The injustice of sending the Iraqi-Jewish archive back to Iraq, which stole it in the first place, has been extensively documentedon this blog, but few are aware that the US has been signing laws and memoranda with Arab governments which will result in unfair import restrictions on artefacts belonging to exiled minorities. (Arab states such as Yemen argue these are essential to prevent artefacts being smuggled out of the country). Lawyer Carole Basri explains in The Times of Israel (with thanks: Imre; Michelle):
Detail from a tik (Torah casing) found among the 2,700 artefacts and documents that comprise the Iraqi-Jewish archive
In May 2003, over 2,700 Jewish books and tens
of thousands of documents, records, and religious artifacts were
discovered by a US army team when in the basement of the Iraqi
intelligence headquarters flooded. This written record provides a robust
understanding of the 2,600-year-old Iraqi Jewish community: the texts
were sent to the US to be preserved, cataloged, and digitized, and they
have been on exhibit in a number of cities for several years. Now, based
on an executive order signed by President Bush in 2003, and extended by
the US government in an executive order signed by President Obama, the
Iraqi Jewish archive is set to be returned to Iraq in September 2018.
On a parallel track, but unknown to the Iraqi
Jewish community, the Emergency Protection for Iraqi Cultural
Antiquities Act of 2004 was amended in 2008 to include import
restrictions on Jewish artifacts, including Torah scrolls, made on or
before 1990. Then, the State Department put together separate
Memorandums of Understanding, where the Jewish religious and cultural
artifacts from Egypt, Syria, and Libya would be returned to the
governments that had ethnically cleansed their Jews out of existence.
Yet the Emergency Protection Act and the Memorandums of Understanding
stipulate that religious or cultural artifacts need to be returned to
their country of origin (limited, in the case of Iraq, to those
artifacts made before 1990). It is like saying Jewish property that was
looted during World War II and found in the US must be sent back to
Germany. It allows these Jewish artifacts and documents to get into the
wrong hands, hands of people who never owned them, and might not protect
them from destruction.
The key point to remember here is that these
artifacts — religious and cultural artifacts that are sacred to my
community — never belonged to Iraq in the first place. The items are
expropriated property stolen under the color of law that either belonged
to private citizens or to the Iraqi Jewish community. It is critical to
note that there is no longer a Jewish community in Iraq.
It is not just about the Iraqi Jewish archive
though. They are part of a larger issue impacting Jews and Christians
that needs to be solved. The Emergency Protection Act and the
Memorandums of Understanding result in unfair consequences, and they do
not take into account the circumstances at hand. The issue of potential
return of stolen Jewish property to countries such as Iraq, Syria,
Egypt, and Libya that ethnically cleansed the Jews is growing as red
lists are published at US Customs, and countries such as Yemen may be
added to those countries covered by Memorandums of Understanding.
Suffice to say that the Emergency Protection Act and Memorandums of
Understanding are not understanding or protecting at all of Jewish and
other minorities’ artifacts.
Indeed, the Jewish populations of those Middle
Eastern countries are now minuscule after years of violent persecution
leading to ethnic cleansing. Of the million Jews living in Arab
countries in 1948, fewer than 4,000 Jews remain. In Iraq in particular,
the count is just five Jews.
Yet, the United States government, using the
Emergency Protection Act and Memorandums of Understanding has placed
import restrictions on cultural artifacts produced by Jews, Coptic
Christians and other minority peoples, on behalf of Egypt, Syria, Libya
and Iraq. Further, the United States government has promised to return
the Iraqi Jewish archive to Iraq’s sectarian government in September
2018, including the notes of the Ben Ish Hai, a 19th century scholar,
and a 16th century Jewish book seized by Saddam Hussein’s secret police.
Sign the petition if you haven’t already.