Sunday, November 10, 2013

Iraq's ambassador to the US suggests a (potentially) workable compromise solution to the question of the Iraqi Jewish Archive

I have posted a few items recently about the controversy over the Iraqi Jewish Archive, portions of which are currently on display in a special exhibition at the National Archives in Washington DC ("Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage").  This is a collection of sacred texts and other documents and objects from the history of Iraq's now-vanished Jewish community that were seized by Saddam Hussein's regime, dumped in a basement in the Secret Police headquarters, and left to rot there.  The archive was saved in 2003 when US soldiers, tipped off by a regime functionary, found it and removed it from that flooded basement.  After some complicated negotiations the archive was sent to the US, where its contents were preserved and painstakingly restored.  However, the US Government, acting though the Coalition Provisional Authority, agreed that after the restoration of the archive was completed it would be returned to Iraq.  That handover is scheduled to happen in 2014.

As I've already indicated, I think that sending the Iraqi Jewish Archive back to Baghdad would be wrong and unjust. I've signed THIS PETITION at Avaaz.Org, and I urge others to sign it, too:
"I call upon the US government NOT to return the Jewish archive to Iraq. To do so would compound the injustice done to the Jews of Iraq, whose property it was before they were robbed of it through a deliberate state policy of persecution and ethnic cleansing. The archive should be returned to its rightful owners and assured of proper care and conservation. We suggest it should go to Israel, where the greatest concentration of Jews of Iraqi descent are to be found."
Some of the reasons why it would be wrong to return the the Iraqi Jewish Archive to Iraq have been convincingly explained by Lyn Julius (with more at her excellent website Point of No Return) and by Cynthia Kaplan Shamash.

(Regarding the legal issues, which are complicated, see also Bruce Montgomery's article, "Rescue or Return: The Fate of the Iraqi Jewish Archive," in the International Journal of Cultural Property; excerpts here.)

=>  Normally, and everything else being equal, the kind of agreement entered into by the US government in 2003 should be scrupulously honored.  But in this case the government of Iraq had no valid claim to the archive in the first place, since it was stolen property.  The broader, less legalistic claim that this archive constitutes part of Iraq's cultural heritage is also dubious, to say the least.  It's true that for two and a half millennia the Jewish community in what is now Iraq was an important part of the social fabric, and as recently as 1948 this community numbered over 120,000. But starting in the 1940s that community was completely driven out of Iraq.  (This was part of the larger process by which the Arab world was ethnically cleansed of Jews almost 100% during that period ... which, in turn, was one of the many episodes of expulsion, deportation, and traumatic "population exchange" running through the history of the terrible 20th century.)  Except for 5 elderly Jews, at last count, still surviving in Baghdad, Iraqi Jews now live entirely outside Iraq.  A large proportion of them are citizens of Israel, whose Israeli passports rule out their even visiting Iraq. The vast majority of those who fled or were expelled had almost all their possessions confiscated, and that was true for Jewish communal property as well.  If you steal your neighbor's books, burn down his house, and drive him away, that's bad enough.  It's a little perverse to then turn around and claim that his books are part of your cultural heritage.

So the moral case against sending the Iraqi Jewish Archive back to Baghdad strikes me as open-and-shut.

On the other hand, all the available alternatives carry their own drawbacks, complications, and dilemmas—legal, political, diplomatic, and otherwise.  In so far as the Iraqi Jewish Archive really belongs to anyone, it belongs to Iraqi Jews.  But the Iraqi Jewish community has no collective institutional framework that could take the archive and administer it, and no generally recognized representatives authorized to speak officially on its behalf.  My impression is that tracing the ownership of most objects in the archive to specific individuals or families would be difficult (though I could be wrong about that), and at all events it would be a pity to break up a collection of such historic importance.  It also makes sense to take into account the trauma and devastation that Iraq itself has experienced.  Over the past two decades, and especially since the beginning of the 2003 Iraq war, there have been devastating losses to Iraq's archeological and cultural heritage (I mean the heritage to which Iraq as a nation can legitimately lay claim), including appalling amounts of looting.  That doesn't give Iraq a valid claim on the Jewish archive, but it does make it understandable that Iraqis might be especially touchy regarding objects taken out of Iraq during the war.  And since the US shares considerable responsibility for that post-Saddam devastation, its role in this affair is inevitably compromised.  If it appears that the US is simply grabbing the Jewish archive from Iraq, anti-semites (and idiots) all over the world will start screaming that this is another case of greedy Jews using their control over the US government to plunder others.  The opinions of anti-semites (and idiots) shouldn't be treated as decisive; but if it's possible to address this problem in ways that can avoid giving them encouragement and public-relations assistance, that would be a factor to consider.  At all events—and I think this is a key point—it's likely that the US government will be very reluctant to unilaterally break its agreement to return the archive to Iraq, if only for legalistic and diplomatic reasons.  And there are some sensible reasons for concern about such a move, which can't simply be dismissed by people of good will.  I suspect that archeologists, for example, might feel very nervous about the wider consequences of the precedent this might set.

