A group of over 40 Jewish organizations called Tuesday for the US government to reconsider returning a trove of Jewish artifacts to Iraq, saying they should instead be handed over to Jewish Iraqi expatriate groups that will protect the items’ sanctity.
The collection, including hundreds of holy books and thousands of communal records stretching over five centuries, were discovered in the basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters in 2003 and sent to the US National Archives for restoration, under the condition they eventually be returned to the Iraqi provisional government.
However, Jewish groups and some US lawmakers say the documents, which go on display for the first time this month, were taken from Iraq’s once-thriving Jewish community and should be returned to them and not the government.
On Tuesday the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and 41 other groups sent a letter to US Secretary of State John Kerry and White House officials asking that they “consult with representative bodies of Iraq’s expatriate Jewish community and officials before any further decision is made,” according to a statement released by the conference.
“We are deeply troubled by the prospect that at the end of this long journey the US government plans to return all of these items to Iraq,” the statement read.
The letter adds to an already large list of people calling for the collection to not be returned to Baghdad.
Harold Rhode, an expert on Islamic affairs at the US Defense Department who led the discovery team in 2003, said he is “horrified” to think that the material will be returned to Baghdad.
“[These items] were stolen by the government of Iraq from the Jewish community,” he told The Jewish Week. Returning it, he said, “would be comparable to the US returning to the German government Jewish property that had been looted by the Nazis.”
Sephardic and Iraqi Jewish organizations are campaigning to keep the archive in the US. Michael Salberg, international affairs director of the Anti-Defamation League, has thrown his group’s weight behind the effort. And several American lawmakers are urging the administration not to return the materials.
“These sacred artifacts were taken from the Iraqi Jewish community and thus do not belong to the Iraqi government,” Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) told the New York Daily News. In the House of Representatives, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Democrat Steve Israel (D-NY) are collecting signatures urging the State Department to amend or nullify the agreement.
For its part, the Obama administration is sticking by the agreement, arguing that it expressly states that the collection will be returned to Iraq upon completion of the preservation and exhibition.
An online petition urging the US government to keep the Iraqi Jewish archive has, at the time of this writing, about 8,200 signatures.