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The Iraqi Jewish Archive

To whom do antiquities belong? Are they the property of modern states, current proprietors of the real estate where they were created, however many centuries or millennia ago? Do they belong to the descendants of those who created them, to the extent these can be identified? Or are they somehow the heritage of "all mankind"?

Relevant Links
Preservation Report  Steven Lee Myers, Middle East Librarians Association. An account of the recovery and initial preservation of the Iraqi Jewish Archive, and a plan and proposed budget for securing it permanently. (With photos.)
Iraqi Treasures  Steven Lee Myers, New York Times. Looted artifacts from Iraq have been repatriated, but, once there, many have gone missing and the fate of others is in question.

For Jews, these questions took on flesh in 2003 in the flooded basement of a building belonging to the Iraqi secret police. There, American soldiers searching for clues to Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction came upon an even stranger sight: a waterlogged trove that had once belonged to Iraq's Jewish community.

The Iraqi Jewish Archive, as it became known, is both proud and pitiful. The earliest item dates to 1568, but most of the other materials are from the late-19th and early-20th centuries: Judeo-Arabic manuscripts, Torah scrolls and mantles, children's primers, family photographs, letters, all seized from Iraq's long-banished Jews. Through a confluence of initiatives involving the U.S. military, the Iraqi opposition, the Coalition Provisional Authority, and the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, the trove was transported to the U.S. where it was freeze-dried, conserved, and photographed. It remains in the charge of the National Archives and Records Administration and the Center for Jewish History. Although basic cataloging has been done, more extensive preservation and digitization await funding and a resolution of the archive's fate.

Representatives of the Iraqi Jewish community in Israel have staked a claim to the trove. But so, for its part, has Iraq itself, whose new Minister of Tourism and Antiquities has named the return of the archive as a top priority. After all, countless items looted from Iraq's museums and archaeological sites, from ancient tablets to Saddam's gold plated AK-47, have already been restored. Why not the Iraqi Jewish Archive?

Indeed, Western democracies have lately become accustomed to such demands. The Elgin Marbles, their fate still undecided, are the most famous example, but countless objects have already been repatriated to countries ranging from Peru to China, sometimes before requests were entered. Even outright gifts, like Cleopatra's Needle in New York's Central Park, are on the list of Zahi Hawass, the Egyptian pharaoh of archaeology who travels the world demanding that every object ever created in Egypt be returned or otherwise made subject to his personal decision.

Scholars and intellectuals have largely acceded to these demands out of post-colonial guilt and fear of losing access to excavation permits. "Retentionists," who wish to keep antiquities in the West, have been accused of greed; having stolen other peoples' legacies, they now defy international law and public sentiment. To this one might respond that the demands themselves often seem more about exercising political power in the present than about preserving the past—and in any case they are of dubious relevance to the Iraqi Jewish Archive.

What is true is that the Jewish community in what is now Iraq is of ancient and distinguished lineage—more ancient than any other outside the Holy Land. For more than 2,500 years, from the Assyrian conquest of Israel and then the Babylonian conquest of Judah, Jews resided along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates as an integral minority, and by the 20th century had long learned to accommodate themselves to new rulers and new empires washing back and forth. But in the race unleashed by the British after their conquest of the territory, Jews along with Christians, Kurds, and other minorities were soon crushed by Muslim supremacism, now cloaked in the name of Iraqi nationalism.

The process of dispossessing Jews from the new state of Iraq began almost immediately with the dismissal of Jewish officials in 1934 and 1936, unofficially complemented by bombings of Jewish establishments in 1936 and 1938 and culminating in the Farhud massacre of June 1941. The official process intensified with the criminalization of Zionism in 1948. A year later, Prime Minister Nuri as-Said was describing to foreign diplomats a plan to expel Iraq's Jews. The climax occurred with a 1950 bill on de-naturalization, confiscating the property of Jews who emigrated, and the bombing of Baghdad's Masuda Shemtob synagogue in January 1951.

By March 1951, 120,000 Jews had left Iraq, being permitted to take with them no more than 50 pounds sterling per adult and 20 per child. In 1952, the gates were closed. In 1963, Jews were forbidden to sell property. After the Six-Day war of 1967, Jews were dismissed from jobs, their property seized, bank accounts frozen, and telephones disconnected. Jews were hanged as alleged spies in 1968 and 1969. By the 1970s, the few remaining Jews were permitted to leave after being pressured to turn over title to property. When the Americans arrived in 2003, perhaps two or three dozen remained.

