqi
descent, with the remainder from Burma, Indonesia, India and Singapore.

After a number of years without a spiritual leader, Kahal Joseph welcomed Rabbi Raif Melhado to its pulpit last month.

The congregation’s former president and current chairman of the board
is Joseph Dabby, who said he lobbied intensively to bring the exhibition
to Los Angeles after it had been shown in New York;, Washington, D.C.;
and Kansas City, Mo.

Asked why the exhibition venue would be located in Yorba Linda rather
than at a central Jewish site in Los Angeles, Dabby said he had asked
the Skirball Cultural Center and the Museum of Tolerance of the Simon
Wiesenthal Center to host the show but was turned down by both.

Skirball museum director Robert Kirschner explained, “Of the many
exhibitions proposed to us, unfortunately we can present very few. The
museum gave this exhibition serious consideration several years ago, and
I subsequently went to see it in in New York City. While it is a worthy
exhibition, our decision was that it did not resonate closely with the
Skirball’s mission, which focuses on the American-Jewish experience.”

At the Museum of Tolerance, director Liebe Geft stated that no one at the museum had been contacted about the exhibition.

She added that potential exhibits are judged on whether the subject
matter and content are consistent with the museum’s mission, as well as
with the logistics and available space. Currently, she said, the new
Anne Frank installation is occupying all available space.

Dabby’s greatest concern, however, is whether the thousands of books,
documents and artifacts will remain in the United States or be returned
to the government in Baghdad, as was stipulated in the initial agreement
allowing the transfers to the U.S. National Archives.

Given the unsettled conditions in Iraq and the presence of the Islamic
State, with its penchant for destroying ancient monuments and historical
religious artifacts, Dabby asked how anyone could guarantee the
survival of the Iraqi-Jewish collection. His question was echoed by
Maurice Shohet, the Washington-based president of the World Organization
of Jews From Iraq.

“All the books and documents were taken forcibly from the Jewish
community by Saddam Hussein’s regime, and they still belong to us,”
Shohet said. “I don’t know what the State Department plans to do, but at
this time, it seems to be postponing any decision.”

The Journal asked the State Department for its view, and the same day
received a lengthy response from spokesman Michael Lavallee, who made
the following points:

As agreed to by the Iraqi government, the Iraqi Jewish Archive (IJA) is
in the temporary custody of the National Archives and Records
Administration (NARA) for conservation, preservation, digitization and
exhibition in the United States.

In May 2014, the Iraqi government extended IJA’s stay in the United
States to allow its exhibition in more cities. After its Nixon Library
display, the exhibit is due at the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami
Beach in December.

There are no definite plans for subsequent exhibits, but the United
States “remains committed to the return of the IJA to Iraq, as per prior
agreement,” Lavallee stated.

To the Journal’s question regarding the security of the IJA material
should it be returned to Iraq, Lavallee responded diplomatically: “We
will continue to partner with the Government of Iraq in countering the
threat that [Islamic State] poses to the Iraqi people and heritage.
Iraqi forces continue to make progress against [Islamic State] and it is
impossible to speculate what the security situation would be at the
point in the future when the collection would return to Iraq.”

Read article in full

6 Comments

  • Exhibit details: In both English and Arabic, the 2,000 square foot exhibit features 23 recovered original items and a "behind the scenes" video of the fascinating yet painstaking preservation process. More information is available at http://www.ija.archives.gov.

    The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum is the only west coast venue chosen to host this exhibition. Come check out this unique exhibition which runs until November 15!
    –malca

    Reply
  • From a comment on the museum's Facebook page: Fabulous exhibit. I had no idea the long history of Judaism in Iraq. I'm so glad these historians were able to retrieve and repair these priceless artifacts of history.

    Reply
  • Elise, the exhibit was at the Centre for Jewish history in New York. The other Jewish museums do not seem to understand that they can help keep the archive in the US by agreeing to put on the exhibit.
    Bill, the US government unthinkingly signed an agreement with the Iraqi government without any consideration of whom the archive belonged to.

    Reply
  • I simply do not understand the idea that the United States is bound by the agreement with the Iraqi Government. A critical premise of that agreement is that the archive was the property of Iraq. Since it is in fact the property of the Jewish community, the agreement is void.

    Reply
  • What happened to asking the Jewish Museum in NY to house the exhibit? Moreover it is simply revolting, and quite frankly another level of the antisemitism at the US State Department, that they are planning to return this exhibit to the very people who persecuted and ethnically cleansed the Jews of Iraq. It seems that the only people without any indigenous rights in this world are the Jewish people according to the US government.

    Reply

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