A plan by the State Department to transfer to Iraq 2,700 ancient artifacts and thousands of records that belonged to the Iraqi Jewish community but were seized by Saddam Hussein in 1984 has ignited an international firestorm.
The items were discovered by U.S. forces during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and transported to the U.S. for repair and conservation. Some of articles will be on exhibit in Washington from November 8 through January 5, after which the entire collection will be returned to Iraq at the request of the Iraqi government.
New York Senator Charles Schumer is leading an effort to get the State Department to change plans and honor claims to the trove made by heirs of Iraqi Jews who were forced to leave Iraq by repressive governments. He says, “These sacred artifacts were taken from the Iraqi Jewish community and thus do not belong to the Iraqi government. They belong to the thousands of Iraqi Jews, an ancient and once-vibrant community, who were exiled many years ago.”
Others have noted that the materials represent the only historical record of the once vibrant Jewish communities in Iraq.
The materials were left behind and stored in abandoned synagogues and homes by the more than 130,000 Jews who fled Iraq in the early 1950s after being subjected to violent attacks and repression following the establishment of Israel. Today there are virtually no Jews left in Iraq.
The Iraqi government has said it wants the artifacts returned to Iraq because they are considered Iraqi national treasures. According to a 2010 letter by then-Secretary of State Clinton sent to several Iraqi-Jewish groups, “Iraqi officials have stressed to us their desire to preserve all aspect of the country’s history, including evidence of repression and persecution by the previous regime, and make that history fully accessible to the Iraqi people and the world.”
More likely, some say, the Iraqi demand is based on a desire to delegitimize the history of Iraqi Jewry. Others say the Iraqi government is using this as a way to demonstrate to the world that the U.S. respects Iraqi sovereignty.
No definitive analysis has surfaced as to what international law has to say about Iraq’s right to insist on the return of the items. To be sure, countries have broad powers when it comes to controlling the assets of their citizens. Certainly the State Department believes Iraq is within its rights. Yet we believe the issue is best framed in terms of whether this country, under its own laws, can be complicit in what would amount to outright theft by an American government.
It would be scandalous for the U.S. to transfer the Iraqi Jewish community’s stolen historical record to anyone other than the heirs of that community.