By what right should a society that barely tolerated and then expelled its Jews, and that loathes and forbids the presence of Jews now, be given 27 cases of Jewish documents and books? Saad Eskander, the director of the Iraq National Library and Archives, has stated one rationale: "Iraqis must know that we are a diverse people, with different traditions, different religions, and we need to accept this diversity . . . [and] that Baghdad was always multiethnic." A glance at the headlines from Iraq suggests that such noble aspirations are increasingly belied by reality.

Besides, should the materials be returned to Iraq, what assurances are there that anyone, much less Jews, will have access to them? What assurances that the materials will be preserved at all? Countless artifacts from Israeli excavations in Sinai were returned to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace agreement. No one knows their fate, but rumors have long circulated that they were simply dumped alongside the road. Similar proposals have been made regarding artifacts, even demonstrably Jewish ones, excavated in the West Bank, which Israel is being urged to turn over to the Palestinian Authority as a confidence-building measure. Intellectuals, who in other settings deplore "politicization" of the past, are usually at the forefront of such seemingly therapeutic schemes. 

Free societies, with their competing interests and concerns, do a mixed but on the whole creditable job of maintaining their pasts. Unfree societies, thanks to corruption and racism, typically do a very poor job, and when they do make an effort, as in Iraq under Saddam, it is in furtherance of the regime's dictatorial and repressive aims.

International refugee law provides for "non-refoulment": that is, refugees must not be returned to a situation where they would be put in jeopardy. Might a similar principle be considered for antiquities? Could it be asserted that unfree states forfeit their claims to antiquities, particularly those originating with minorities they have expunged or exterminated, and against whom they discriminate in the present? The legal dimensions remain to be explored; in the meantime, like many of the Jews who created it, the Iraqi Jewish Archive lingers in exile—so far, thankfully, in a free country. 

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. 

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Independent Patriot/Elise on January 24, 2011 at 7:55 am (Reply)
It is beyond repugnant that the US State Department would even consider returning these ancient Jewish artifacts to the government of Iraq. This is the same government that recently desecrated the burial site of a Jewish prophet, besides being the inheritors of a virulent form of antisemitism, whereby practically the entire Jewish community was expelled. There is no more respect for the history of the Jews of Iraq than there is for the Christians who are now being slaughtered in Iraq.However, unlike the Christians, luckily the overwhelming majority of Iraqi Jews were able to escape their tormentors.They had somewhere to go. Israel has proven its purpose.

The problem is that the world has decided to declare who the Jewish people are once again. It doesn't matter that we, consider ourselves a separate ethnic, cultural and religious group, and were treated that way for millenniums by the nations states where we lived. The US State Department has decided to declare us no more than any other religion, indigenous to the nation that we are born. That they want to ignore the reality of history is one thing, but this has huge implications for the Middle East and the right of Israel to exist (which the State Department knows full well). I have mentioned before that I find it ironic, that those who seek our destruction are the first to define us, taking from us the human right to define ourselves. That in and of itself speaks volumes about the inherent antisemitism of the US State Department and the Iraqi government.

The Jewish people are entitled to their treasures. These treasures do not belong to our Arab persecutors anymore than our treasures belong to our German persecutors.Ironically it doesn't seem to matter what the Jewish people happen to say on the matter. Why do we accept that?
Elliott Green on January 24, 2011 at 11:36 am (Reply)
This is an important issue, Alex. It reminds me of the Biblical quote: Did you murder and also inherit [from your victims]? הרצחתם וגם ירשתם

That is what Iraq did. Furthermore, these old documents and artifacts were not discovered in archeological digs, and thus, in a sense, unowned. They were confiscated, that is, legally stolen, from their owners, the Iraqi Jewish community organizations and private Iraqi Jewish owners. And all this happened in living memory, in the lifetimes of living people. Justice means returning these artifacts to their owners. The new post-Saddam, post-Ba`ath Iraqi govt cannot continue to pursue Saddam's anti-Jewish policy --indeed Nuri Said's policy too-- and claim to be different from Saddam and Nuri in regard to the Jews.
Moshe on January 24, 2011 at 12:30 pm (Reply)
Who said the jews owned these documents? All of a sudden they belong to the Jews?

