Who owns Middle Eastern Jewish culture?

The fate of ancient Jewish archives rescued from
war-torn Iraq is at a crossroads. Lyn Julius reports in Jewish Renaissance (October 2018) on the fierce debate over
the ownership of Jewish history.

“They stole our lives, they stole our childhood,
they stole our memories. Our memories lay in the flooded basement of Saddam’s
Intelligence HQ. The government wants to return to an Iraq without Jews what
Saddam stole from the Jews of Iraq. Do you want to insult us?”

Writing in the Arabic newspaper Elaph in December 2003,
journalist David Kheder Bassoon expressed the anger and frustration felt by
Iraqi Jews living outside of their country at the uncertain future of the
Jewish archive – the enormous collection of books and manuscripts that document
Jewish life in Iraq. This autumn marks the deadline for the return of these
materials to Baghdad from where they were rescued by American troops in 2003
and taken to the US.

Under Saddam
Hussein, thousands of books, manuscripts and other documents were seized from
Jewish homes, schools and synagogues. Much of it was locked away at the
headquarters of Iraq’s secret service in Baghdad. In 2003, 
the archive was
discovered in the flooded basement of the building, containing tens of
thousands of items including books, religious texts, photographs and personal documents
that activists say were looted or left behind by Jews forced to flee the

The Americans shipped the archive to
Washington DC for restoration and hastily signed a diplomatic agreement
promising to return the material to the Iraqi government. 
The US government
spent over $3 million to restore and digitise the archive, which has been
exhibited across the country. The collection includes a Hebrew Bible with
commentaries from 1568, a Babylonian Talmud from 1793 and an 1815 version of
the Jewish mystical text Zohar – as well as more mundane objects such as a
Baghdad telephone book. 

Although tens of thousands of Iraqi documents were
shipped to the US, the Iraqi government has only formalised its claim to 2,700
books and 30,000 documents of the water-stained archive, which it claims are
the country’s ‘precious cultural heritage’, a last emotional link with its
ancient Jewish community, and a reminder of Iraq’s former diversity. 

But over the past five years, the Iraqi
Jewish community in exile 
has been waging
a bitter battle to recover the collection and prevent it being sent back to
Iraq. They say that to return the archives would be like returning property
looted by the Nazis to Germany. 
Activists argue that the archives
should be kept somewhere where they are accessible to Iraqi Jews and their
descendants, and question whether Iraq would properly take care of the items
were they to be sent back. 

 A Haggadah found in the Iraqi-Jewish archive

A similar fight is simmering for many Jews of Egyptian origin living abroad. Dozens of  volumes,
containing every detail of the births, marriages and deaths of Jews from
Alexandria and Cairo, and dating back to the middle of the 19th century were
once kept in the two main synagogues in each city. But in 2016, government
officials arrived unannounced at the synagogues and took away the registers to
be stored in the Egyptian National Archives. Access to the records is

The Egyptian
government claims that all Torah scrolls and Jewish archives, libraries,
communal registers and any movable property over 100 years old constitutes part
of Egypt’s national heritage. 

Egyptian Jews living abroad are frustrated  that they cannot even
obtain photocopies of brit mila (circumcision),marriage and death
certificates from these communal records. Such records are often the only
formal Jewish identification Egyptian Jews have to prove lineage or identity
for burial or marriage. Repeated efforts since 2005 to intercede with the
Egyptian authorities have come to nothing.

In this case, the
Egyptian government has been supported by the tiny remnant of the Jewish
community that remains in the country. The community’s leader, Magda Haroun has
made it clear 
in various TV appearances that her intention is to
leave the community’s assets to the government.
Last year Haroun helped revive
a former Egyptian Jewish charity, A Drop of Milk, turning it into a heritage
NGO with the aim of curating the Jewish archive with the approval of the
Ministry of Culture. There are plans to transform the former Heliopolis
Synagogue in Cairo into a national Jewish museum, with the hope that the archive’s
registers will be available for consultation there.

Most Egyptian Jews left the country
after 1948 and again after 1967. The biggest ex-pat Egyptian community is in
Israel, but there are groups in France, Canada, the US, Brazil, Australia and the UK. 

