Bipartisan bill seeks to keep Iraqi Jewish archive in US
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Bipartisan bill seeks to keep Iraqi Jewish archive in US

Senators discussing legislation that would prevent State Department from returning trove of historical documents to Baghdad

An expert in the US restoring one of the books rescued from the Iraqi Jewish community in Baghdad. (Courtesy: US National Archives and Records Administration)
An expert in the US restoring one of the books rescued from the Iraqi Jewish community in Baghdad. (Courtesy: US National Archives and Records Administration)

JTA — A bipartisan group of senators is discussing a bill to keep a trove of Iraqi Jewish artifacts in the United States.

An announcement is expected this week, a source with knowledge of the talks told JTA on Wednesday. A handful of Democratic and Republican lawmakers are involved in the discussions.

Last year, the State Department told JTA that it would return the Iraqi Jewish Archive in September 2018.

The archive was brought to the United States in 2003 after being discovered in the flooded basement of the Iraqi secret service in Baghdad. It contains tens of thousands of Jewish items including books, religious texts, photographs and personal documents that activists say were looted or left behind by Jews forced to flee the country. Under an agreement with the government of Iraq, the archive was to be sent back there.

Volunteers attempt to recover Iraqi Jewish archival material from the flooded basement of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters, 2003. (Harold Rhode, Courtesy of the US National Archives)

The US government spent over $3 million to restore and digitize the archive, which has been exhibited across the country. The archive includes a Hebrew Bible with commentaries from 1568, a Babylonian Talmud from 1793 and an 1815 version of the Jewish mystical text Zohar.

Activists have urged the US not to return the artifacts, saying they should be kept somewhere where they are accessible to Iraqi Jews and their descendants, and questioning whether Iraq would properly take care of the items were they to be sent back. The Iraqi Jewish community was forced to leave the country amid intense persecution by the late dictator Saddam Hussein.

Iraq and proponents of returning the archive say it can serve as an educational tool for Iraqis about the history of Jews there and that it is part of the country’s patrimony.

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