The possessions of Iraqi Jews

A year from now, the United States is scheduled to return to Iraq a trove of Jewish artifacts the U.S. military discovered in Baghdad after it overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003. Included within the historic materials are thousands of what were badly damaged holy books — the oldest from the 16th century — which were shipped to the United States, restored and digitized.

In an effort to make clear that the United States did not enter Iraq to loot it, an agreement was made at the time with the U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq to return the collection. What that agreement unfortunately ignored is that Iraq itself looted the artifacts (read: possessions) from Iraqi Jews as they fled their 2,000-year-old community during World War II, and after the creation of Israel. When the Ba’ath Party took power in the late 1960s, most of the rest of the Jewish community was forced out. Some believe that there are only five Jews in Iraq today.

The archives should be made fully available to their original Iraqi Jewish owners. But most of them live in the United States and Israel, with whom Iraq is still in a state of war. Even if they wanted to, Iraqi-Israelis couldn’t visit a Baghdad-based archive. There is also no guarantee that Iraq would preserve and protect the historic Jewish items.

The State Department did the best it could with a bad situation. It issued a statement which read: “When the [Iraqi Jewish Archive] is returned, the State Department will urge the Iraqi government to take the proper steps necessary to preserve the archive, and to make it available to members of the public to enjoy.” Whether Iraq will do so is anyone’s guess.

Iraq and proponents of returning the archive say the Judaica can serve as an educational tool for Iraqis to learn about the history of Jews in the so-called Fertile Crescent. And since the collection has been digitized, it can be viewed by anyone anywhere, regardless of where the physical items are kept.

But none of this recognizes the fact that the archives were the property of Iraqi Jews and belong to their descendants, rather than the Iraqi government. We therefore urge the State Department to reopen this issue with Iraq with the goal of retaining the collection in U.S. custody until an agreement can be reached between all of the parties — including Iraqi Jews themselves.

It would be nice if, as suggested by Heskel Haddad, president of the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, the Iraqi government could be convinced to make a grand gesture of gifting the archives to the Jewish community. But whether from the result of negotiations or a grand gesture from Iraq, it should be U.S. policy that the Iraqi Jewish archives be returned to Iraqi Jews.

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