The Jewish archive is a clear case of brazen theft

The deadline for the return of the Iraqi-Jewish archive to Iraq falls this September. For Lyn Julius there is no question: the archive should not be returned to those who stole it. Blog in the Jewish News (Times of Israel): 

Place: Baghdad. Time:  the 1970s.

Eyewitnesses watched aghast  as Saddam Hussein’s men carted off
piles of books and documents from the ladies’ gallery of the Bataween
synagogue to the secret police headquarters. There they remained for
some 40 years, rotting and forgotten, until some quirk of fate put them
at the centre of an international controversy.

The  so-called Iraqi-Jewish archive consists of Jewish books,
documents, Torah scrolls and random correspondence from synagogues and
Jewish schools. They were discovered in 2003 during the US invasion of
Iraq in the waterlogged basement of the secret police headquarters in
Baghdad. A US bomb had burst the water pipes of the building but had
failed to detonate. An apologetic US  shipped the collection for
restoration in Texas, signing a diplomatic agreement committing to
returning the collection to Iraq when the restoration work was

Fifteen years later, the deadline for return falls this coming
September, but Iraqi Jews have been protesting against the repatriation
of an archive that they say has no place in Iraq. It belongs to a
community which endured decades of persecution and is now living outside
the country. The archive  does not contain items of great value except
to the community itself, and does not belong to civilisations long
extinct. Indeed the owners of some of the material, including school
reports and photographs, are still alive.
The ownership of the archive appears  an open-and-shut case of brazen
theft from a community forced into exile. In their haste to draw up a 
diplomatic agreement, the 2003 US-run government of Iraq promised to
return the archive on a false premise.

But the culture editor on the ‘progressive’ Forward newspaper, Talya Zax, has been drawing a parallel
between the recent repatriation of  eight Sumerian artefacts and the
issue of the Iraqi-Jewish archive. Thousands of ancient artefacts were
looted from Iraq in 2003. Artefacts looted from the Sumerian site of
Tello have been recently returned from the US. Ms Zax has interviewed
the Iraqi ambassador to the US, who declares the archive must go back
because it shows the former diversity of Iraq’s population, and the
emotional ties between the country and its former Jews. She writes:

“Despite its unique and complicated place in the broad
collection of culturally significant items removed from Iraq, in the
course of, and after the US invasion, it (the Iraqi-Jewish archive) is
indisputedly part of that collection.”


Preventing a war-ravaged country’s heritage being pillaged, smuggled
out and sold on the international market is one thing. Countries have
every right to protect their cultural property. But there the similarity
with the Iraqi-Jewish archive ends.

A bill has been introduced by four US senators
urging that the archive not be returned to Iraq. But even if passed,
that bill will have no legal force. The Iraqi-Jewish community in the US
would have to fight for its ownership rights in a court of law.

If the Iraqi-Jewish archive were to return to Baghdad, Iraqi  Jews
and their descendants (most now resident in Israel) would not be able to
see them. Moreover, what guarantees are there that Iraq, where popular
anti-Jewish feeling still runs high, would be able to preserve the
archive or prevent it being looted or destroyed in the future?

It is a source of dismay that the voices of those who wish legitimise
the dispossession of Jewish refugees from Arab countries are given
credibility. And that, in the end, is what the issue of the Iraqi-Jewish
archive is all about.

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