Unrestored 1930 Passover Haggadah from Vienna is part of the Iraqi Jewish Archive (Photo/National Archives)
Unrestored 1930 Passover Haggadah from Vienna is part of the Iraqi Jewish Archive (Photo/National Archives)

JIMENA presses U.S. to withhold return of Jewish archive to Iraq

The co-founder of a Bay Area group that supports Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa says she is pleased the U.S. government is working to extend the Iraqi Jewish Archive’s stay here and hopes it can find a permanent home in this country.

Gina Waldman, president of San Francisco-based JIMENA, said the collection of tens of thousands of books, documents and artifacts — discovered in 2003 by U.S. soldiers in Iraq — belongs in the possession of the Jews who were forced to flee beginning in the 1930s. The return of the archive to Iraq is scheduled for September.

“This is a patrimony that belongs only to one group of people, the Iraqi Jews. For Iraq to now come and say it’s a part of their patrimony, it’s unjust and unfair,” Waldman said. “Would you give back a Torah that was stolen by a thief and say it’s legitimately his?”

Gina Waldman
Gina Waldman

Most of the items, including everything from Torah scrolls to family keepsakes, were left behind by Jews pushed out of Iraq by a series of governments, or confiscated from synagogues and Jewish community organizations.

The collection, including 2,700 books in Hebrew, Arabic, Judeo-Arabic and English, was discovered in 2003 in the heavily damaged and flooded basement of the Iraqi secret police headquarters in Baghdad and brought to the U.S., where about $3 million has been spent by the U.S. government to restore and digitize the artifacts.

A Senate resolution introduced on July 18 recommends that the return of the archive be renegotiated to allow the collection to remain longer in custody of the National Archives and Records Administration.

The resolution, which was referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, says the 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.”

A State Department official told JTA last week that it is working with Iraqi officials to extend the archive’s stay in the U.S.

Sarah Levin, JIMENA’s executive director, said it should be up to Iraqi Jews — most of whom live in the U.S. or Israel — to determine the archive’s ultimate location. There were about 135,000 Jews in Iraq in 1948, when Zionism was added to the Iraqi criminal code as punishable by death. Levin said fewer than 10 Jews remain in Iraq today.

“We believe the Iraqi Jewish Archive is the property of Iraqi Jews and it needs to be returned to them, and Iraqi Jews don’t live in Iraq any more,” she told J. “When Jews were forced to leave Iraq, they were not permitted to bring personal property with them. Iraqi Jews should be able to claim what’s theirs and what they were not allowed to leave with.”

The archive, some of which has toured around the U.S., includes a Hebrew Bible with commentaries from 1568, a Babylonian Talmud from 1793 and an 1815 version of the Jewish mystical text Zohar.

Waldman said she understands it’s uncomfortable when a nation’s artifacts are seized by foreign soldiers and taken abroad, as has been done throughout history. But in this case, she said, the archive really belongs to the Iraqi Jews who were forced to flee and not to Iraq itself.

“The core issue here is that Iraqi Jews have been forced to flee their own homeland, their nationality was taken away. They were hanging Jews in 1950-52, so basically it became impossible to live in Iraq,” she said. “The trove and all of the communal assets that the Iraqi Jews left behind were forcibly confiscated.”

JTA

JTA news agency

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster is J.'s senior writer. He can be reached at rob@jweekly.com.