Senate bids to save ancient Iraqi Jewish archive

Time is running out for State Dept. to renegotiate the status of the massive collection before it’s returned to Iraq in June

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Centuries-old books and documents from the Iraqi Jewish archive await preservation. (photo credit: Courtesy The National Archives)
Centuries-old books and documents from the Iraqi Jewish archive await preservation. (photo credit: Courtesy The National Archives)

WASHINGTON — Centuries worth of Jewish documents are at risk of vanishing into the vortex of Iraq’s chronic instability, but for American Jewish groups advocating for their preservation, there was a moment of optimism Friday after the US Senate approved a resolution calling for a renegotiation of the archives’ status.

Late Thursday night, the Senate unanimously adopted the resolution, which was initially sponsored by Senators Pat Toomey (R-PA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Barbara Boxer (D-MD), and Ben Cardin (D-MD).

The resolution “strongly urges the Department of State to renegotiate with the Government of Iraq the provisions of the original agreement that was signed between the National Archives and Records Administration and the Coalition Provisional Authority in order to ensure that the Iraqi Jewish Archive be kept in a place where its long-term preservation and care can be guaranteed.”

It also implies that the archives, now in the US, should not be returned to Iraq, stipulating that “the Iraqi Jewish Archive should be housed in a location that is accessible to scholars and to Iraqi Jews and their descendants who have a personal interest in it.” Only a handful of Jews remain in Iraq, and their descendants are scattered across the world, with large numbers living in Israel and the United States.

The archive is a collection of Jewish religious items and documents which were seized from Iraq’s persecuted Jewish community in the 1970s and 1980s, under Saddam Hussein’s regime. It contains more than 2,700 books, dating back as early as the 16th century.

The collection was discovered after Hussein’s overthrow in May 2003 by US forces operating in the headquarters of Iraqi Military Intelligence in Baghdad. Under four feet of water, the books were waterlogged — and when troops attempted to dry them, they began to develop mold.

The entire collection was brought to the National Archives in Washington DC to be restored, scanned, catalogued and preserved. But before the valuable archive was brought to the United States, and — according to the Anti-Defamation League — before scholars and members of the Iraqi Jewish community could evaluate the materials, an agreement was signed between the National Archives and the provisional Iraqi government which stipulated that the archive would be returned to Iraq.

Without a re-negotiation of terms, the items are scheduled to be returned to Baghdad in June, a move that many fear will threaten their very existence.

The Jewish community in the United States has struggled for years to reassess the future of the archive. As early as 2010, the ADL wrote to then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton asking her to intervene and renegotiate the collection’s future.

The trove begs the question of who is the rightful owner of the collection – Iraq or the descendants of the Iraqi Jews from whom the artifacts were taken.

“These invaluable items, some personal, some communal, rightfully belong to the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, AJC’s Director of International Jewish Affairs. “Given the political and security situation in Iraq today, Jewish religious items may not be secure or accessible to those who are most interested in them.”

AJC has urged the State Department to review the understanding with the Iraqi government and find a way to ensure that they will be kept in a place where their long-term preservation and their accessibility to scholars and Iraqi Jews can be guaranteed.

AJC also has discussed this option with the Iraqi Ambassador to the US Lukman Faily who has expressed the hope that a creative solution might be found.

The Orthodox Union’s Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy joined in calls for the State Department to renegotiate the terms of the agreement, explaining that “this issue is non-partisan and is solely a matter of courtesy for the Iraqi Jewish community and their history.”

ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said that the resolution was fair, arguing that it “balances the US commitment to cultural property under international law, while recognizing the unique significance of this Archive to Iraqi Jews and their decedents who overwhelmingly live outside Iraq.”

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