Archive lawsuit may be brought against Iraq

Edwin Shuker is the lead in a potential lawsuit that could be brought against Iraq, should it insist that the Iraqi-Jewish archive, which contains Shuker’s own school certificate, must be returned. Since the deadline expired in September 2018, however, the Iraqis have not formally asked for the archive to go back, although Shuker says that an unofficial extension has been agreed. He goes on to warn of the danger that Arab countries might lay claim to Jewish items even outside their countries if  the US keeps signing bilateral agreements. Long feature in the Jewish Chronicle:

Fast
forward to 2013; Mr Shuker was in Washington, speaking to a group, when
he found out that the National Archive was due to exhibit items from
the Iraqi Jewish community. He went to the archive and persuaded the
curator of the exhibition and the president of the museum to give him a
preview.

“We started working through the exhibit. ‘This is the oldest Torah — 16th century. This is the oldest Talmud.’

They were exhibiting 24 items — out of 27,000.

US researchers with some of the Iraqi-Jewish documents (Photo: www.ija.archives.gov)

“And
then they said ‘these are personal items’ — divorce documents, marriage
documents, very personal — and they said ‘We also have an example of
the Iraqi Jewish school called Frank Iny School, and these are the
school reports of children.’

“I said, ‘that’s where I went’.

“There were two school reports, one for a boy and one for a girl. And the boy was me. I swear to God. The boy was me.

“I
thought, ‘This cannot be’. I was looking for a candid camera around. I
asked, ‘Excuse me, why did you choose this boy and this girl out of all
the thousands?’

“She said, ‘We are experts in preserving letters,
but not pictures. These reports had pictures — almost all of them were
underwater and we cannot recover them, except this little boy, whose
picture was just perfect.’

“I said, ‘Well, that little boy is me’. And she looked up, and you can imagine the emotion. We hugged each other.”

This,
however, was far from the end of the story — and this was where Mr
Shuker asked his Limmud audience to consider some issues with
potentially very far-reaching consequences for Jewish communities.

“Recently
the West has become very conscious and sensitive about things they have
taken from the East — antiquities and all sorts of things,” he said.

He
described how, “on a recent visit to the Foreign Office here, as part
of the Board of Deputies relationship with the British government, they
told us, in a great announcement, that they had managed to convince the
British Museum to send back to Iraq some surplus material… as a gesture
saying, ‘This belongs to you, please have it back’.

“And the great news that they wanted to share with us is that most of these are Jewish heirlooms.

“Similarly,
the State Department is now making bilateral agreements with all these
countries, saying, ‘We will not allow any of your items, especially the
failed states of Libya, Syria and Iraq — we will not allow stolen and
looted things from your museums to be traded here. We will seize it as
stolen property and return it.’

“Wonderful. But then it actually
states in the agreement, ‘including all the Jewish items and Jewish
archives that are there’ — which is a huge market, by the way, Sifrei
Torah.

“That agreement would mean that anything that Jews from Arab countries have left behind now has to go back.

“There
are synagogues in the United States thinking, ‘We are going to have to
justify why we have a Sefer Torah from Baghdad, which has to be
returned’. It could be interpreted like that, if somebody wanted to.”

The
idea that Jewish items, which were seized by Middle Eastern countries
from Jews, are now to be returned to the governments of those countries
by the UK and US is a painful one to many Jews, especially those from
Arab lands.

The Iraqi archive is a case in point,with ramifications and implications far beyond this collection.

“When
the Americans took the items, they were very sensitive that the Iraqis
should not think that they [the Americans] were taking their culture
away from them,” Mr Shuker said.

“So the State Department signed
an agreement in black and white that the United States are borrowing
this archive for the purpose of preservation, and it will be returned to
Iraq as soon as that is done.

“As soon as this 2013 exhibit came
along, the Iraqi embassy and the Iraqi government said, ‘Thank you very
much, you’ve done a fantastic job, now we want it back.’

“They
made a temporary agreement which ended in September 2018, which said ‘in
September 2018, the entire collection goes back’.”

However, Mr
Shuker has, as he has described, been “the lead in a Class A lawsuit” on
this issue. After all, one of the documents in question is demonstrably
his.

He believes that the school report would have been placed
with the other archival material because of what would have happened
when his family fled the country.

“There is a racist, antisemitic
law in Iraq, which is still there today, started in 1951, law number
five, which states that any Jew who leaves Iraq for more than three
months automatically is considered to have renounced his Iraqi
nationality and has no right to get it back. Even today.

“When we
escaped from Baghdad in 1971, there was an announcement in the
newspaper: ‘These are the runaways, you have three months to report
back, otherwise your nationality will be taken away and your assets’,
meaning they would go back to our home and strip it.”

Mr Shuker on a visit returning to Baghdad
Mr Shuker on a visit returning to Baghdad (Photo: Courtesy of Edwin Shuker)

Much
of the rest of the archival material was taken directly from the Iraqi
Jewish community by Saddam Hussein’s officials, Mr Shuker said.

“We
went to people — still, 50 years on, people who worked in the Iraqi
Jewish community at the time — they would not give their names in court.
Most of these files were at the offices of the Iraqi Jewish community.

“In
the early 80s, people came to them and said, ‘Saddam Hussein would like
to have a museum for his Iraqi Jewish community. We want all your
papers, all your archives.’

“The leaders said, ‘Of course, we would love to — please take everything.’ What else would you say to Saddam Hussein?”

There
are understandable fears that the archive will be mistreated if it is
returned to the country, with concern centred on how Jewish shrines in
the country have been treated — in particular, the shrine of the prophet
Ezekiel — since 2003.

“Nouri al-Maliki [Prime Minister of Iraq
from 2006-2014] gave a tender to an Iranian company,” Mr Shuker
explained. “They took over a huge area and constructed a very large
mosque, which completely incorporated the shrine of Ezekiel. The graves
were desecrated, the bones thrown out.”

Despite the agreement
being that the archived items would be returned in September 2018, Mr
Shuker told the audience, “We have been managing to delay the sending
back by telling the US State Department, ‘We will hold you responsible
if these archives go back to the same sewage waste that they came out
of. What guarantee have we got that they are actually going to be
treasured?’”

He confirmed that there had been a “three-year
extension, which is not yet formal, you will not see it on the
internet… to allow the Iraqis to come up with a proposal as to where
are they going to keep it, how are they going to make it accessible —
especially to the owners of those things, so that Edwin Shuker can take
his son and say, ‘This is my certificate, this is the place they took
from me’ — is that going to be open for us?”

However, Mr Shuker suggested that there were grounds for hope.

He
described how “the new Culture Minister of Iraq, appointed last
Tuesday, is a wise, kind man who loves our culture — many of us can call
him a friend.”

He also cited an upcoming deal in Egypt which
might provide a road map for other Arab countries in dealing with this
issue. “In the next few weeks, the Egyptian government will announce
that it is going to take over responsibility for the upkeep of certain
synagogues,” adding there will also be a new board which will include
members of Egypt’s tiny remaining Jewish community as well as
experienced former members of Egypt’s Jewish community who now live in
the diaspora.

Whether other countries will follow suit remains to be seen, but in Iraq, certainly, such an initiative seems needed.

“There are fifty-four synagogue properties in Baghdad alone,” Mr Shuker said.

“And in the basement of the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad, there are 400 Sifrei Torah”.

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