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Do not give holy Jewish artifacts to a country that expelled its Jews

The US government is poised to give Torah scrolls and other Jewish artifacts to a country that expelled its Jews
Volunteers attempt to recover Iraqi Jewish archival material from the flooded basement of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters, 2003. (Harold Rhode, Courtesy of the US National Archives)
Volunteers attempt to recover Iraqi Jewish archival material from the flooded basement of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters, 2003. (Harold Rhode, Courtesy of the US National Archives)

Imagine being forced to leave your home, leaving all your belongings, your history, and your heritage behind. Now, imagine that they were rediscovered and brought to safe-keeping — just to be stolen from you again.

That is the fate of the Iraqi Jewish community.

In May 2003, over 2,700 Jewish books and tens of thousands of documents, records, and religious artifacts were discovered by a US army team when in the basement of the Iraqi intelligence headquarters flooded. This written record provides a robust understanding of the 2,600-year-old Iraqi Jewish community: the texts were sent to the US to be preserved, cataloged, and digitized, and they have been on exhibit in a number of cities for several years. Now, based on an executive order signed by President Bush in 2003, and extended by the US government in an executive order signed by President Obama, the Iraqi Jewish archive is set to be returned to Iraq in September 2018.

On a parallel track, but unknown to the Iraqi Jewish community, the Emergency Protection for Iraqi Cultural Antiquities Act of 2004 was amended in 2008 to include import restrictions on Jewish artifacts, including Torah scrolls, made on or before 1990. Then, the State Department put together separate Memorandums of Understanding, where the Jewish religious and cultural artifacts from Egypt, Syria, and Libya would be returned to the governments that had ethnically cleansed their Jews out of existence. Yet the Emergency Protection Act and the Memorandums of Understanding stipulate that religious or cultural artifacts need to be returned to their country of origin (limited, in the case of Iraq, to those artifacts made before 1990). It is like saying Jewish property that was looted during World War II and found in the US must be sent back to Germany. It allows these Jewish artifacts and documents to get into the wrong hands, hands of people who never owned them, and might not protect them from destruction.

The key point to remember here is that these artifacts — religious and cultural artifacts that are sacred to my community — never belonged to Iraq in the first place. The items are expropriated property stolen under the color of law that either belonged to private citizens or to the Iraqi Jewish community. It is critical to note that there is no longer a Jewish community in Iraq.

It is not just about the Iraqi Jewish archive though. They are part of a larger issue impacting Jews and Christians that needs to be solved. The Emergency Protection Act and the Memorandums of Understanding result in unfair consequences, and they do not take into account the circumstances at hand. The issue of potential return of stolen Jewish property to countries such as Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Libya that ethnically cleansed the Jews is growing as red lists are published at US Customs, and countries such as Yemen may be added to those countries covered by Memorandums of Understanding. Suffice to say that the Emergency Protection Act and Memorandums of Understanding are not understanding or protecting at all of Jewish and other minorities’ artifacts.

Indeed, the Jewish populations of those Middle Eastern countries are now minuscule after years of violent persecution leading to ethnic cleansing. Of the million Jews living in Arab countries in 1948, fewer than 4,000 Jews remain. In Iraq in particular, the count is just five Jews.

Yet, the United States government, using the Emergency Protection Act and Memorandums of Understanding has placed import restrictions on cultural artifacts produced by Jews, Coptic Christians and other minority peoples, on behalf of Egypt, Syria, Libya and Iraq. Further, the United States government has promised to return the Iraqi Jewish archive to Iraq’s sectarian government in September 2018, including the notes of the Ben Ish Hai, a 19th century scholar, and a 16th century Jewish book seized by Saddam Hussein’s secret police, .

To provide some background: when Jews were expelled from Iraq, they were not permitted to take religious and cultural artifacts, like Torah scrolls and holy books, with them. Under Iraqi law, Jews could only take one suitcase with three summer outfits, three winter outfits, one pair of shoes, one blanket, underwear, socks and sheets, one wedding ring, one watch, one thin bracelet, and no more than 50 dinars. No prayer books, photographs, Torah scrolls, menorahs, kiddish cups and other heirlooms were allowed to leave. Even women and children were searched on leaving. In short, there was no way to take out any sacred Jewish artifacts — artifacts that mean the world to our community and are the only pieces of our past we have to show our future generations.

In fact, much of the Iraqi Jewish archive is from my grandfather’s school, the Frank Iny School. The Frank Iny School was always privately owned until it was expropriated by the Iraqi government in the early 1970s.

Thus, private as well as communal property will be returned to the country that persecuted and ethnically cleansed the Jews who lived in Iraq for more than 2,600 years, since time of the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. This is a tragic situation for Iraqi Jews who have already been persecuted enough.

The community is organizing a petition to prevent the Jewish archive from being returned to Iraq, and asking people to sign it.

About the Author
Carole Basri is an adjunct professor at Fordham University Law School, a visiting professor at Peking University School of Transnational Law, and a visiting professor at Pericles Law School. Carole, who is an American of Iraqi Jewish decent, has served as a member of the US State Department’s Future of Iraq Project and on the Coalition Provisional Authority working with the Iraqi Reconstruction Development Council (IRDC). She worked extensively on doing business in anti-corruption and transparency issues in Iraq, helping draft legislation and meeting with representatives from all Iraqi ministries in Iraq. Carole has published on human rights violations of Jewish refugees from Arab countries, and served as film director for several documentaries on Jews from Iraq, including “The Last Jews Of Baghdad: End of an Exile, Beginning of a Journey” (2005), and "The Life of Frank Iny" (1995) which appeared on PBS and in film festivals in New York.
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