The fate of ancient Jewish archives rescued from war-torn Iraq is at a crossroads. Lyn Julius reports in Jewish Renaissance (October 2018) on the fierce debate over the ownership of Jewish history.
“They stole our lives, they stole our childhood, they stole our memories. Our memories lay in the flooded basement of Saddam’s Intelligence HQ. The government wants to return to an Iraq without Jews what Saddam stole from the Jews of Iraq. Do you want to insult us?”
Writing in the Arabic newspaper Elaph in December 2003, journalist David Kheder Bassoon expressed the anger and frustration felt by Iraqi Jews living outside of their country at the uncertain future of the Jewish archive – the enormous collection of books and manuscripts that document Jewish life in Iraq. This autumn marks the deadline for the return of these materials to Baghdad from where they were rescued by American troops in 2003 and taken to the US.
Under Saddam Hussein, thousands of books, manuscripts and other documents were seized from Jewish homes, schools and synagogues. Much of it was locked away at the headquarters of Iraq’s secret service in Baghdad. In 2003, the archive was discovered in the flooded basement of the building, containing tens of thousands of items including books, religious texts, photographs and personal documents that activists say were looted or left behind by Jews forced to flee the country.
The Americans shipped the archive to Washington DC for restoration and hastily signed a diplomatic agreement promising to return the material to the Iraqi government. The US government spent over $3 million to restore and digitise the archive, which has been exhibited across the country. The collection includes a Hebrew Bible with commentaries from 1568, a Babylonian Talmud from 1793 and an 1815 version of the Jewish mystical text Zohar – as well as more mundane objects such as a Baghdad telephone book.
Although tens of thousands of Iraqi documents were shipped to the US, the Iraqi government has only formalised its claim to 2,700 books and 30,000 documents of the water-stained archive, which it claims are the country’s ‘precious cultural heritage’, a last emotional link with its ancient Jewish community, and a reminder of Iraq’s former diversity.
But over the past five years, the Iraqi Jewish community in exile has been waging a bitter battle to recover the collection and prevent it being sent back to Iraq. They say that to return the archives would be like returning property looted by the Nazis to Germany. Activists argue that the archives should be kept somewhere where they are accessible to Iraqi Jews and their descendants, and question whether Iraq would properly take care of the items were they to be sent back.
A Haggadah found in the Iraqi-Jewish archive
A similar fight is simmering for many Jews of Egyptian origin living abroad. Dozens of volumes, containing every detail of the births, marriages and deaths of Jews from Alexandria and Cairo, and dating back to the middle of the 19th century were once kept in the two main synagogues in each city. But in 2016, government officials arrived unannounced at the synagogues and took away the registers to be stored in the Egyptian National Archives. Access to the records is restricted.
The Egyptian government claims that all Torah scrolls and Jewish archives, libraries, communal registers and any movable property over 100 years old constitutes part of Egypt’s national heritage.
Egyptian Jews living abroad are frustrated that they cannot even obtain photocopies of brit mila (circumcision),marriage and death certificates from these communal records. Such records are often the only formal Jewish identification Egyptian Jews have to prove lineage or identity for burial or marriage. Repeated efforts since 2005 to intercede with the Egyptian authorities have come to nothing.
In this case, the Egyptian government has been supported by the tiny remnant of the Jewish community that remains in the country. The community’s leader, Magda Haroun has made it clear in various TV appearances that her intention is to leave the community’s assets to the government. Last year Haroun helped revive a former Egyptian Jewish charity, A Drop of Milk, turning it into a heritage NGO with the aim of curating the Jewish archive with the approval of the Ministry of Culture. There are plans to transform the former Heliopolis Synagogue in Cairo into a national Jewish museum, with the hope that the archive’s registers will be available for consultation there.
Most Egyptian Jews left the country after 1948 and again after 1967. The biggest ex-pat Egyptian community is in Israel, but there are groups in France, Canada, the US, Brazil, Australia and the UK.
