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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Jewish organizations have long been concerned about artifacts belonging to extinct communities. Members of the Iraqi Diaspora look at looted Jewish property and art from the Nazi era as an example of goods taken unlawfully that have been returned to their owners. Other cases are more complex. They include the Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s bid for ownership of 40,000 books and manuscripts collected by Rabbi Joseph Schneerson, the Hasidic group’s sixth grand rabbi, that are now held by Russia, and the claim by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research for a historic Yiddish book library in Lithuania.

Winning a legal battle for keeping the Iraqi Jewish archives in America won’t be easy, international lawyer Allan Gerson said. He explained that a U.S. court will not agree to judge the legality of actions taken by the Iraqi regime that seized the archives. The fact that the U.S. government signed an agreement promising to return them makes things even harder, he said. But he added that these obstacles “are not insurmountable.”

Still, given their daunting legal odds, activists pushing to keep the artifacts here are trying to avoid taking the case to court. Rhode suggested making the digital images of the artifacts available online and open to the Iraqi government, while leaving the objects in the United States. Basri said she supports setting up a commission to locate owners of the objects while signing a long-term loan agreement with the Iraqis.

The State Department, on the other hand, believes it can satisfy all sides by adhering to the agreement and ensuring that the collection is treated with care when returned to Iraq. To this end, the department is bringing Iraqi conservation specialists to learn from National Archives experts.

The battle over the archives’ fate could lead to a broader examination of Iraqi Jewish property. Activists and Jewish groups have pointed to a locked storage room in the Iraqi historical museum that contains, according to estimates, some 500 Torah scrolls. In Iraqi Jewish tradition, individuals in the community whose names are written inside the tik, the hard Torah case, owned the scrolls. This, members of the community believe, could make locating the owners possible, if and when access to the scrolls is allowed.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com or on Twitter, @nathanguttman

This article was amended on November 4 to indicate that Iraqi scrolls are covered by a tik not an embroidered cloth.


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