I would like to visit Iraq. I think I may have found my excuse.
Shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, during which the United States had bombed Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad, U.S. soldiers rummaging in the basement found a treasure trove of Jewish community-related documents and artifacts, some going back hundreds of years. The bombing had burst pipes in the building, flooding the basement, leaving what soon became known as the Iraqi Jewish Archive water-logged, moldy, and in a state of great disrepair.
Brought to the U.S. National Archives for preservation, one issue was whether the Archive should be returned to Iraq, or whether it ought to remain with Iraq’s persecuted, exiled, Jewish community, many of who now live in the U.S. I wonder about the bigger picture: to whom do our Jewish treasures belong? And where? With us, wherever we are? Or in the place of origin?
I became involved with the Iraqi Jewish Archive a few years ago, while working as a staffer for a U.S. Member of Congress. In the Iraqi case, there was the question of whether the Archive was the patrimony of the Iraqi Jewish community, or, as the Iraqi Ambassador insisted to me, an essential part of Iraq’s cultural heritage, and therefore belonging to that sovereign nation. On a more practical level there was concern that, amidst the horrible violence and civil strife, Iraq wouldn’t be able to guarantee the safety of the Archive. Questions about the ability of Iraqi Jews and scholars from abroad to visit, and the U.S. government’s role in establishing a legal contract with the Iraqi government to return the Archive, also played into the mix.
Being of a certain age (and, yes, male), the first thing that comes to mind is Indiana Jones snarling “it belongs in a museum!” as he wrestles historical artifacts away from nefarious evildoers. The egalitarian ideal is appealing, as is the notion of destroying a secret Nazi base to get back the Ark of the Covenant.
But do Jewish artifacts belong in places where there are no more Jews?
As elsewhere in the Arab world, over a period of about 60 years starting in the 1940s, Iraq’s 2,500 year-old Jewish community dispersed under the weight of persecution. As Jews fled Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s secret police moved in, seizing all manner of documents and artifacts relating to religious life, communal structure, and individuals and families.
Now, in the kind of twist that often lands history in unlikely places, those materials have followed the persecuted Iraqi Jewish community to America; yet, the Archive is slated to return to Iraq next year. (As part of the agreement, many documents will be digitized, precluding the need to physically travel to Iraq in most cases.)
There is a strong temptation to want to ingather our artifacts as we Jews have concentrated in particular places, especially where those places seem inherently safe and secure, like the Israel Museum in Jerusalem or the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. As we leave behind the 20th century’s ruin – the lives and homes we can never get back – there is great power in finding the lost shards and bringing them in close to us.
In the post-Holocaust world we Jews should not shrink from the world, but rather go out into it at every opportunity. Part of that ought to be that our cultural heritage is out there, too. I once saw a 14th century Torah scroll in the Matenadaran, the ancient book collection in Yerevan, Armenia, a physical reminder to me that Jews and Armenians have connections stretching back into the ancient world. And while that Torah no doubt would be well served in an American synagogue, it was a special treat to chance upon it in the main repository of Armenia’s historical treasures. It made me feel that in some small way I, too, could belong in Armenia. Armenians who otherwise would not ordinarily meet Jews (about 700 live there today) would encounter this small item of Jewishness, perhaps setting off a spark of interest.
I would like to see the ruins of Babylon and the ancient city of Ur. I would like to dine with locals along the banks of the Euphrates and trek the mountains of Kurdistan. And I would really love to call at the future Museum of Iraqi Jewish History.