But for organisations fighting on behalf of the
rights of Jews from Arab countries, the Iraqi and Egyptian cases are
symptomatic of a larger problem. Since 2004, the US has been bound by law to
impose import restrictions on archaeological and ethnological material that
constitutes a country’s cultural heritage and has signed Memoranda of
Understanding (MOUs) to this effect with Egypt, Syria and Libya. An agreement
with Algeria is expected. In January 2018, the International Council of Museums
released a ‘Red List’ for Yemen aimed at protecting Hebrew manuscripts and
Torah finials from leaving Yemen. All but 50 Jews have fled the country, taking
what possessions they could, but even these ultimately could be returned to

“These MOUs claim to be about [stopping] looting,
but their broad scope and limited evidence of success suggests their real
impact is providing a legal vehicle to legitimise foreign confiscations and
wrongful ownership claims…The MOUs are based on a flawed premise. It is the
heritage and patrimony of 850,000 indigenous Jews who fled their homes and
property under duress,” says Sarah Levin of the California-based Jews
Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA).

It is understandable that the international
community should wish to prevent the looting and smuggling of ancient artefacts
and their sale on the international art market. That is how Islamic State
financed much of its conquest of northern Iraq and Syria. Jewish  artefacts purported to be from devastated sites, such as the Jobar  synagogue near Damascus, have turned up in Turkey. These mostly turn out to be fakes. In Syria, mindful of the interest in Middle Eastern Jewish heritage in the West, both the regime and the rebels have been using Jewish artefacts as a political football in the civil war. Reports have surfaced – usually at times of regime offensives – in which both parties accused each other of stealing cultural heritage from Jewish sites. 

But there is a
distinction between theft for financial gain, and legitimate salvage of Torah
scrolls or books taken by fleeing Jews to be used for prayer. 

In centuries past, armies had carte blanche to
plunder enemy property. The ‘Monument Men’ were assigned by the Allies to hide
away cultural treasures in occupied Europe during World War II to prevent them
from falling into the wrong hands. Postwar international treaties, such as the
Hague Convention of 1954, were introduced to protect states’ cultural property
from wartime looting. But the days when Britain could ship the Elgin Marbles
from Greece, or Napoleon could plunder ancient Egyptian obelisks as ‘war
booty’, are over.

 In the aftermath of extensive looting after
the invasion of Iraq, some 3,800 archeological artefacts have been returned to
Iraq from the US. Recently eight Sumerian artefacts sold to the British Museum
were sent back. But the Iraqi-Jewish archive does not belong to some
long-extinct civilisation: some of the owners are still alive. International
law is based on the outmoded assumption of territorial sovereignty. It needs
updating, specifically to resolve the tug-of-war between minority and national
heritage, where the minority has been persecuted and displaced.

Almost no Jews
remain in Iraq. If the archive were to return, most Iraqi Jews – now in Israel
– would not be able to visit it. Nor could the authorities guarantee its safety. 

Four US senators have tabled a bill and three congressmen have
written to President Trump “strongly objecting” to the return of the materials. As I write, a scholar in the US, who follows these issues but has asked not to be named, has told JP that the State Department has agreed to renew permission for the exhibition of Iraqi-Jewish documents to continue for another two years. “There are some (mostly Jewish groups) who want to keep the archives in the US. They have no plan on how to do that. US museums might be reluctant to accept them, because they would be permanent custodians. Who owns the archive? Technically, the Iraqi government since it is state cultural property. The State Department has to figure out how to handle keeping the archives  in the US without contravening basic precepts of international law,’ the source said.

The Jewish community may need to resort to the courts to assert its claims. There has been one precedent for this: lawyer Nathan Lewin
successfully sued for the restitution of the library belonging to the Fifth
Lubavitcher Rebbe. Seized by the Russians in 1917, it is now in New York.

However, the Jews fighting to stop the return of
their property to Iraq, or the release of blockaded property in Arab states,
can take comfort from Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This states that no individual or community should be arbitrarily deprived of
their property. 

As Sarah Levin
of JIMENA puts it: “The US should not enter into any agreement and should
withdraw from any existing agreement with a foreign state that either condones,
supports or promotes any Article 17 violation by that state.”

Lyn Julius is
the author of Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilisation in the Arab
world vanished overnight, Vallentine Mitchell, 2017. 


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