Iraqi-Jewish cultural heritage is up for debate as the Iraqi government calls for the return of an archive currently being studied and preserved by the United States at the National Archives and Records Administration.
Iraq’s ministry of Culture and Antiquities is making claims that the United States, given the responsibility of preserving and studying the archive, has held onto the materials for too long, and now it is time that these cultural items be returned to their intended custodians: the Iraqi people and government.
Iraqi Tourism and Archaeology Minister Liwaa Smaisim has gone as far as cutting all ties with US Archaeological exploration in the country in an attempt to put pressure on the US Government to return the items, “They moved the archives in 2003; the agreement that was signed at that time between Iraq and the American side was to bring them back in 2005 after restoring them, but now we are in 2012,” Smaisim was quoted recently in The Daily Star, a Lebanese publication.
Discovered in a flooded basement of a secret police building by US forces, the archive consists of early Torahs, children’s learning materials, family photographs, and other personal items were collected through systematic raids into Jewish homes by Iraqi secret police looking for ‘evidence’ of Zionist sentiments during the 1950’s. The US soldiers were looking for weapons of mass destruction, but found instead the remnants of the daily lives of the Jewish population that once thrived in Baghdad.
The Jewish community in Iraq, and specifically Baghdad, was once a thriving, affluent, and tight-knit community in the years leading up to WWII (Gat 1997, 6). However, in the growing tension between Iraq and Israel, and the political struggles that would lead up to the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948, the Iraqi Jews were severely oppressed and persecuted from the first anti-semitic legislation enacted in 1933 to the Jewish exodus from Arab countries in the 1950s. Today it is said that there may be less than 20 Iraqi Jews living in the country.
Saad Eskander, the director of the Iraq National Library and Archives, claims that the return of the items are critical to presenting Iraqi-Jewish cultural heritage to the people of Iraq, “Iraqis must know that we are a diverse people, with different traditions, different religions, and we need to accept this diversity…To show it to our people that Baghdad was always multi-ethnic” he said, as quoted by the Associated Press
Regarding the claim for the items, the US government has acknowledged that the Iraqi government has the right to make a claim for the archive, yet the NARA is still carrying out preservation and attempting to digitize the collection of Hebrew, German, and some English texts. The total costs of the preservation project could exceed $3M, possibly $6M (Washington Post).
The historical conundrum of ‘who owns the past’ has reared itself yet again in the middle of this embroiled debate. While the Iraqi Government, struggling to maintain its archaeological materials and protect its historic sites from illegal looting and destruction, is making a claim based on the need to present this material and educate the Iraqi public about diversity, some Jewish activist groups claim the initiative to be in extremely poor taste considering the treatment of Jews leading up to the mass Exodus to Israel. Can a country, whose Iraqi-Jewish population remains nearly non-existent, make a valid claim for cultural objects belonging to that group? Some argue that the materials should be returned to the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Israel, where 90% of the Iraqi-Jewish Diaspora currently resides.
Regardless of who has proper claim of the materials found in that basement in 2003, it is clear that the strained relationship between the Iraqi government and US Archaeological exploration teams is putting significant archaeological sites at risk, namely Babylon. The World Monuments Fund, a New York-based heritage advocacy group has been barred from access to the site – famous for its once hanging gardens and Tower of Babel- due to the diplomatic tensions created by the Iraqi-Jewish archive. The WMF is desperately trying to garner support for Babylon’s installment on UNESCO’s World Heritage List due to an oil pipeline running straight through the site (Laub 2012). According to the Associated Press report, the WMF was in the process of training Iraqi authorities on site preservation and attempting to prepare Babylon’s bid for a spot on the UNESCO list when support from the Iraqi government was pulled. This extraction of US archaeological teams in Iraq due to the struggle over the archive has essentially kicked WMF out of any efforts to secure the site for the future.
Qais Rashid, Head of Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage indicated in the report that the strained relations was a ‘big loss’ for the department, as US resources were relied upon heavily in training and education in the Iraqi heritage sector.
The situation regarding the archive, and the security of the Babylon site will remain in the balance as rights to ownership and to safeguarding continue to be contested for political purposes.