Sunday, November 10, 2013

Cynthia Kaplan Shamash - "Keep the Iraqi Jews’ Legacy Safe – in America"

As I've indicated in a few posts recently, I feel strongly that it would be wrong and unjust for the Iraqi Jewish Archive to be sent back to Baghdad.  Some of the reasons why this is true were explained quote cogently in a New York Times op-ed by Cynthia Kaplan Shamash, who escaped from Iraq with her family as a child.  Her piece is eloquent and convincing, and it's worth reading in full.  But here are some highlights:
Keep the Iraqi Jews’ Legacy Safe – in America

Seventy-five years ago, about 120,000 Jews lived in Iraq. In Baghdad, they were prominent in business and the professions — doctors, lawyers, bankers, professors, musicians, writers, artists, engineers. Last summer, a visitor just back from Iraq told me he could account for only five Iraqi Jews alive in the country. Not 5,000. Not 500. Five. They are too old to leave. When they die, there will be none.  [....]

Then, in May 2003, American soldiers searching the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters for weapons found instead an obviously looted trove of more than 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents in Hebrew, Arabic, Judeo-Arabic and English. The materials dated as far back as 1540, and as recently as the 1970s; they included scroll fragments, a Babylonian Talmud, hand-illustrated prayer books, Hebrew calendars, school primers, personal and business correspondence, Kabbalist commentaries and a Bible from 1568. Conservationists from the National Archives in Washington went to Baghdad to assess the damage and save the articles. Iraqi representatives agreed that the materials should be flown to America, where they were nursed back to life: freeze-dried, cleaned, categorized, photographed and digitized.  [....]

On Friday, an exhibition, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi-Jewish Heritage,” opens at the National Archives. A website has given the world access to the archive. But the collection’s future is uncertain because President George W. Bush’s administration promised that the materials would be returned to Iraq after restoration. That promise’s legality has been contested by Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, and others.

I can understand American sensitivities to accusations of pillaging. During the Iraq war, the United States also removed Baath Party documents, and Iraq is seeking their return, too, on grounds that the Iraqi public can learn from them about their past leaders’ mistakes. But there is a difference between the papers of a murderous dictator and the heritage of an oppressed minority. The Iraqi-Jewish archive never belonged to the Iraqi government; it belonged to the Jews of Iraq.

For me, the Baath Party documents are like the black box from a plane that has crashed: studying them can avert future calamities. The Iraqi-Jewish Archive is more like lost luggage — the treasures of a dispersed people who yearn to reconnect with something, anything, of the life they left behind.

On Thursday, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States suggested a possible loan that would let the material remain in America for some time after the exhibition closes. This may be a first step, but it isn’t a long-term solution.

One hopes that Iraq will know peace and that perhaps Jews can return some day. Maybe then it would make sense to return these materials. But until that distant moment, returning such a vast trove of Jewish heritage to a place where there will soon be no Jews would be perverse — and a failure to acknowledge the devastation caused by anti-Semitism in the Arab world.
As Shamash mentions in her piece, Iraq's Ambassador to the US seems to have broached the possibility of a long-term loan arrangement that would allow the archive to remain in the US for a while without the Iraqi government relinquishing its legal claims. This strikes me as a potentially workable pragmatic compromise solution to this problem—not a permanent or ideal solution, but probably the best type of solution, or quasi-solution, that's realistically available. Of course, if such an agreement can be worked out, much would depend on the details. (For more on this development and its possible implications, see here.)

But the bottom line remains that, one way or another, the Iraqi Jewish Archive should not be sent back to Iraq. If you agree, I urge you to sign THIS PETITION.

—Jeff Weintraub