Place: Baghdad. Time: the 1970s.
Eyewitnesses watched aghast as Saddam Hussein’s men carted off piles of books and documents from the ladies’ gallery of the Bataween synagogue to the secret police headquarters. There they remained for some 40 years, rotting and forgotten, until some quirk of fate put them at the centre of an international controversy.
The so-called Iraqi-Jewish archive consists of Jewish books, documents, Torah scrolls and random correspondence from synagogues and Jewish schools. They were discovered in 2003 during the US invasion of Iraq in the waterlogged basement of the secret police headquarters in Baghdad. A US bomb had burst the water pipes of the building but had failed to detonate. An apologetic US shipped the collection for restoration in Texas, signing a diplomatic agreement committing to returning the collection to Iraq when the restoration work was completed.
Fifteen years later, the deadline for return falls this coming September, but Iraqi Jews have been protesting against the repatriation of an archive that they say has no place in Iraq. It belongs to a community which endured decades of persecution and is now living outside the country. The archive does not contain items of great value except to the community itself, and does not belong to civilisations long extinct. Indeed the owners of some of the material, including school reports and photographs, are still alive. The ownership of the archive appears an open-and-shut case of brazen theft from a community forced into exile. In their haste to draw up a diplomatic agreement, the 2003 US-run government of Iraq promised to return the archive on a false premise.
But the culture editor on the ‘progressive’ Forward newspaper, Talya Zax, has been drawing a parallel between the recent repatriation of eight Sumerian artefacts and the issue of the Iraqi-Jewish archive. Thousands of ancient artefacts were looted from Iraq in 2003. Artefacts looted from the Sumerian site of Tello have been recently returned from the US. Ms Zax has interviewed the Iraqi ambassador to the US, who declares the archive must go back because it shows the former diversity of Iraq’s population, and the emotional ties between the country and its former Jews. She writes:
“Despite its unique and complicated place in the broad collection of culturally significant items removed from Iraq, in the course of, and after the US invasion, it (the Iraqi-Jewish archive) is indisputedly part of that collection.”
Preventing a war-ravaged country’s heritage being pillaged, smuggled out and sold on the international market is one thing. Countries have every right to protect their cultural property. But there the similarity with the Iraqi-Jewish archive ends.
A bill has been introduced by four US senators urging that the archive not be returned to Iraq. But even if passed, that bill will have no legal force. The Iraqi-Jewish community in the US would have to fight for its ownership rights in a court of law.
If the Iraqi-Jewish archive were to return to Baghdad, Iraqi Jews and their descendants (most now resident in Israel) would not be able to see them. Moreover, what guarantees are there that Iraq, where popular anti-Jewish feeling still runs high, would be able to preserve the archive or prevent it being looted or destroyed in the future?
It is a source of dismay that the voices of those who wish to legitimise the dispossession of Jewish refugees from Arab countries are given credibility. And that, in the end, is what the issue of the Iraqi-Jewish archive is all about.