Should Iraq's Jewish Archives Stay in U.S.?

Ancient Community's Records Rescued During Saddam Hussein War

Echoes of Lost Civilization: An Iraqi employee examines a document in the Jewish archives in Baghdad. Should the collection stay in the U.S., or be returned to its homeland?
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Echoes of Lost Civilization: An Iraqi employee examines a document in the Jewish archives in Baghdad. Should the collection stay in the U.S., or be returned to its homeland?

By Nathan Guttman

Published November 03, 2013, issue of November 08, 2013.
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Rhode believes that the Jewish cultural and religious documents were not there by chance. “It all has to do with humiliation,” he said in an interview with the Forward. In the mid-1980s, Saddam raided Baghdad’s last standing synagogue and looted the documents and religious artifacts. He did so, Rhode said, to degrade the Jewish community. That is also the way Saddam stored the archives in the building’s basement: “It simply mentalizes that you put it below. It is done to humiliate, to embarrass; this is the key.”

The archives found by the U.S. search team were drenched in water and growing mold. And the road to restoring them has proved arduous.

Initially, the controversial Iraqi opposition leader Ahmad Chalabi provided funds for rescuing the archives. Then, after a persuasion process that even included a call from Natan Sharansky, then an Israeli cabinet member, to Vice President Dick Cheney, the U.S. government took on the project. Experts at the National Archives phoned in instructions on emergency restoration, and the military provided help in getting the papers dried, frozen and flown to Texas for further work.

On August 5, 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority, which was in charge of Iraq after the war, signed an agreement with the National Archives allowing the transfer of the archives to the United States for preservation and exhibition. The agreement stated that the archives would be returned to the custody of the Iraqis once the process was completed. An August 17, 2003 letter to Ambassador Paul Bremer, head of the CPA, from Jaber Khalil Ibrahim, chair of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, approved the removal of the archives “under the condition that following the restoration the documents are returned to Iraq.”

It is this contract that activists now seek to overturn.

“Agreements can be amended, agreements can be renegotiated, agreements can be scratched and discussed again,” said Michael Salberg, international affairs director of the Anti-Defamation League. The group has joined with Sephardic Jewish advocacy groups and organizations of Iraqi Jews in calling for the artifacts not to be sent to Iraq when the exhibit closes next year. “This is the second chapter of this great rescue operation,” Salberg said of the campaign to keep the archives in the United States. “The concept that the things that are most sacred to us as a people are considered just a relic of the museum is heartbreaking.”

Several lawmakers joined the call to keep the archives here shortly after the exhibition opened on October 11. “These sacred artifacts were taken from the Iraqi Jewish community and thus do not belong to the Iraqi government,” New York Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat, told the New York Daily News. In the House, Democrat Steve Israel and Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen began collecting signatures on a letter urging the State Department to reconsider its decision to return the objects.

But the administration isn’t budging. “This agreement expressly states that, upon completion of the preservation project and exhibition in the United States, the collection will be returned to the custody of the Government of Iraq,” a State Department official said.

The administration learned of the Jewish community’s objection to the return of the material early on in the process. In 2006, when the first stages of restoration were completed, the State Department reached out to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and to the Center for Jewish History and the American Sephardi Federation, asking for help not only with the restoration, but also with raising an estimated $1 million to fund the program. The Jewish groups said they were willing to provide expert knowledge but would not raise funds for documents that would be returned to Iraq, an activist involved in the talks said.


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