Last month, Lisa Leff wrote for Tablet about the historical restoration of and eventual custody battle over a trove of Iraqi Jewish treasures that were saved (or, by some accounts, nicked) by American forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
These materials have been called the “Iraqi Jewish archive,” but the name is somewhat misleading. An “archive” usually refers to a collection of papers that were saved, organized and made available for future use because of their historical importance. The Iraqi Jewish archive is more like what you might find in a Geniza, a repository in a synagogue or Jewish cemetery for Hebrew books that are no longer usable but cannot be thrown away because of their sacred character. These papers and books were left behind, probably in a Baghdad synagogue, by Jews as they fled Iraq; the majority—120,000—departed in 1950-51, in the mass migration called “Operation Ezra and Nehemiah,” which was facilitated by an Israeli airlift. The Iraqi state forbade Jewish emigrants to take much in the way of personal effects, let alone communal property. Rather than destroy the books and documents, emigrating Jews left them in the synagogue where they remained until they were seized by the Iraqi secret police in the 1980s. Two sets of hands thus put this collection together: Jews unable to bring them along on their journey from Iraq but unwilling to destroy them; and the regime that persecuted them, drove them out and, once they had gone, confiscated their property.
Following a $3 million restoration and a display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., which will end in January of next year, the United States has now agreed to send the materials back to Iraq.
A National Archives spokeswoman said the materials, whose removal from Baghdad was agreed in 2003 – when a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam and the country lurched into widespread sectarian turmoil – would be going back to Iraq and the decision was made by the U.S. State Department.
Members of Iraq’s Jewish community, many of whom fled the country in previous decades, say the materials were forcibly taken from them and should not be returned.
Custody over the items have been the cause of much debate, especially given that the artifacts (some of which are from the 1500s) belong to a community that was persecuted and largely displaced following the establishment of the State of Israel. Only a handful of Jews remain in Iraq today.
With the handover now slated for next summer, this isn’t the last we’ll hear about this.
Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.