Monday, November 18, 2013

Iraqi-Jewish archive: an Arab view

 The documents drying out in the sun soon after their discovery in 2003

 This article in the Egyptian news medium Al-Ahram is busy casting aspersions on the truth of the mainstream version of the Iraqi-Jewish archive story. It questions whether the documents were seized from the secret police headquarters; the involvement of Ahmed Chalabi, who tipped off the Americans about  the trove, suggests that it may have been planted. It is the US which is guilty of 'looting Iraq's cultural heritage' (with thanks: Maurice): 

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. (No exhortation needed: the Iraq authorities have given their consent to the burial - ed).

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”.

Read article in full

What will become of Iraq's Jewish artifacts ?(Commentary: with thanks Eliyahu)

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