US Jews ask Washington not to return Jewish antiquities to Iraq

The documents, which the Hussein regime confiscated from the Jewish community, were discovered by coalition forces in 2003.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
CHICAGO – A treasure trove of Iraqi Jewish documents on display in Washington, DC, should not leave the United States, a coalition of Jewish organizations demanded on Tuesday.
The documents, which the Hussein regime confiscated from the Jewish community, were discovered by coalition forces in the basement of the headquarters of the Mukhabarat, or secret police, in 2003 and document centuries of life in Mesopotamia. A portion of the documents, which are being restored, are on display at the US National Archives but are due to be returned to Iraq next year.
US Secretary of State John Kerry should “consult with representative bodies of Iraq’s expatriate Jewish community and officials before any further decision is made,” Robert G. Sugarman and Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said.
In a statement released to the press and signed by more than 40 American Jewish groups, the conference declared that American Jewry calls upon the US government to “assure that the Iraqi Jewish Archives currently in Washington, DC, would be protected, and continue to be accessible to Iraqi Jewish communities around the world.”
American Jews are “deeply troubled” by the prospect of the documents returning to Iraq, the signatories said, citing “the many other ritual objects and particularly the sacred Torah scrolls that remain in disuse and uncertain conditions in Iraq. These should be returned to synagogues of Iraqi Jews in the US and elsewhere to be used and their sanctity protected.”
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York) has also protested the planned return of the collection. In October, Schumer said, “These sacred artifacts were taken from the Iraqi Jewish community and thus do not belong to the Iraqi government; rather they belong to the thousands of Iraqi Jews, an ancient and once-vibrant community, who were exiled many years ago. The Iraqi government illegally obtained these artifacts and I am urging the State Department to do everything in their power to ensure that these treasured artifacts remain available and accessible to Jews worldwide.”
Many of the documents were seized in 1984 from a synagogue in Baghdad in which they had been placed for safekeeping by Jews fleeing the country in the early 1950s, Schumer noted.
Cynthia Kaplan Shamash, who sits on the board of the World Organization of Jews From Iraq, joined the chorus of voices calling for the archive to remain in the US. Writing in The New York Times last week, she recalled her tumultuous childhood in Iraq and the draconian measures taken against the Jewish community against the background of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
While she understands “American sensitivities to accusations of pillaging,” she believes that the “Iraqi-Jewish archive never belonged to the Iraqi government; it belonged to the Jews of Iraq.”
She nixed the idea of the documents being sent to Israel, stating that such a move “might invite venom from Iraq.” However, she asserted, “returning the materials would dishonor every one of the Jews who were cruelly driven from their homeland.”
The United States, she suggested, “should make sure this trove of memory remains safely in America for the world to share.”
While the Iraqi ambassador to Washington did suggest leaving the documents in the United States a while longer as an intergovernmental loan, such a move “isn’t a longterm solution,” Shamash declared.