Motivated by ideology and sometimes by simple greed, various groups use war to ravage cultural, historical and religious treasures.
While this tragic phenomenon has occurred throughout history, the current fighting in Syria and Iraq is providing opportunities for new depths of this depravity, whose goal is nothing less than destroying the vestiges of ancient civilizations.
“Antiquities officials in Iraq and Syria warn of a disaster as the region’s history is erased,” the Associated Press recently reported. Five of UNESCO’s six world heritage sites in Syria have been destroyed – only the one in Damascus has been spared. And that occurred even before ISIS expanded its murderous rampage across Iraq and Syria, willfully destroying churches, an Armenian shrine, Shia mosques--including one housing Jonah’s tomb--and many more, while also slaughtering thousands.
“What distinguishes Syria’s war on cultural heritage is the deliberate destruction of religious sites in order to stoke sectarian hatred,” wrote Christian Sahner in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. “Whether it targets Sunnis, Shiites, Christians or other groups, the destruction seeks to erase entire peoples from this diverse land by denying them a connection to their past.”
This type of violence is not new to the Middle East.
In 2001, the Taliban destroyed two 1,400-year-old Buddha statues in Afghanistan. Just as world outrage could not prevent that atrocity, it seems unlikely to stop ISIS today. For this brutal terror organization, taxing those who loot and sell artifacts is an important source of revenue to acquire more weapons, a side benefit to overseeing the pillaging of sites ISIS has destroyed.
Jews perhaps know more than others about having their cultural possessions plundered. Two years ago, 1400 Jewish-owned paintings confiscated by the Nazis and hoarded by an art dealer were discovered in a Munich apartment.
Preserving the vestiges of virtually extinct Jewish communities is a particular challenge. Obliteration of the 400-year-old Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue in Damascus in May wiped out a collection of thousands of Jewish artifacts in Syria, including century-old Torah scrolls, historical texts, and ancient Judaica.
In Iraq, like Syria, there are very few, if any, Jews. But after deposing Saddam Hussein in 2003, US forces discovered hundreds of Jewish artifacts in Baghdad.
The collection, assembled and hidden by Saddam’s regime, was so extraordinary that a US federal agency, the National Archives, brought it to Washington for restoration and preservation. Last year a selection of pieces were displayed at the National Archives, and later at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage.
The entire Iraqi Jewish Archive was slated to return to Baghdad in July. But some contended that it should stay in the US “These invaluable items, some personal, some communal, rightfully belong to the Jewish community,” argued my colleague, Rabbi Andrew Baker, AJC’s Director of International Jewish Affairs. “Given the political and security situation in Iraq today, Jewish religious items may not be secure or accessible to those who are most interested in them.”
The US Senate unanimously called on the State Department to renegotiate the original agreement made with Iraq for taking the items out of the country.
In May, an agreement was reached to extend their stay in the US. That was before ISIS seized large areas in Iraq.
The National Archives has digitized the collection so it can be viewed online by anyone, anywhere in the world. Still, there is nothing like possessing the originals. And while there might be a dispute over provenance, Iraqi Jews in the US or the wider American Jewish community could legitimately claim to be custodians.
There is precedent. Murals painted by Jewish artist Bruno Schultz on the apartment walls of Nazi officers were smuggled out of Ukraine to Israel and displayed at Yad Vashem. After years of controversy, an agreement was reached recognizing that the murals belong to Ukraine but would remain in Israel on long-term loan.
A decades-long dispute between YIVO and the Lithuanian government was finally resolved last month.
At issue was the huge collection of prewar Jewish materials that survived the Nazis. While about half of the 10,000 publications and 1.5 million documents are held by YIVO in New York, the Lithuanian government balked at allowing YIVO to transfer the rest of the collection from Vilna. Over the next five to seven years, all materials in New York and Vilna will be digitized.
Unlike the situation in Lithuania, there is no one to negotiate with in Iraq. Unilateral action would be prudent, given the circumstances. Moreover, the US has a vested interest. “No one should be too unmindful that the US government put 3 million dollars into this project,” to restore and protect precious Iraqi Jewish heritage items, says Baker.
Indeed, why send them back to Iraq? The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.