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Britain Just Returned Iraqi Artifacts. What Does That Mean For The Jewish Archive?

The eight artifacts were found in London in 2003, the same year in which Iraq’s National Museum was looted in the wake of the American invasion.

Between 2,000 and 5,000 years old, the sacred objects — which include clay cones inscribed with cuneiform script, a shard of a ceremonial weapon and a marble pendant — were separate from that loot, coming instead from the southern Iraqi site of Tello, where the Sumerian city Girsu was abandoned two millennia ago. But they arrived in Britain as part of the same wave of smuggled antiquities that followed the plundering of the museum, a cultural exodus that, 15 years later, Iraq is still attempting to redress.

As The New York Times reports, the objects from Tello are the first items stolen from Iraq to be returned from Britain in years. After being retrieved from a dealer who could not prove ownership of the items, they were in the possession of the London police for over a decade. No one made claims to them, so the police gave them to the British Museum to analyze this year. They were given to Iraqi officials in London on August 10.

The return of eight objects may not seem like a matter of inordinate significance, but in context of Iraq’s ongoing endeavor to reconstruct its cultural heritage, it marks an important development. In 2003, an estimated 15,000 items were looted from Iraq’s National Museum alone. The National Museum did not officially reopen until February, 2015. In a disheartening demonstration of the long-lasting effects of the 2003 invasion — and the ways in which the resulting political instability imperiled Iraq’s cultural heritage — the BBC reported that the museum’s opening occurred ahead of schedule, in response to ISIS’s destruction of antiquities in Mosul. This past March, The Atlantic’s Sigal Samuel, formerly of the Forward, reported that approximately 8,000 of the items stolen from the museum had yet to be tracked down. When it came to the thousands of antiquities looted from other sites — like those from Trello — Samuel wrote that most remained at large.

In this landscape, the Iraqi interest in recovering the Iraqi Jewish Archive, a collection of objects and documents from Iraq’s former Jewish community that has been in the United States since 2003, takes on new meaning. The archive was brought to the U.S. under a diplomatic agreement, rather than looted; its stay here has been prolonged by similar agreements. Its provenance is complicated; while the Iraqi government claims ownership of it, much of it was seized from the Iraqi Jewish community when that community was forced to leave Iraq beginning in the 1950s.

Yet despite its unique and complicated place in the broad collection of culturally significant items removed from Iraq in the course of and after the U.S. invasion, the Iraqi Jewish Archive is indisputably part of that collection. And as part of that collection, it has significance to Iraq beyond that which Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, Fareed Yasseen, discussed with me for a series on the Iraqi Jewish Archive. For Iraq, Yasseen said, the exile of the Jewish community is now a reminder of the broad attacks on Iraq’s minority communities executed by the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, and the Iraqi Jewish Archive is an important reflection of Iraq’s diverse history. As I noted in the series, Yasseen did not discuss the aliyah of Iraqi Jews to Israel between 1950 and 1951, in which the vast majority of Iraq’s Jews left the country voluntarily but under significant duress.

While the Iraqi Jewish Archive is currently scheduled to be returned to Iraq in September, there are efforts underway to retain it in the In July, U.S. Senators Pat Toobin, Chuck Schumer and Richard Blumenthal introduced a resolution nearly identical to one unanimously passed by the Senate in 2014, which called on the State Department to negotiate an agreement over the archive’s future that would not result in its return to Iraq. The State Department is reportedly investigating means by which to keep the archive in the U.S. past September. Whether or not either of these efforts will affect the long-term fate of the archive is dubious. As I wrote following the introduction of Toobin, Schumer and Blumenthal’s resolution, even if the Senate were to pass the resolution, it will have no binding legal effect.

Yet another force, linked to the U.K. repatriation of the Tello artifacts, is positioned to influence the archive’s future. The repatriation of the Tello artifacts is only the latest example of the ways, in recent months, in which international efforts to assist Iraq in its attempted reassembly of stolen antiquities have ramped up. Most notably, in May the United States returned around 3,800 of some 5,500 looted Iraqi artifacts that Hobby Lobby had purchased in 2010. (Along with yielding the artifacts, Hobby Lobby paid the federal government a $3 million fine, among other penalties.) It is apparent that the international community is placing a renewed focus on Iraq’s struggle to retrieve the many lost items of its cultural heritage. Under those circumstances, it’s unclear whether there might be international support for a move to restrain objects of Iraqi heritage from being returned to Iraq.

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