I own a Russian Icon. All of a sudden it belongs to the Russians?

Pay the Iraqis $50Million and the documents are yours!

Otherwise prove ownership.
American Allen on January 24, 2011 at 12:44 pm (Reply)
Iraq's crimes were of course an awful reality, but as long as we put historical rhetoric ahead of initiatives for change, we perpetuate hate. The Iraqi Jewish community in Israel, as well as the new government in Iraq put there by the west, have legitimate claims to these items. I would rather see them become a symbol of tolerance on both sides and be displayed with respect in Iraq, than to be hijacked as a symbol of revenge.
Liz on January 24, 2011 at 2:20 pm (Reply)
The U.S. State Dept. is incapable of ethical or moral action when it comes to anything related to Jews. Furthermore, if the new Iraq is serious about its commitment to diversity, let it make a public apology to the Jews whose property and lives were stolen, both by other Iraqis and the state. Finally, to celebrate and honor its Jewish minority, Iraq should return the stolen and neglected treasures to appointed representatives of that community. Doing so will ensure the objects and materials are safe in the hands of those most invested in seeing them properly cared for, respected and restored.
Karl on January 24, 2011 at 6:13 pm (Reply)
To get closer to truth - replace "all of the suden" with "always" belonged to Jews. If your Russian icon was stolen from Russia - it doesn't belong to you no more than a stolen car that you bought from an unrigthful owner. The Jews of Iraq can prove legal ownership of a lot of looted property in Iraq, at least as much (probably much more) than Palestinian Arabs can do in the "Land of the Philistines", but somehow you don't hear about this in the media- strange but true...
skndoc on January 25, 2011 at 9:15 am (Reply)
Moshe, what's the likelihood that Judeo-Arabic manuscripts, Torah scrolls and mantles, children's primers, family photographs, letters, all seized from Iraq's long-banished Jews, did NOT belong to Jews?
Guest on January 26, 2011 at 9:50 am (Reply)
>Who said the jews owned these documents? All of a sudden they belong to the Jews?

>I own a Russian Icon. All of a sudden it belongs to the Russians?

>Pay the Iraqis $50Million and the documents are yours!

>Otherwise prove ownership.

It wouldn't be valued at $50 million. Once we're making up numbers, why not say it's worth $3 billion, or $20?

You make a very good point. At the time the documents were taken they were in water in the basement of the Iraqi secret police. Today they are in the US. Let the Iraqis prove their ownership if they want to take it.
Elliott Green on January 30, 2011 at 1:10 pm (Reply)
So Guest, what you are saying is that if the Iraqi secret police stole property from the Jews in Baghdad, both personal and communal property, it doesn't belong to the Jews anymore but to the Iraqi state. That opinion is outrageous. You're saying that once a thief gets hold of stolen property, it's his forever. These are not archeological remains found in situ, but property stolen in the lifetime of living people.

By the way, there is another issue of Jewish holy places in Iraq, Iran, and other Muslim-ruled lands that have been usurped or are in danger of being usurped by local Muslims or Muslim govts. That's another issue.
Guest on January 31, 2011 at 10:40 am (Reply)
>So Guest, what you are saying is that if the Iraqi secret police stole property from the Jews in Baghdad, both personal and communal property, it doesn't belong to the Jews anymore but to the Iraqi state.

