By Ben Cohen/JNS.org –
Click photo to download. Caption: Before treatment by the National Archives and Records Administration, a Passover haggadah from 1902 recovered from the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s Intelligence Headquarters. The haggadah is part of what has become known as the Iraqi Jewish Archive. Credit: National Archives and Records Administration.
When I last wrote about the archive of Jewish treasures from Iraq rescued by U.S. forces in Baghdad in 2003, I noted that the prevalent opinion among Iraqi Jews—a community from which I hail on my father’s side—was that the books, photographs, scrolls, writings, and communal documents in this extraordinary collection should remain in America, rather than being returned to Iraq. I then argued that while his view couldn’t be faulted on legal or moral grounds, I nonetheless wished that the situation were different, and that Iraq could celebrate its Jewish heritage in the manner that European countries like Poland and Germany do with theirs.
Since the vexed question of who owns this collection, known as the “Iraqi Jewish Archive,” remains a live one, I want to outline some further thoughts on the issue. But before I do, it’s worth summarizing the current state of discussions over the archive between the U.S. and Iraqi governments.
The Jewish artifacts had been set to return to Iraq in June, in accordance with a 2003 U.S.-Iraq agreement that said the materials would return to Iraq after their restoration in America was complete. But in a major development on May 14, Lukman Faily, the Iraqi ambassador to the U.S., said in a statement that the government of Iraq had authorized him to extend the exhibition of the materials in the U.S. The decision, Faily explained, was based on the recognition that the exhibit has led to “an increase of understanding between Iraq and United States and a greater recognition of the diverse heritage of Iraq.”
Not mentioned was another, perhaps more pertinent, consideration: the archive has been the subject of an intense political battle in America that may end up in the courts. The key reason for this is the fact that the archive was seized by Saddam Hussein’s feared Mukhabarat secret police from a Baghdad synagogue in 1984—a good three decades after the vast majority of Jews had been driven out of Iraq. If the archive was stolen by the Ba’athist regime, then by that logic, the present Iraqi government cannot unambiguously claim ownership of it; indeed, there’s a strong case to be made that the true owner is the Iraqi Jewish community, through its representative organizations.
That was certainly the thrust behind the U.S. Senate resolution passed in February, which “strongly recommends” that the original agreement between the American and Iraqi authorities to return the archive to Iraq be negotiated afresh. Critically, that resolution asserted that “the Iraqi Jewish Archive should be housed in a location that is accessible to scholars and to Iraqi Jews and their descendants”—a position that would preclude the permanent location of the archive in Iraq itself, given that …read more