A page from the Babylonian Talmud
Since this piece in the Washington Jewish Week appeared, agreement seems to have been reached to end the government shut-down delaying the opening of the Iraqi-Jewish exhibition at the National Archives in Washington DC. But the central issue remains: to whom should the archive be returned?
One of the consequences of the government shutdown is that the
planned opening of an exhibit of Iraqi Jewish artifacts at the National
Archives, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” is on indefinite hold.
Gina Waldman had wanted to see the artifacts — including a Hebrew
Bible from 1568 — during her visit to Washington last week. As president
of JIMENA, or Jews
Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, she represents one of a
group of organizations that doesn’t want the collection to be returned
“It’s very important to see it,” she said by phone. “We just hope that it isn’t sent back.”
The artifacts were discovered by U.S. troops in the water-logged
basement of Saddam Hussein’s secret police headquarters during the
American invasion of Iraq in 2003. There were thousands of books and
documents that had been abandoned by a Jewish community that dated back
to biblical times, but which fled the country in the anti-Semitic
atmosphere following the founding of the state of Israel.
By agreement with the Iraqi provisional government, the U.S.
transferred the collection to Washington, D.C., for restoration,
digitization and exhibition. The government of Iraq says the artifacts
belong back in Baghdad, and is pressing for their return. The U.S. has
not disagreed with Iraq’s claim, but has not taken any visible steps to
return the items.
Waldman argued that the artifacts do not belong to Iraq, because they were confiscated from Iraqi Jews as they fled the country.
“We are asking the U.S. government to intervene, to assure that this
collection remains the patrimony of Iraqi Jews,” said Waldman, who fled
with her family from her native Libya in 1967.
Just what returning the objects to “their rightful owners” means is
unclear. Most of the Iraqi Jewish community lives in Israel. Some
15,000-20,000 Iraq-born Jews and their descendants live in the United
States, largely split between New York and Los Angeles, according to
Maurice Shohet, president of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq.
Shohet said his group’s first priority is to make sure the materials
are preserved and digitized. They are also pursuing quiet diplomacy to
prevent the artifacts from being sent back to Iraq.
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