Of course not. That's what *Moshe* was saying. I was giving my modest proposal, that if Moshe is right then really it belongs to whoever has it at the moment, in this case now it's in the US. Clearly he doesn't agree that it belongs to the US simply because that is where it is right now, therefore it also doesn't belong to Iraq, and certainly should not be ransomed from them for his stupid, inflated, arbitrary number of $50 million.
Anonymous on February 23, 2011 at 11:29 am (Reply)
The author neglects to mention that Saddam encouraged Iraq's Jews to leave not because of anti-Semitism, rather because he was angered by the creation of the state of Israel. In fact, Iraqis to this day mourn the loss of the Jewish population. Yes, that is the truth. I have spent a great deal of time in that country, am American and half Jewish, and have not once encountered anti-Semitism. Iraqis of all faiths distinguish between faith and politics when it comes to Jews and Israel. There is a deep respect for Judaism and the contribution of Jewish people to the history and culture of Iraq. Christian and Muslim Iraqis guard and lovingly take care of the shrines of Jewish prophets. I have witnessed this myself. Judaism is a valued part of the fabric of Iraq's history and culture, indeed part of the ethnic fabric of Iraq as the remaining religious minorities are Semitic not Arab people. Not to mention that Abraham was born in ancient Iraq. This archive should be returned to its rightful home.
Karl on February 23, 2011 at 6:48 pm (Reply)
To Anonymous,
Assuming this is all true (my Jewish-Iraqis friends told me quite different stories), do the Iraqis doubt the right of their honoured Jewish friends to have their own Jewish country (Israel)and to take their heritage with them instead of letting it to respectfully rot in some Iraqi basement?
bataween on February 24, 2011 at 2:58 am (Reply)
Since when is 'anger at the creation of the state of Israel'20 years earlier a good reason for Saddam to persecute the few thousand Jewish citizens still in Iraq after 1968? He executed 9 Jews and was responsible for the torture and disappearance of dozens more. He froze their property and bank accounts and banned them from universities. Those who could fled.
If you encountered no antisemitism in Iraq that is because there are hardly any Jews left. As for Jewish shrines, they are all in ruins except for one or two which have been converted in mosques, or where (Ezekiel) there is a plan to do so.
Anonymous on February 24, 2011 at 12:19 pm (Reply)
To Karl,
I have met Iraqi Jews who miss their homeland, yes, consider Iraq to be their homeland, so I guess there are different perspectives and probably different personal journeys. The archive will not "rot in some Iraqi basement." The National Library in Baghdad, which I have visited, is a respected institution. They have Jewish texts which are very carefully archived.
To bataween,
Please keep in mind that Saddam was persecuting just about everyone. Kurds, Christians, Iraqis in general. As I said before, it was about Israel not Judaism. I also beg to differ about the reason there is no anti-Semitism in Iraq (apart from Muslim extremists but they have it out for all non-Muslims not just the Jews.) Finally, this is not true about the shrines. I have been to two of the important shrines. One is protected by a Christian family, the other by Muslims. The structure of one of these is indeed in bad shape. The shrine is in a dangerous area so restoration is tricky...who will fund it, which historic preservationists will oversee the project, and which laborers can be trusted to work on it without drawing terrorist attention to the place?
You would be very surprised to see the reality on the ground, which does not correspond to the modern mythology about Iraq.
Elliott Green on February 24, 2011 at 4:50 pm (Reply)
Anon, try to think a little harder than you have done so far. Now, historically and traditionally the Jews have been considered a nation by themselves and others. This view appears, by the way, in the Quran too. So telling us, "it was about Israel not Judaism" shows a certain ignorance about history. But let's deal with your argument directly. If Saddam's treatment of Jews was only "about Israel," not about a person being a Jew, then why did Saddam persecute Jews who had stayed in Iraq? You should know that most Iraqi Jews left in 1949-1951. Why did Saddam persecute the Jews who had not left? They had not gone to Israel, obviously. They seem to have been willing to stay in Iraq and be loyal to that country and its govt. Why did he persecute them?

Then by what right do you declare that Iraq is the "rightful home" of the Iraqi Jewish archives? As virtually no native Iraqi Jews remain in Iraq, the archives should go where the bulk of them are now, that is, Israel. In any case, these archives are Jewish property, private and communal, which was stolen by the Iraqi govt.

