On 31 July 2018, The Cultural Property Advisory Committee
in the US will meet to review Algeria’s request for US
import restrictions on archaeological and ethnological material. On the surface, a country cannot be faulted for wanting to safeguard its archaeological and cultural heritage. But every Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed between the US and Arab countries legitimises the appropriation of moveable Jewish heritage – scrolls, documents, artefacts – seized by Arab governments from their expelled and dispossessed Jewish communities. The best example of this is the Iraqi-Jewish archive: a campaign has been underway to stop the archive from returning to Iraq. But this case is just a symptom of a much larger picture of abuse, argues JIMENA.
Torah scrolls in the ark at the Bone (now Annaba) synagogue
Unfortunately, the Iraqi Jewish Archive case is only one of several
instances where our American Government has signed agreements
recognizing Arab governments’ seizures of Jewish property. Our
government has been signing Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) –
agreements between the US and foreign governments that blockade the
entry of art and cultural property to the USA and deny Jews from Arab
countries the rights to their historic heritage. The signing of MOUs
with Middle Eastern countries validates those countries’ confiscation of
Jewish property and heritage and simultaneously denies the rights of
Jews and other religious minorities to their cultural patrimony.
The signing of the MOUs is done under the auspices of The Cultural
Property Implementation Act (CPIA). This law provides for the US to
enter into agreements with foreign nations to temporarily restrict the
import of “significant” cultural items as part of a multi-nation effort
to deter looting of ancient archeological sites. Over time the State
Department has broadened the scope of the law to provide for “near
permanent” bans on the import of ALL cultural items to the present time.
The MOUs recognize those nation’s claims and seizures of all cultural
property, including the personal property of individuals and the
communal property of religious and ethnic groups.
The MOUs are based on a flawed premise – that Jewish cultural
property constitutes the national heritage of Arab governments. In fact,
Jewish cultural property in Arab countries was expropriated from
private homes, schools, and synagogues. It is the heritage and patrimony
of 850,000 indigenous Jewish refugees who were ethnically cleansed and
fled their homes and property under duress. Jewish patrimony was never
the property or national heritage of Arab governments – in fact most
Arab governments have done little to preserve the remnants or memory of
Jewish history in the countries. Today Jewish communities from Arab
countries and their descendants live outside of the Arab world and most
are restricted from entering their countries of origin.
Examples of these MOUs include:
Algeria: ACTION REQUIRED NOW!
– Following the lead of Yemen, the Algerian government has recently
requested an MOU from the State Department. The open session of the
Cultural Property Advisory Committee will be held on July 31, 2018, at
10:30 a.m. (EDT). It will last approximately an hour and a half.
Members of the public and press will participate electronically. If you
wish to make comments you must do so no later than July 15, 2018. More
information on how to participate and submit comments can be found by clicking here
Egypt: The U.S. MOU with Egypt, signed in November, 2016, covers virtually all objects of cultural heritage dating from the Predynastic period (5,200 B.C.) through 1517 A.D, including Hebrew “scrolls, books, manuscripts, and documents, including religious, ceremonial, literary, and administrative texts.”
February 23, 2018, the US Department of State signed an MOU with Libya
to restrict importation of objects of ‘Libyan cultural heritage’
including items owned by the ethnically-cleansed Libyan Jewish
2016 designated list of import restrictions from Syria includes
“[t]orahs and portions thereof” and “Jewish paintings [which] may
include iconography such as menorahs,” and “religious, ceremonial,
literary, and administrative material,” including but not limited to
maps, archival materials, photographs, and other rare or important
documentary or historical evidence.”
Yemen: On January 31, the International Committee of Museums announced the release of a Red List for Yemen,
which targets Hebrew manuscripts and Torahs, while reaffirming the
Yemeni government claims to Jewish property. Frequently, issuing a
State Department funded Red List is the first step in a campaign to
smooth the way for an MOU.
The aforementioned nations either ethnically cleansed, expelled or
terrorized their ancient Jewish communities into flight and seized their
property. Under UN Resolution 242, Jews fleeing Arab countries were
bona fide refugees yet today, these nations claim private and communal
Jewish property as their own heritage through cultural patrimony laws.
Unfortunately, US government agreements effectively endorse these
seizures of Jewish property.
No further agreement should be made with a state where Jews were
subjected to state-sanctioned Anti-Semitism, Nuremberg like laws and
ethnic-cleansing. No persecuting nation can lay claim to the legacy of a
proud and ancient Jewish community. Moreover, the annual State
Department Human Rights Report annually reports violations of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and that Report must include
violations of the Declaration’s Article 17. Article 17 states that no
individual or community should be arbitrarily deprived of their
property. Therefore, the United States should not enter into any
agreement, and should withdraw from any existing agreement, with a with a
foreign state that either condones, supports or promotes any Article 17
violation by that state.
These MOUs claim to be about looting, but their broad scope and
limited evidence of success suggests their real impact is providing a
legal vehicle to legitimize foreign confiscations and wrongful ownership
claims. Legitimate efforts to curb looting are essential, but they must
be targeted to preserve archaeological resources, and not to disguise
the brazen property confiscations of tyrants.