In short, this is a problem with no totally clean or cost-free solution.  So it's one of those cases where there is a good deal to be said for finding a workable and less-than-totally-unsatisfactory way to kick the problem down the road, if possible.

=>  It seems that Iraq's ambassador to the US may have suggested a pragmatic face-saving compromise solution along those lines.  His suggestion is that the Iraqi government might agree to leave the Iraqi Jewish Archive in the US on a long-term loan, without formally relinquishing its legal claims to the archive.  This would not be a permanent solution, and a lot would depend on how the details of such an arrangement are worked out.  But it strikes me that an arrangement of this sort might be the best, or least bad, practical solution that's realistically available right now.

According to a report in the Forward on Thursday:
While stressing his country’s ownership of the Jewish artifacts now on display at the National Archives in Washington, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States hinted that his country could be open to discussing a loan agreement which would delay the return of the objects to Baghdad.

Ambassador Lukman Faily said an Iraq government delegation would be discussing the issue of a loan deal with U.S. authorities soon.

“We don’t see that as a problem, but as of now, the agreement is for these artifacts to go back home,” Faily said. [....]

The fate of the objects now on display has mobilized Jewish activists in the United States as well as members of Congress, who are demanding the material remain in the United States despite an agreement signed in 2003 that promises all artifacts are returned to Iraq once the restoration process and the exhibitions are complete. The activists noted that the materials in the Jewish Iraqi archive were seized unlawfully by Saddam and should be returned to their owners. If owners are not found, they are asking to keep the archives in the U.S., because members of the Iraqi Jewish community will not be able to access them in Iraq.

Responding to these arguments Ambassador Faily said: “We appreciate where they are coming from but you also have to appreciate this was an agreement, a legal agreement, agreed with the [Coalition Provisional Authority] back in 2003 and its owned by the Iraqi government.” He added that his government will take good care of the papers when upon their return and will be sensitive to their religious importance to the Jewish community. “We fully appreciate that and we, as Muslims, have a similar perspective regarding the Quran and others, but this is owned by the Iraqi government, it’s a historical agreement we made and we preceding with it.” [....]

Anthony Godfrey, director of the Iraq affairs office at the State Department told the Forward the administration is proceeding with the plan to return the artifacts to Iraq based on the 2003 agreement. “I have to underscore that without this commitment and without the preservation of these documents the materials now known as the Iraqi Jewish archive simply would not have exist,” Godfrey said.

Both the Iraqi ambassador and the U.S. official noted that an efforts is being made to ensure that the archives are well preserved after they are flown back to Baghdad. Two specialists from Iraq are currently undergoing training at the National Archives in Washington in order to make sure no damage is done to the material in Iraq. The conditions under which the Jewish archives will be kept in Iraq, Godfrey said, “will be in conformity with the standards we set here.” [....]

“These artifacts were found in the basement of the intelligence, which meant this was the police state of Saddam Hussein,” Faily added, “We are no longer a police state.”
I reiterate that it would be wrong and unjust to actually send the Iraqi Jewish Archive back to Baghdad. But if the Iraqi government is willing to reach an agreement that leaves the archive safely in the US, under the guise of a long-term loan arrangement, that could be the best pragmatic solution available. So Ambassador Faily's initiative looks promising and encouraging—at least potentially.

On the other hand, the only reason why the Iraqi government—and, for that matter, the US government—might be willing to be flexible and accommodating in this matter is that a certain amount of political pressure has been mobilized to support the moral case against returning the Iraqi Jewish Archive to Iraq. And a great deal will depend on how the details of any potential agreement get worked out—for example, this would need to be an indefinite loan, explicitly or in practice, and not just a short-term delay. So it's important for that political pressure to be maintained and increased.

You can contribute to that effort, and (potentially) be part of the solution, by adding your signature to THIS PETITION.

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  Another passage in the Forward article made me smile a bit ruefully:
Iraq’s ambassador, who took part at the kickoff event of the exhibit, said it sends “a message to the world that the new Iraq is accommodating to everyone.” Faily later said in an interview that the Jewish community is welcome to take part in the re-birth or his country. “The Jewish community is an integral part. There is no reason for them not to come back to Iraq and play an important role in our development."
When I read those quotations, I couldn't help being reminded of two old sayings—that "an ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country" and that "hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue". In the real world, the Jews are not welcome in Iraq, and few members of the Iraqi Jewish diaspora would be crazy enough to take Ambassador Faily's assurances seriously. On the other hand, it would be nice if what he said were true. In the meantime, if the Iraqi government is actually willing to be reasonably "accommodating" with respect to the fate of the Iraqi Jewish Archive, that would be commendable enough.