Further, you say that you are "American and half Jewish, and have not once encountered anti-Semitism." Well, maybe being American explains why Iraqis were polite --or perhaps even kind and generous with you. You belonged to the nation that conquered Iraq, for good or for ill. People whose country has been conquered usually like to get on the good side of members of the conquering nation. By the way, I don't know if you --self-identified as a "half-Jew"-- ever experienced antisemitism in the United States, at least antisemitism that you were aware of. I spent much time in the US and I did experience antisemitism there. Maybe you're not aware that things like that happen even in America.
Anonymous on February 24, 2011 at 6:19 pm (Reply)
Elliott, have you ever been to Iraq? I am not making this up. I have spent a great deal of time there since 2004, and I have been vigilant re anti-semitism. While Jews maybe a de facto nation, the state of Israel is a country with borders, a physical and political entity. Saddam's hobby was persecution. He persecuted everyone, especially smaller groups. He was crazy. Before this invasion Iraq was a secular country. The population did not persecute the Jews nor force them to flee, Saddam did that because of his political views. Big difference. The archive was not stolen by the Iraqi government! It has been in Iraq since its creation, because it was created by Iraqis. They were Jewish, but they were also Iraqis! They were not Israelis. Not all Jews are Israelis, and Jewish does not = Israel.
FYI Iraqis are NOT happy with America or Americans. The Kurds are, kind of, but that's another story. We screwed up their country. Millions of lives have been lost or ruined. So being an American does not make it easy for me to be there, or make people automatically friendly. Atually, it's easier to get kidnapped if you're American.
About me, yes I have experienced anti-Semitism, even in my own family. Some (not all) on my father's side of the family have had nothing to do with me because my mother is Jewish. I was never invited to my uncle's home, and an aunt was almost as bad.
What's wrong with saying I'm half Jewish? It's true.
karl on February 24, 2011 at 7:08 pm (Reply)
I am not a historian but what I know is that Iraq, and therefore the nation of Iraq was invented by the British colonial power (I think Churchill). I don't think that area and its people called themself Iraqis before(?). Iraq's appropriation of former cultural heritage such as Sumerian, Akkadian and Babylonian maybe is justified, because those nations no longer exist, but this is definitely not the case with Assyrian and Jewish cultures which still exist.
Long before Israel was founded Iraqi Jews were discriminated and subjected to pogroms (from the1930s). In 1948, well before Saddam(!), Iraq sent troops in the attempt to annihilate the new state of Israel and the persecution of Jews increased.
Do you dispute any of those facts?
The only Iraqi Jews I know are Israelis and the only thing they want from Iraq is the return of their lost properties looted, confiscated and destroyed by Iraqis. I somehow doubt that their relatives in US and other places think differently.
But having said that I would still think the Iraqi Jews will be happy to visit their old homes if indeed the Arab Iraqis are so friendly as you say. The best way to show their friendliness is to recognise Israel as the country of the Jews and to start talking about restoration of Jewish property in Iraq- would you propose this to your Arab Iraqi friends next time you talk to them?
Anonymous on February 24, 2011 at 11:59 pm (Reply)
You are correct in saying that the British drew those borders. Before then the region was called Mesopotamia. In fact, those ancient cultures do endure. They are no longer called Sumerian and Babylonian, but their non-Arab descendants still practice ancient traditions, and one community's liturgical language is a Babylonian-era dialect of Aramaic. Akkadian was not a nation rather it was a language, which is now extinct.
Assyrians, and these other cultures, also suffered pogroms and persecution like the Jews. However, despite the sometimes ugly vicissitudes of politics and Islamic influence, Iraq was always known for its diversity. This is changing now. What happened to the Jews is happening to all the non-Muslim, non-Arab people in Iraq. Ethnic cleansing. You are right that Saddam was furious about the creation of the state of Israel. That is why he asked the Jews to leave. I have never heard stories about the people of Iraq turning on the Jews. Now the Muslim extremists are turning on Iraq's Semitic, non-Arab, non-Muslim people and no one is saying a word, not even the Iraqi Jews who are really their cousins.
Yes, I have met Iraqi Jews who feel differently than your friends. I have also never heard an Iraqi of any faith deny that Israel is the the country of the Jews.
Mesopotamia, now known as Iraq, was where Abraham lived, and Noah, Jonah, Ezra, and Ezekiel, where so much of this very early history took place, where many traditions and beliefs originated, and where much of the Torah was written. All of this happened in Iraq. Israel does not own all of Jewish history.
bataween on February 26, 2011 at 3:55 am (Reply)
You are right that Israel does not own all of Jewish history, nor has it ever claimed to do so. It is the Arab Muslims who claim all the region's history, to the exclusion of its rich fabric of fast disappearing non-Arab and non-Muslim religions and sects. The Jews were the first victims of Arab/Muslim ethnic cleansing but they will not be the last.
However you are deluding yourself if you have never heard stories about the people of Iraq turning on the Jews. How about the Farhud of 1941 when hundreds of Jews were murdered in cold blood?
morris on July 17, 2011 at 8:07 pm (Reply)
Re. Anonymous:
There is a lot of after-the-fact appreciation for Jewish culture in Poland these days. Notice how people become nostalgic only once they've turned their backs on their Jews. I would suggest that, in the even that you tell the truth - Iraqis supposedly LOVE jews - it is a nostalgic love, not a substantive one.

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