Do We Need To Return Stolen Jewish Iraqi Artifacts?

By Anna Selman, Programs and Public Relations Coordinator

Just as U.S. Military Forces were storming Saddam Hussein’s Intelligence Building in 2003, our soldiers stumbled upon a treasure trove of Jewish Iraqi artifacts that belonged to a 2,000 year old community.  The sacred writings and belongings of the Iraqi Jewish Community were badly damaged through years of neglect and the intense fighting of the Iraq War.  U.S. Forces quickly developed a plan to save the thousands of relics, and in 2003, our government and the Iraqi provisional government came to an agreement that after the documents were restored in the United States, they would be returned to the Iraqi government.  To date, the U.S. government has spent over 3 million dollars and 10 years to restore and digitalize the archive, which included thousands of manuscripts from the Jewish community of Iraqi.

This summer, in yet another blow to the memory of Jewish Middle Eastern History, the Trump Administration announced that they would not ask for an extension regarding the Iraqi Jewish Artifacts and would return the artifacts to the Iraqi government in early 2018.  In fact, these items were meant to be returned to the Iraqi government in 2014.  However due to the war with ISIS within Iraq at that time, the U.S. decided that the Iraqi government was not a suitable guardian of the documents because they were unable to provide the proper upkeep.

In almost unanimity, the Jewish communities of the United States and Israel have demanded that the archives either stay in the United States or be given to the government of Israel for safekeeping, and it is understandable why.

These artifacts belonged to the Jewish Iraqi People, whose community can be dated back to the destruction of the First Temple.  After almost 2,000 years living in Iraq, the Iraqi Jewish community was subjected to horrific violence during World War II by the Iraqi government – families were murdered and the community was brutalized.   After the establishment of the State of Israel, around 130,000 Iraqi Jews left for Israel in what could be describe as “Eichmann-style” conditions during Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.  The Jews of Iraq had their citizenships revoked and all of their belongings were made property of the Iraqi government.  Many were left penniless refugees in the State of Israel and in the United States.

Now, what is left of the Iraqi Jewish community is demanding that the artifacts stay somewhere that is accessible to their community, and there is a precedent for our legal system to demand the artifacts stay with the descendants of the original owners.   The Republic of Austria vs Altmann was a case where Holocaust Survivor Maria Altmann sued the government of Austria for the portrait of her aunt.  The Austrian government stated that their former government, not them, played the part in confiscating the painting and that the painting was part of their “cultural heritage”.   Whereas Altmann stated that the paintings were the property of her family that were illegally obtained after the Nazi government confiscated her family’s belongings and revoked their citizenship.  Ultimately, it was decided that the Austrian government and the museum were in violation of international law, and the paintings were given back to Mrs. Altmann.

Mrs. Altmann’s case helped spur hundreds other cases of Nazi looted artifacts from the Jewish community, where the belongings were returned to their rightful owners.  It is befuddling to me that there is a clear national and legal consensus about returning looted Jewish artifacts during WWII in Europe, but when it comes to Jews from the Middle East, we still question whether they have the same rights as their European brothers and sisters.

As some of the last memories of the community, it is imperative that these artifacts be preserved for future generations.  The Iraqi government has proven that it is unfit to be a preserver of history and should not have control of these relics.  When anti-Semites start shouting that Jews are not indigenous to the Middle East, these artifacts are crucial historical reminders that Jews have lived alongside their Muslim and Christian neighbors for millennia.  The artifacts in question should be returned to Iraq’s Jewish community, now located in the United States and Israel.  It is their history, and the best way to preserve it is to return it to them.

Volume 71. Number 4. Winter 2017

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