Saving Iraq’s absent heritage
An exhibition of Jewish artefacts has underlined the problem of Iraq’s cultural heritage being transferred to the US, writes Salah Nasrawi
A treasure-trove of Iraqi artefacts moved by the American army to the United States after the US-led invasion of the country in 2003 is at risk of not being sent back to Iraq because of mounting pressure on the Obama administration to hand it over to Jews of Iraqi origin.
Iraq has repeatedly demanded the return of the pieces, part of hundreds of thousands of illegally obtained cultural artefacts that were moved to the United States during its occupation of Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion.
The US army also captured millions of documents, including the archives of the former ruling Iraqi Baath Party, the state’s intelligence archives and records of meetings with former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, which it transferred to the United States as part of what is called Iraq’s absent heritage.
Items from the Iraqi Jewish collection were put on display last week at the National Archives in Washington in an exhibition that runs through 5 January. Called “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” the exhibition has triggered a campaign by American Jews to pressure the Obama administration not to return the artefacts to Iraq.
On its website the US National Archives say that almost all the recovered documents relate to Jewish communal organisations in Baghdad, including the Iraqi chief rabbi’s office and Jewish hospitals and schools.
However, among the pieces on display are a Hebrew Bible printed in Venice in 1568, a Babylonian Talmud from 1793, a Torah scroll fragment including parts of the Book of Genesis, a Zohar (book of mysticism) from 1815 and other religious and community materials.
A lunar calendar in Hebrew and Arabic from 1972-73, one of the last examples of Hebrew items produced in Baghdad, is also part of the exhibition.
According to a story widely used by the American and Israeli media, the items were found in a flooded Baghdad basement in May 2003, just days after invading US forces captured Baghdad and ousted Saddam.
This story goes on to say that a group of US soldiers happened upon the Jewish documents while searching the headquarters of the mukhabarat, Saddam’s intelligence services, for evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
Nearly identical reports say that the documents, including books and records five centuries old detailing the life of Baghdad’s Jewish community, were found submerged under four feet of water in a building’s basement.
However, a new version of the archive story, published last month by Harold Rhode, an American specialist on the Middle East who worked as an analyst at the Pentagon and was in Iraq at the time of the 2003 invasion, gives a different account.
According to this version, it was Ahmed Chalabi, an exiled opponent of Saddam who arrived in Baghdad with the US invading forces, who called Rhode to tip him off about the trove to be found in the intelligence building.
Rhode was working at the time as a policy analyst with the US Defense Department and was assigned to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) that took over the administration of Iraq after Saddam’s ousting.
Writing in Arutz Sheva, an Israeli news outlet on 27 October, Rhode said the documents were found in the Israel and Palestinian section of the mukhabarat, which had been submerged in water after the building’s water system had been destroyed by an American bomb.
American preservation specialists from the National Archives in Washington were summoned to Baghdad to salvage the items. A few weeks later the documents were flown to Washington.
As the discovery was made amidst the turmoil that spread across Baghdad after the fall of Saddam, there have been no Iraqi eyewitnesses or officials who have been able to provide details of how the collection was found or who authorised its transfer to the United States.
The US preservation project for the documents says on its website that this was done with the agreement of Iraqi officials.
Since then, the materials, which include 2,700 books and tens of thousands of communal records in Hebrew, Arabic and English, dating from the 1540s to the 1970s, have been given the name the “Iraqi Jewish Archive.”
The documents have never been seen in public and nor have they been registered officially in Iraq. It is also not clear if the sensitive materials have been used for research or documentation, or if they have been removed to a third country while in the US National Archives’ custody.
The US media has reported that some materials have been deposited with the Centre for Jewish History in New York, which is in partnership with other Jewish organisations.
The present exhibition in Washington has now led to Jewish activists in the United States, as well as some members of the US Congress, to demand that the artefacts never be returned to Iraq and that they be given to Iraqi Jews in the United States.
The lobbyists have been claiming that the documents were stolen from members of the Iraqi Jewish community before they emigrated to Israel or went into exile from Iraq.
They claim that the artefacts are part of the Iraqi Jews’ heritage and say that Iraq does not have the right to recover the sacred objects of a now-exiled population.
Among their other claims is that there is no constituency of Jews remaining in Iraq to ensure that the books are well-maintained, especially since the country is still riven by violent conflict.
An online petition has been organised to collect signatures urging the US government to keep the Iraqi Jewish archives. Some activists have written newspaper opinion pieces urging that the items be shared with the exiled Jewish community or that torn pieces of Torah scrolls be buried, as is customary for Jewish holy texts that are no longer useable.
However, under international law the artefacts and all other cultural and official materials removed from Iraq during the US occupation belong to Iraq and should be returned to the country.
International conventions relating to armed conflict clearly state that warring parties should take measures to prevent the theft, pillage or looting of cultural property.
The Society of American Archivists has also said that the seizure and removal of the documents from Iraq was “an act of pillage” prohibited under the laws of war.
The Obama administration has rejected requests to keep the pieces in America and has said that the collection will be returned to Iraq upon the completion of their preservation and the exhibition.
The US State Department also says that under an agreement that the US National Archives signed with the CPA in Iraq, the documents are to be returned to Iraq “following their restoration”.
State Department officials have expressed their confidence that the Iraqi government will make the materials accessible in an educational exhibition.
The Iraqis hope that the US officials will stand by their words, and Baghdad has said that it has reached an agreement with Washington to return the documents next year. On 31 October, Iraqi Deputy Culture Minister Taher Hmoud said the so-called Jewish archive should be returned before mid 2014.
Saad Eskander, director-general of the House of Books and Records, which is a department of Iraq’s Ministry of Culture, has said that an exhibition of the materials will take place in Iraq either next year or in 2015.
Once they have been returned to Iraq, Eskander said, the materials will be housed in the country’s National Library, with the goal of helping future generations understand the contributions that Iraqi Jews have made to the country.
The history of the Jews in Iraq dates back to the eighth century BCE, when an Assyrian army conquered the Kingdom of Judah, a client state of the powerful Assyrian Empire, and deported a portion of the population to Babylon in ancient Mesopotamia in what is now Iraq.
According to the Hebrew Bible, there were two more deportations of Jews to Babylon during the reign of the Assyrian King Nebuchadnezzar, whose armies conquered Jerusalem and destroyed Solomon’s Temple, sending more exiles to Babylon.
This period, known in Jewish history as the “Babylonian captivity”, was the period when the Jews wrote key Hebrew texts, including the two main sources of Mishnaic and Talmudic learning.
After the fall of Babylon to the Persian King Cyrus in 538 BCE, the exiled Jews began to return to the land of Judah, but many stayed on instead, putting down roots in what was to become one of the largest, most active and longest-lasting Jewish communities in the world.
Most of Iraq’s Jews left the country after the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948. Their property was frozen, or put under government sequestration. Now some Iraqis are even thinking of using the return of the Jewish treasure-trove to Iraq as a way of mending past history, even if symbolically.
Writing in the Iraqi Kurdish outlet Rudaw, Iraqi researcher Falih Hassan Fezaa said that the archives should be seen as a symbol of coexistence and mutual understanding by the new generations.
“Their presence in Baghdad would be a great opportunity to trigger frank and public debate about the necessity of restoring multicultural life in a Middle East that is heading towards a more brutal and exclusionary environment,” he wrote.
“With the archives in Baghdad, we can all seize a historic moment to restore the once tolerant multiculturalism of this region.”