Sigal Samuel... provocative
It had to happen. Sooner or later, someone was going to write a provocative article arguing that the Iraqi-Jewish archive ought to be sent back to Baghdad. (Ben Cohen did entertain that idea fleetingly, but had the good sense to see it was a pipe-dream). Not so Sigal Samuel ( who until recently worked for the Daily Beast's Open Zion), writing in the Forward. My 'fisking' appears in italics:
Jewish organizations want Congress to renegotiate the agreement, and
they’re pushing a resolution that now has 10 co-sponsors in the Senate.
They, and many of the Iraqi Jews present at the New York opening,
believe the trove should stay in America.
As an Iraqi Jew, I couldn’t disagree more.
Funny - Sigal Samuel can be Moroccan when she chooses.
The three main arguments for keeping the trove here
go something like this. First, Iraq stole these artifacts from the Jews;
that makes these Jews (or their descendants) their rightful owners.
Second, Iraq persecuted its Jews to the point of extinction; why should
they get to keep our things? Third, nowadays only about five Jews remain
in Iraq, a country that most of world Jewry cannot easily visit;
shouldn’t the artifacts be kept someplace accessible?
My response? No, no and no.
However much we as Iraqi Jews may resent having had
this property stolen from us (and believe me, I’m not pleased about it),
the only reason we’re seeing it now is because the State Department got
it out of Iraq by promising, ultimately, to send it back there. There’s
a word for people who take stuff, promise to return it, and then don’t.
It’s called stealing.
It's not stealing if the so-called owner stole the stuff in the first place.
It’s also called cultural imperialism. Hauling these
precious artifacts out of Iraq and into an American gallery brings to
mind the Egyptian artifacts that were taken out of their native country
to fill the display halls of the British Museum. After all that the U.S.
forces did in Iraq — including creating the unstable conditions that
led to the plundering of that country’s National Museum in 2003 — we
should blush at the thought of expropriating this archive for our own
This trove is not remotely comparable to Egyptian artefacts. It is a random collection of private and communal Jewish property of no interest to anyone else.
To those who argue that Iraq viciously persecuted its Jews, I say:
Trust me, I know. My Baghdadi grandfather and his brother were so
desperate to escape the persecution that followed the 1948 Arab-Israeli
war that they sneaked out of Iraq and into Israel.
But this period of horrible mistreatment doesn’t mean
we should empty the country of Jewish artifacts. Spain persecuted and
ultimately expelled its Jews in 1492. That doesn’t mean I want all
remnants of Spanish Jewish life hauled out of there and into the U.S.
Same goes for Germany. Same goes for a lot of countries.
But in this case, many of the owners are still alive.
As for the accessibility argument, I understand that
returning the archive to Iraq would make it difficult or impossible for
most Jews — particularly Israelis — to safely access it. But even though
I myself am saddled with an Israeli name and citizenship, I still don’t
think this is an argument for keeping the archive in the U.S. I think
it’s an argument for digitization — a process that’s already underway.
Or it’s an argument for setting up loans, which would allow the exhibit
to be housed permanently in Iraq but travel every few years to this or
that Jewish population center.
The largest Iraqi-Jewish population center is Israel. How would the Iraqis like to loan the archive to the Zionist entity?
In digital-age America, we take it for granted that
everything we love should be at our fingertips. But relinquishing that
luxury sometimes comes with distinct advantages.
When it comes to returning this trove to Iraq, the advantages are clear:
There, it will serve a vital educational purpose, both for world Jewry
and for non-Jewish Iraq.
I fail to see how returning the archive to Iraq would educate world Jewry outside Iraq. As for non-Jewish Iraq, it retains its instability, even without help from the Americans. What guarantees are there that the archive would not be allowed to rot, be destroyed or sold off to the highest bidder? Sadly, there is a precedent for all three.
Returning the archive will remind world Jewry that we
once thrived in Arab countries like Iraq, where we wrote the
foundational Babylonian Talmud and established the legendary yeshivot of
Sura and Pumbedita. In an era when the Ashkenazi narrative still
dominates over Sephardi and Mizrachi ones, it’s important to
decentralize our idea of what Judaism looks like and of where it can,
and did, flourish. Placing actual geographical distance between this
archive and us can help us internalize the fact that — guess what? —
Manhattan isn’t the cradle of all of Jewish civilization. And in an era
when the Arab world is consistently depicted as Jew-hating, physically
locating this trove in Arab space can help us recall that we ourselves
once lived there very happily indeed.
It’s also important to remind the Iraqis that we were
there — in their banks, governments, academies and art scenes. With
nationalist regimes, there’s always the worry that the shapers of
collective memory will begin to write Jews out of their history books.
This archive will help preempt that erasure.
You're too late Sigal. Jews have already been written out of Middle Eastern history.
It will also remind Iraqis
of the horror they wrought when they destroyed our community. Much like
we prompt Europe to remember Kristallnacht, we should prompt Iraq to
remember the 1941 Farhud pogrom carried out against Baghdadi Jews, by
keeping — not removing — facts on the ground.
But Iraqis are not ready to remember the Iraqi Farhud. Iraq remains a virulently antisemitic country. Unlike Europe, and with the exception of a few intellectuals, the Arabs have not yet come to terms with what they did to their Jews.
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