By signing Memoranda of Understanding with Middle East governments and drawing up Red Lists, US institutions have become complicit in the theft of the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples of the Middle East and rubs salt in the wounds of their ethnic cleansing. The most blatant example of this is the US government’s pledge to return the Jewish archive to Iraq, a collection of books and documents belonging to the Iraqi Jews in exile. Carole Basri and David Dangoor write in The Hill:
A 1815 Zohar found in the Iraqi-Jewish archive
This cultural appropriation is taking place because of the Emergency Protection for Iraqi Cultural Antiquities Act of 2004, as amended effective April 30, 2008. Similarly, memorandums of understanding have been signed and enacted as recently as February 2018 for Syria, Egypt and Libya, where Jewish property, history and assets are being appropriated and stolen.
In Yemen, where Jews long have lived in second-class status with the threat of death by senior officials, all but a few Jews have fled the country. Some who fled grabbed what they could, such as religious possessions, but even these ultimately could be returned to Yemen.
On Jan. 31, 2018, the International Council of Museums released a Red List for Yemen that directly targets Hebrew manuscripts and Torah finials. The Red List notes, “Yemeni authorities will ask for the retrieval and the repatriation” of these items. Frequently, issuing a Red List is the first step in a process to hold public hearings and ultimately pass memorandums of understanding between the United States and foreign governments that blockade art and cultural property, denying U.S. citizens the rights to their historic heritage.
With regard to Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, no such decisions, laws or memorandums of understanding should be made with states where Jews were subjected to ethnic cleansing and state-sanctioned anti-Semitism. In Iraq, Nuremberg-like laws led to ethnic cleansing.
The United States can stop aiding and abetting the theft of property, assets and culture. The Iraqi Jewish Archive should return to the private and communal Iraqi Jewish owners, who were not consulted on the expropriation of their property or the agreement to return the property to Iraq.
Additionally, the United States should reverse its policies on the return of personal and communal Jewish assets to countries where Jews are not welcome. Before it is too late, Washington should stop the signing of a memorandum of understanding with the government of Yemen. This is not only a matter of law; it is above all, a matter of justice.