But for organisations fighting on behalf of the rights of Jews from Arab countries, the Iraqi and Egyptian cases are symptomatic of a larger problem. Since 2004, the US has been bound by law to impose import restrictions on archaeological and ethnological material that constitutes a country’s cultural heritage and has signed Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) to this effect with Egypt, Syria and Libya. An agreement with Algeria is expected. In January 2018, the International Council of Museums released a ‘Red List’ for Yemen aimed at protecting Hebrew manuscripts and Torah finials from leaving Yemen. All but 50 Jews have fled the country, taking what possessions they could, but even these ultimately could be returned to Yemen.
“These MOUs claim to be about [stopping] looting, but their broad scope and limited evidence of success suggests their real impact is providing a legal vehicle to legitimise foreign confiscations and wrongful ownership claims…The MOUs are based on a flawed premise. It is the heritage and patrimony of 850,000 indigenous Jews who fled their homes and property under duress,” says Sarah Levin of the California-based Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA).
It is understandable that the international community should wish to prevent the looting and smuggling of ancient artefacts and their sale on the international art market. That is how Islamic State financed much of its conquest of northern Iraq and Syria. Jewish artefacts purported to be from devastated sites, such as the Jobar synagogue near Damascus, have turned up in Turkey. These mostly turn out to be fakes. In Syria, mindful of the interest in Middle Eastern Jewish heritage in the West, both the regime and the rebels have been using Jewish artefacts as a political football in the civil war. Reports have surfaced – usually at times of regime offensives – in which both parties accused each other of stealing cultural heritage from Jewish sites.
But there is a distinction between theft for financial gain, and legitimate salvage of Torah scrolls or books taken by fleeing Jews to be used for prayer.
In centuries past, armies had carte blanche to plunder enemy property. The ‘Monument Men’ were assigned by the Allies to hide away cultural treasures in occupied Europe during World War II to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands. Postwar international treaties, such as the Hague Convention of 1954, were introduced to protect states’ cultural property from wartime looting. But the days when Britain could ship the Elgin Marbles from Greece, or Napoleon could plunder ancient Egyptian obelisks as ‘war booty’, are over.
In the aftermath of extensive looting after the invasion of Iraq, some 3,800 archeological artefacts have been returned to Iraq from the US. Recently eight Sumerian artefacts sold to the British Museum were sent back. But the Iraqi-Jewish archive does not belong to some long-extinct civilisation: some of the owners are still alive. International law is based on the outmoded assumption of territorial sovereignty. It needs updating, specifically to resolve the tug-of-war between minority and national heritage, where the minority has been persecuted and displaced.
Almost no Jews remain in Iraq. If the archive were to return, most Iraqi Jews – now in Israel – would not be able to visit it. Nor could the authorities guarantee its safety.
Four US senators have tabled a bill and three congressmen have written to President Trump “strongly objecting” to the return of the materials. As I write, a scholar in the US, who follows these issues but has asked not to be named, has told JP that the State Department has agreed to renew permission for the exhibition of Iraqi-Jewish documents to continue for another two years. “There are some (mostly Jewish groups) who want to keep the archives in the US. They have no plan on how to do that. US museums might be reluctant to accept them, because they would be permanent custodians. Who owns the archive? Technically, the Iraqi government since it is state cultural property. The State Department has to figure out how to handle keeping the archives in the US without contravening basic precepts of international law,’ the source said.
The Jewish community may need to resort to the courts to assert its claims. There has been one precedent for this: lawyer Nathan Lewin successfully sued for the restitution of the library belonging to the Fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe. Seized by the Russians in 1917, it is now in New York.
However, the Jews fighting to stop the return of their property to Iraq, or the release of blockaded property in Arab states, can take comfort from Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This states that no individual or community should be arbitrarily deprived of their property.
As Sarah Levin of JIMENA puts it: “The US should not enter into any agreement and should withdraw from any existing agreement with a foreign state that either condones, supports or promotes any Article 17 violation by that state.”
Lyn Julius is the author of Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilisation in the Arab world vanished overnight, Vallentine Mitchell, 2017.