Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Archive: possession is not ownership

 Drying books and archives in the Baghdad sun (photo: Harold Rhode)

The US and Iraqi governments have agreed to extend the Iraqi-Jewish archive's stay in the US by two years. But its ultimate ownership has still not been established.  Barbara Trainin Blank brings us up to date on the current state of play in B'nai B'rith International Magazine. (With thanks: Edwin)
Finding and salvaging these artifacts were merely the first steps in what would become a diplomatic dispute, not over provenance but over possession. At the root of the debate is a nagging question: Who owns history? Is it the state—in this case the Iraqi government? Or is it the people who helped make it, the expatriate remnants of Iraqi Jewry? In accordance with an agreement between the Coalition Provisional Authority—essentially a branch of the United States—and the U.S. State Department, the items were to be returned to Iraq in June. But, forceful voices in the Congress, along with groups representing—and supporting—Iraqi Americans, strongly objected. As this is written, the Iraqi government has agreed to extend the Archive’s stay in the United States temporarily, while still asserting ownership over them.

At the time of the discovery, dictator Saddam Hussein had been toppled from power, creating a vacuum into which would be installed the Provisional Authority, funded and created by the U.S. Defense Department. Unsure of what to do with this historic cache, the Authority turned to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for help. A week later, Doris A. Hamburg, NARA’s director of preservation programs, and Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, chief of conservation, flew to Iraq.

With limited options in Baghdad to treat the artifacts, NARA shipped them in 27 metal trunks to the United States for preservation. They were freeze-dried in a special facility in Fort Worth, Texas, to prevent further deterioration, then sent to College Park, Md., home to NARA’s largest archival and preservation facility.

NARA proceeded, over a decade, to assess, catalogue, photograph and preserve the materials, mending torn pages, replacing book bindings, digitizing, setting up a website and making plans to exhibit them, at a total cost to U.S. taxpayers of $3 million. The preservation work, Hamburg said, was difficult but also “moving and meaningful.”

When she arrived in Iraq, Hamburg faced a sharp learning curve. “I knew there had been a significant Iraqi Jewish community, and it didn’t exist anymore,” she said. “What was found connected to the community that was no longer there—and that in itself was something special.”

Curator Corinne Wegener, then an Army reserves major who was overseeing the trunks holding the material, recalled landing at the U.S. Naval Station Rota, in Cadiz, Spain, for refueling and a change of crew. “We had to make sure to maintain the frozen temperatures and needed electricity to get the generator going,” she said. “It was 100 degrees.” When the base commander demanded to know if the plane contained human hearts, Wegener, who is not Jewish, noticed his yarmulke and replied, “It’s what’s left of Iraqi Jewish culture.” The electricity and crew came quickly, she said.

Fast forward to November 2013. An exhibit entitled “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage” opened Oct. 11 at the National Archives in Washington, remaining there to Jan. 5, 2014. The exhibit featured 24 representative items from the Archive, including a Bible with Commentaries from 1568 and a Zohar—the basic text of Jewish mysticism— from 1815. The exhibit then moved to New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, where it was to be on display through May 18, after which it would be stored in College Park, Md., while discussions continued over its future.

At the New York opening, Iraqi Ambassador Lukman Faily referred to it as the Iraqi National Jewish Archive, adding the word “national” to underscore his government’s position that the items were only on loan. “For us as Iraqis, it is important to recover this precious piece of our cultural heritage,” he said. “These documents tell us what humanity can accomplish when we live together in mutual respect.” Further demonstrating his respect, Faily had attended the burial ceremony in New York in December of 49 Torah scroll fragments from the Archive deemed too damaged to save.

For some Iraqi Jews, the Archive is, more than symbolic, personal. Edwin Shuker, who lives in London and viewed the exhibit in Washington, found his school record from Frank Iny, the main Jewish school in Baghdad. Born there in 1955, Shuker and his family managed to escape across the northern border of Iraq after years of persecution.

“It is difficult to describe the impact of finding my school certificate at the exhibition,” he said. “It instantly brought to the fore[front] memories of a childhood spent in fear and uncertainty. After more than 40 years of abandoning all records relating to our identity as individuals and… [our] community, we suddenly had to face them staring back at us from behind the exhibit glass as if to remind us [of] who we are.”

While the exhibit continued, Congress reacted to the growing movement to keep the Archive here. On Feb. 6, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution urging the State Department to renegotiate its agreement. A similar bipartisan resolution was introduced in the House on March 6, with 24 sponsors and referred to a subcommittee.

