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NEW AGAIN: The Kol Bo book from the 1540s, one of the Iraqi Jewish documents being conserved at the National Archives in College Park, Md.
Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon
NEW AGAIN: The Kol Bo book from the 1540s, one of the Iraqi Jewish documents being conserved at the National Archives in College Park, Md.

Letters from the exiles

Iraq | Iraqi Jews and Iraq tussle over the remnant of artifacts from one of the world’s oldest, and now almost extinct, Jewish communities

Issue: "Blurred Vision," April 5, 2014

NEW YORK—In the film The Monuments Men, a historical team of U.S. art experts travels to Europe during World War II to rescue masterpieces stolen by the Nazis, many from the private collections of Jewish families. In one scene, an American art curator seeks information about a Nazi-appropriated trove of art from a French curator working for the French Resistance. She refuses to tell him anything because she believes he is planning to take the French art back to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He has to prove to her that the Americans, unlike other armies in history, are seeking to return the art to its rightful owners.

The United States government is trying to do the same thing again after discovering a trove of stolen Jewish archives during its invasion of Iraq, but the question of ownership is muddier. The collection, a vital record of one of the oldest ethnic groups in Iraq, now all but extinct, is currently on display in New York before it travels back to Iraq in June. Jewish groups are protesting the decision to return the archives, saying the collection belongs to the Iraqi Jewish community—all but six of whom now live outside Iraq. It’s also perhaps one of the only remaining collections of artifacts from the Iraqi Jewish community. Iraqis say it is part of the country’s history. The U.S. government, which has had the archive over the last decade in order to restore the documents, many damaged, says it has no choice because it signed an agreement with Iraq to return the archives.

The tension over the ownership of the collection was evident in the opening of the exhibit of the archives in New York in February. The Iraqi ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, who sent a representative to deliver his remarks at the opening, referred to the trove as the “Iraqi National Jewish Archive,” reinforcing that the archive belongs to Iraq.

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“As with every other community in Iraq, they played a crucial role in building our country and contributing to our culture,” the representative read from Faily’s remarks. “For us as Iraqis, it is important to recover this precious piece of our cultural heritage that documents an era of our country’s history. This exhibition shows Iraq as a country of diversity where people from different religions, regions, and ethnicities lived together in harmony for centuries. That is what we once were, and that is what we are striving to become again.”

Iraqi Jew David Dangoor, who believes the collection should remain in the United States, spoke after Faily’s representative. “At one time it was even forbidden to have any books or writings in Hebrew in one’s homes [in Iraq],” Dangoor, a businessman in New York, said. “I am sure that it is now clear why they mean so much to the Iraqi Jewish diaspora.” Dangoor’s great-grandfather, who was the chief rabbi in Baghdad, started the first sizable Hebrew printing press in the city in 1904; materials from the Dangoor press were found in the archive. I asked Dangoor later if he discussed the fate of the archive with the Iraqi representative. “We avoided it,” Dangoor said.

Late last year a group of prominent Jewish American groups, including Iraqi Jewish groups in the States, penned a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry asking him to reconsider the transfer. “These items were looted by the Baath regime,” they wrote. U.S. government officials have pointed out that the entire collection has been digitized, so it will be available to everyone on the planet regardless of where the physical archive is. Still, the U.S. Senate recently passed a resolution urging the State Department to renegotiate the deal with Iraq, so the archives could be kept in a place “accessible to scholars and to Iraqi Jews and their descendants.”

The collection was almost lost in the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Right after U.S. forces had taken Baghdad, special teams were searching the secret caches of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for weapons of mass destruction. One of these teams was combing through the flooded basement of the headquarters of Hussein’s intelligence service and found a cache it hadn’t anticipated: thousands of Jewish books and documents, going back to the 1500s. No one knows why Hussein had collected the archives; presumably, he was confiscating them from Jewish communities.

The archives range from the sacred to the mundane, copies of the Torah and children’s schoolbooks. The U.S. National Archives text that goes with the exhibit states that the books and documents in the archive were “expropriated by the Baathist Party regime from synagogues and communal organizations.” This supports the Jewish groups’ argument that the archives never belonged to the Iraqi government in the first place.

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