When U.S. troops invaded Iraq a decade ago, thousands of books and water-logged documents were retrieved from the bombed-out headquarters of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s secret police. Among the finds were a 400-year-old Hebrew Bible, a 200-year-old Talmud from Vienna, a 1902 Passover Haggada, and a collection of sermons by a rabbi made in Germany in 1692.
Named the Iraqi Jewish Archive, the material was sent for conservation to the National Archives in Washington, where they are set to become the centerpiece of a new exhibition, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage.”
However, under an agreement made between the U.S. interim administration and the Iraqi government in 2003, these items are scheduled to return to Iraq in the spring of 2014. Not surprisingly, many Jewish groups and lawmakers believe these artifacts rightfully belong to the Iraqi Jewish community and their descendants. Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) asked Secretary of State John Kerry to facilitate the return of these items to their rightful heirs.
So far, the State Department has rebuffed these efforts, saying they will abide by their agreement with the Iraqis. But lawmakers, like Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), are not giving up. He points out that the Iraqi Jewish community is nearly extinct, and Iraqi governments have hardly distinguished themselves as conservators of their heritage, living or dead. Iraq does not have the resources to preserve the archive safely.
Meanwhile, the agreement between interim authorities and Iraq in 2003 was based on the flawed premise that the archive is part of Iraq’s national heritage. It rightfully belongs to the Jews from whom it was confiscated.
The United States should return these items to their rightful owners or their descendants, and not to the government of Iraq. The Iraqi Jewish community, which goes back thousands of years, deserves a measure of justice denied them under Saddam and others who disregarded their treasured heritage.