The Iraqi Jewish Archive

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Reprinted from Jewish Ideas Daily.

To whom do antiquities belong? Are they the property of modern states, current proprietors of the real estate where they were created, however many centuries or millennia ago? Do they belong to the descendants of those who created them, to the extent these can be identified? Or are they somehow the heritage of "all mankind"?

bombay jewsFor Jews, these questions took on flesh in 2003 in the flooded basement of a building belonging to the Iraqi secret police. There, American soldiers searching for clues to Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction came upon an even stranger sight: a waterlogged trove that had once belonged to Iraq's Jewish community. The Iraqi Jewish Archive, as it became known, is both proud and pitiful. The earliest item dates to 1568, but most of the other materials are from the late-19th and early-20th centuries: Judeo-Arabic manuscripts, Torah scrolls and mantles, children's primers, family photographs, letters, all seized from Iraq's long-banished Jews. Through a confluence of initiatives involving the U.S. military, the Iraqi opposition, the Coalition Provisional Authority, and the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, the trove was transported to the U.S. where it was freeze-dried, conserved, and photographed. It remains in the charge of the National Archives and Records Administration and the Center for Jewish History. Although basic cataloging has been done, more extensive preservation and digitization await funding and a resolution of the archive's fate.

Representatives of the Iraqi Jewish community in Israel have staked a claim to the trove. But so, for its part, has Iraq itself, whose new Minister of Tourism and Antiquities has named the return of the archive as a top priority. After all, countless items looted from Iraq's museums and archaeological sites, from ancient tablets to Saddam's gold plated AK-47, have already been restored. Why not the Iraqi Jewish Archive?

Indeed, Western democracies have lately become accustomed to such demands. The Elgin Marbles, their fate still undecided, are the most famous example, but countless objects have already been repatriated to countries ranging from Peru to China, sometimes before requests were entered. Even outright gifts, like Cleopatra's Needle in New York's Central Park, are on the list of Zahi Hawass, the Egyptian pharaoh of archaeology who travels the world demanding that every object ever created in Egypt be returned or otherwise made subject to his personal decision.

Scholars and intellectuals have largely acceded to these demands out of post-colonial guilt and fear of losing access to excavation permits. "Retentionists," who wish to keep antiquities in the West, have been accused of greed; having stolen other peoples' legacies, they now defy international law and public sentiment. To this one might respond that the demands themselves often seem more about exercising political power in the present than about preserving the past—and in any case they are of dubious relevance to the Iraqi Jewish Archive.

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Alexander H. Joffe is an archaeologist and historian specializing in the Middle East and contemporary international affairs. From 1980 to 2003 he participated in and directed archaeological research in Israel, Jordan, Greece and the United States.