“The bottom line is that the Iraqi Jewish Archive belongs to the Iraqi Jewish Community,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), an early sponsor of the Senate resolution. “This is a very important issue to me, and that’s why I personally spoke with Secretary [of State John] Kerry to express my concern. I’ve been in close contact with the World Organization of Jews from Iraq, and I will continue to push the State Department until this injustice has been resolved.”

B’nai B’rith International has also participated in a contact group that has met with representatives of NARA and the Iraqi Jewish community “throughout this process,” noted Daniel S. Mariaschin, executive vice president. The “ideal solution,” he said, would be to keep the Archive in this country, where Iraqi Jews have access to it. “It needs to be cared for and cherished,” he said. “My educated guess is that the current Iraqi government, or its successors, will not establish such a museum in Baghdad.”

Publicly, the State Department continued to express its intent to return the Archive. In March, it issued a statement that it remained committed to the terms of the agreement. Spokesperson Michael P. Lavelle added, however, that State is “aware of the sensitivities surrounding the return of the material” and was in discussions with its Iraqi counterparts and other interested parties to find a “mutually agreeable approach.”

Maurice Shohet, president of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq (WOJI), founded in 2008 and based in New York, was born in Iraq and immigrated to the United States in 1970. He was among the experts who helped the NARA decipher the collection and opposes its return, saying it should probably stay in New York. “I am adamant that the Archive was confiscated, the way artwork and artifacts were confiscated from Jews during World War II, and should be returned to us,” he said. “What happened in 2003 was like the United States signing an agreement with itself, since the Iraqi government didn’t really exist…Iraqi Jews have always expected the Archive to be returned to them.”

Cynthia Kaplan Shamash, an Iraqi-born board member of the organization who practices dentistry in Queens, N.Y., said the organization is seeking other venues for the exhibit, but there are issues of cost to mount and maintain it. It is possible, she said, the artifacts could be kept in storage—but not exhibited—at the U.S. National Archives facilities in suburban Washington. While the collection contains some items of historic and monetary value, she said, “the main issue is it’s a validation of our exile. It’s more emotional. It doesn’t do justice to 2,700 years of contributions [to Iraq], but it’s a hint of it. That’s more important than anything. That’s the value to us.”

Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), based in San Francisco and founded in 2001, agrees. “Iraq has done little to preserve the remnants of Jewish history in Iraq,” said Sarah Levin, its director. “On the contrary, there are verified reports that Jewish holy sites and tombs in Iraq have been defaced and even converted into mosques. JIMENA urges Iraq to do what is right—allow Iraqi Jews in the United States to reclaim their communal and private patrimony and heritage.”

David Dangoor, former president of WOJI, appealed to President Obama. Several individuals wrote to Secretary Kerry, including Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, as well as Rep. Stephen Fincher (R.-Tenn.), on behalf of an Iraqi Jewish constituent. A larger issue, said Stan Urman, executive vice president of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, established in 2002 and headquartered in northern New Jersey, is the precedent that might be set for other Arab countries, which had illegally seized Jewish treasures and offer no access to Jewish scholars or to descendants of the Jews who once lived there. “The Iraqi Jewish Archive is a test case,” he said.

In April, Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries reported that the State Department and senior Iraqi leaders were “currently hammering out the legal details of a new arrangement with a view to extending the archive’s stay” in the United States.

On May 14, Iraqi Ambassador Faily said his government would allow the exhibited items to remain in the United States for a time, to be displayed in other undetermined locations, but when and for how long were uncertain. “Items that are not part of the exhibit will return to Iraq in the very near future, as originally agreed,” he said. It was not immediately clear whether he meant that only the 24 items on exhibit could stay from the entire massive collection that had been flown to the United States.

Schumer, the New York senator, insisted that the entire Archive should not be sent back to Iraq. “We will not rest until the collection is made accessible to the Iraqi Jewish community indefinitely,” he said. WOJI’s Shohet reiterated his position that the Iraqi Jewish community are the “rightful heirs of the Iraqi Jewish Archive, our precious patrimony.” Lavelle said discussions would continue between the State Department, NARA and WOJI “on the details of the materials that would be returned.”

Who owns history? For the time being at least, in the case of the Iraqi Jewish Archive, possession was clear. Ownership, not so much.

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