Who Owns Iraq’s Jewish Past?

In the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, U.S. troops discovered a treasure trove of Iraq’s ancient Jewish community in the waterlogged basement of Saddam Hussein’s secret police headquarters. The vast collection included more than 2,700 Jewish books and tens of thousands of documents, the earliest from 1540. They were left behind by a Jewish community that dated tobiblical times, but which fled the country in the anti-Semitic atmosphere that followed the founding of the State of Israel.

So who owns these treasures?

The question is more than academic. Badly water damaged and moldy when they were discovered, the historical collection was transferred to the U.S. for restoration and exhibition in accordance with an agreement with Iraqi authorities. That restoration work is still going on, from an office building in College Park. In October, the National Archives will open an exhibit of the artifacts, which will include a Hebrew Bible from 1568 and a Babylonian Talmud from 1793.

The government of Iraq says the artifacts belong to Iraq and is pressing for their return. The U.S. has not disagreed, but it has not taken any visible steps to begin the return process. In this, the U.S. seems to be in no hurry to shut the door on possible third-party claims to the collection. Opponents of Iraq’s return argue that since the materials were stolen from Iraqi Jews as they were fleeing the country, they belong to those Jews and their descendants rather than the Iraqi government.

We think there is merit to the opposition argument.

But where should the artifacts be housed? At this point, most former Iraqi Jews live in Israel, which seems to be an ideal place for the collection. Housing the materials in Iraq makes little sense for several reasons — not the least of which is that Iraq is still technically in a state of war with Israel, which prevents Iraqi Jews from visiting the possessions that were stolen from them and their parents.

As long as the collection is in the United States, it will be accessible to scholars, the public and Iraqi Jews. So for now — at least until international bodies can sort out the question of ownership or until some international agreement can be reached on the matter — College Park should remain the artifacts’ home.

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