At the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, 24 items from the Iraqi Jewish Archive have just gone on display. I attended the February 3 opening of the exhibit, entitled “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage.” It included a 16th century Hebrew Bible, a hand-lettered Passover Haggadah from 1902, and a 1967 school transcript for an Iraqi Jewish boy. These items weren’t just beautiful to behold. They were also deeply political.
In 2003, U.S. troops discovered over 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents in the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters. Iraq agreed to have these moldy artifacts shipped off for restoration at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. — on the condition that the U.S. State Department would later return them. That return is scheduled to take place this June.
But Jewish organizations want Congress to renegotiate the agreement, and they’re pushing a resolution that now has 10 co-sponsors in the Senate. They, and many of the Iraqi Jews present at the New York opening, believe the trove should stay in America.
As an Iraqi Jew, I couldn’t disagree more.
The three main arguments for keeping the trove here go something like this. First, Iraq stole these artifacts from the Jews; that makes these Jews (or their descendants) their rightful owners. Second, Iraq persecuted its Jews to the point of extinction; why should they get to keep our things? Third, nowadays only about five Jews remain in Iraq, a country that most of world Jewry cannot easily visit; shouldn’t the artifacts be kept someplace accessible?
My response? No, no and no.
However much we as Iraqi Jews may resent having had this property stolen from us (and believe me, I’m not pleased about it), the only reason we’re seeing it now is because the State Department got it out of Iraq by promising, ultimately, to send it back there. There’s a word for people who take stuff, promise to return it, and then don’t. It’s called stealing.
It’s also called cultural imperialism. Hauling these precious artifacts out of Iraq and into an American gallery brings to mind the Egyptian artifacts that were taken out of their native country to fill the display halls of the British Museum. After all that the U.S. forces did in Iraq — including creating the unstable conditions that led to the plundering of that country’s National Museum in 2003 — we should blush at the thought of expropriating this archive for our own museums.