Iraq wants its Jewish archive returned. What should be done? And who owns the materials?
A Washington Post story, by Glenn Kessler, quotes well-known Jewish genealogist and former Defense Department official Harold Rhode was in Baghdad when the archive was found in a basement “floating in three feet of sewage water” in the Mukhabarat, the secret police headquarters, as a result of bombed pipes.
“They represent part of our history and part of our identity. There was a Jewish community in Iraq for 2,500 years,” said Samir Sumaidaie, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States. “It is time for our property to be repatriated.”
A high-level Iraqi delegation, led by Deputy Culture Minister Taher al-Humoud, met Thursday with senior State Department officials to press for the return of the artifacts.
But others, including many involved in saving the materials, say that they belong to the Jews who fled, or their descendants — many of whom live in Israel.
The Jewish archive contained Torah scrolls, Haggadas, marriage records, university applications, financial documents – the records of a community taken by the secret police from Jewish homes as the community fled the country under pressure and persecution. Many went to Israel or the US, while thousands also went to Teheran, until Iran’s revolution again forced them to move.
What should be done with these materials?
The soaked documents, some 3,500 tagged items, were taken out of the country with a vague promise of return after restoration. Today, they are stabilized (although with mold) in a Maryland office building, and the Iraqi government wants them back.
“I don’t see any reason for it to go back to Iraq, because if it is the patrimony of the Jewish community of Iraq, then wherever they are it’s theirs,” Harold Rhode, a former Defense Department official, told the Jerusalem Post last month. “When they left, they would have taken it with them had they been able to take it with them. You don’t abandon Torahs.”
The State Department doesn’t dispute Iraq’s claim. NARA takes no position on who owns them, but says the items need much more preservation work, and spent less than $1 million on stabilizing the materials.
The agency’s staff members recently completed an item-by-item assessment and are in the final stages of estimating the cost of a full preservation, including digitizing images of the pages. An NARA estimate in 2003 pegged the cost at $1.5 million to $3 million.
Sumaidaie said he thinks the items are stable enough so that no “further damage or decay can take place” and that Iraq can handle additional restoration.
Rhode, in Iraq at the time, received help from Iraqi exile leader Ahmed Chalabi, who provided equipment. At first, the material was placed to dry in the sun, but when Rhode learned that freezing kills mold, they were placed in a refrigerator truck. When Natan Sharansky and Vice President Cheney got involved, things moved quickly.
Eventually, and with the approval of the remnants of the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, the materials were taken to Texas, freeze-dried and transferred to Maryland for preservation and restoration. According to the State Department, when the Coalition Provisional Authority transferred sovereignty to Iraq in June 2004, it gave the Ministry of Culture the right to demand the documents’ return.
A former senior Pentagon official, during George W. Bush’s term, Dov. S. Zakheim is opposed to returning the items.
Sumaidaie said Iraq would consider individual claims for the documents but that giving them to descendants is “not for us a matter for dispute or discussion.” He also said that the documents would be made available in Iraq to researchers.
If NARA completes preservation and digitization of the items, that means copies of these precious records would be available to Iraqi Jews and their descendants outside of Iraq.
What do you think?
— Return them now although restoration is incomplete?
— Complete the restoration, digitize, keep copies and return them?
— Not return the materials?
— Make sure Jewish Iraqis and their descendants receive their records?
Read the complete story at the link above.