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.
To those who argue that Iraq viciously persecuted its Jews, I say: Trust me, I know. My Baghdadi grandfather and his brother were so desperate to escape the persecution that followed the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that they sneaked out of Iraq and into Israel.
But this period of horrible mistreatment doesn’t mean we should empty the country of Jewish artifacts. Spain persecuted and ultimately expelled its Jews in 1492. That doesn’t mean I want all remnants of Spanish Jewish life hauled out of there and into the U.S. Same goes for Germany. Same goes for a lot of countries.
As for the accessibility argument, I understand that returning the archive to Iraq would make it difficult or impossible for most Jews — particularly Israelis — to safely access it. But even though I myself am saddled with an Israeli name and citizenship, I still don’t think this is an argument for keeping the archive in the U.S. I think it’s an argument for digitization — a process that’s already underway. Or it’s an argument for setting up loans, which would allow the exhibit to be housed permanently in Iraq but travel every few years to this or that Jewish population center.
In digital-age America, we take it for granted that everything we love should be at our fingertips. But relinquishing that luxury sometimes comes with distinct advantages. When it comes to returning this trove to Iraq, the advantages are clear: There, it will serve a vital educational purpose, both for world Jewry and for non-Jewish Iraq.
Returning the archive will remind world Jewry that we once thrived in Arab countries like Iraq, where we wrote the foundational Babylonian Talmud and established the legendary yeshivot of Sura and Pumbedita. In an era when the Ashkenazi narrative still dominates over Sephardi and Mizrachi ones, it’s important to decentralize our idea of what Judaism looks like and of where it can, and did, flourish. Placing actual geographical distance between this archive and us can help us internalize the fact that — guess what? — Manhattan isn’t the cradle of all of Jewish civilization. And in an era when the Arab world is consistently depicted as Jew-hating, physically locating this trove in Arab space can help us recall that we ourselves once lived there very happily indeed.
It’s also important to remind the Iraqis that we were there — in their banks, governments, academies and art scenes. With nationalist regimes, there’s always the worry that the shapers of collective memory will begin to write Jews out of their history books. This archive will help preempt that erasure. It will also remind Iraqis of the horror they wrought when they destroyed our community. Much like we prompt Europe to remember Kristallnacht, we should prompt Iraq to remember the 1941 Farhud pogrom carried out against Baghdadi Jews, by keeping — not removing — facts on the ground.
And, speaking of Europe, there’s one more advantage to be reaped from sticking to America’s original agreement with Iraq: It just might help build trust. After all, these days, Jews are returning to European countries — like Spain and Germany — that once sought to get rid of them. It’s not impossible that Jews will once again return to Iraq — at least, as visitors who are not automatically viewed as subjects of suspicion. But every time we break a promise, that possibility grows a little more distant.
So let the archive go back to Iraq. Let it be an example of a promise America made — and we kept.
Sigal Samuel is the former Opinion Editor at the Forward. When she’s not tackling race or identity politics, she’s hunting down her Indian Jewish family’s Kabbalistic secret society. Her novel THE MYSTICS OF MILE END tells the story of a dysfunctional family with a dangerous mystical obsession. Her writing has also appeared in The Daily Beast, The Rumpus, and BuzzFeed. Follow Sigal on Twitter.