One of the consequences of the government shutdown is that the planned opening of an exhibit of Iraqi Jewish artifacts at the National Archives, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” is on indefinite hold.
Gina Waldman had wanted to see the artifacts — including a Hebrew Bible from 1568 — during her visit to Washington last week. As president of JIMENA, or Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, she represents one of a group of organizations that doesn’t want the collection to be returned to Iraq.
“It’s very important to see it,” she said by phone. “We just hope that it isn’t sent back.”
The artifacts were discovered by U.S. troops in the water-logged basement of Saddam Hussein’s secret police headquarters during the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. There were thousands of books and documents that had been abandoned by a Jewish community that dated back to biblical times, but which fled the country in the anti-Semitic atmosphere following the founding of the state of Israel.
By agreement with the Iraqi provisional government, the U.S. transferred the collection to Washington, D.C., for restoration, digitization and exhibition. The government of Iraq says the artifacts belong back in Baghdad, and is pressing for their return. The U.S. has not disagreed with Iraq’s claim, but has not taken any visible steps to return the items.
Waldman argued that the artifacts do not belong to Iraq, because they were confiscated from Iraqi Jews as they fled the country.
“We are asking the U.S. government to intervene, to assure that this collection remains the patrimony of Iraqi Jews,” said Waldman, who fled with her family from her native Libya in 1967.
Just what returning the objects to “their rightful owners” means is unclear. Most of the Iraqi Jewish community lives in Israel. Some 15,000-20,000 Iraq-born Jews and their descendants live in the United States, largely split between New York and Los Angeles, according to Maurice Shohet, president of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq.
Shohet said his group’s first priority is to make sure the materials are preserved and digitized. They are also pursuing quiet diplomacy to prevent the artifacts from being sent back to Iraq.
“We are in touch with the Iraqi embassy with the knowledge of the State Department about this,” he said.
If an agreement is reached and the collection is not returned to Iraq, those interviewed for this article say they are confident the widely dispersed community will agree on a home for its treasures. “We as the world organization are the ultimate group in charge of the decision,” Shohet said.
See also: Editorial, Who owns Iraq’s Jewish past?