JIMENA, the San Francisco-based nonprofit that promotes Jewish culture of the Middle East and North Africa, co-signed a letter along with 17 other Jewish groups urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to make sure Jewish heritage in the Middle East and North Africa is respected.
The letter, which concerns agreements made by the U.S. with other countries in order to prevent looting and theft of cultural heritage, asks Pompeo to exclude Jewish artifacts from the agreements, saying they don’t really belong to those countries’ governments.
“The signing of memoranda are based on the false premise that property confiscated from Jews when they fled or were ethnically cleansed from Arab countries constitutes the national heritage of these countries,” JIMENA director Sarah Levin said in an e-mail to J.
JIMENA is concerned about important objects of Jewish heritage — from Torah cases to prayer books — left behind as Jews fled countries in which they were persecuted following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, and says the State Department agreements deny Jews access to their own past.
“There are estimates that in today’s current values Jewish refugees were forced to leave behind six billion dollar’s worth of private and communal property and we are committed to pursuing justice for these losses,” she said.
The letter was co-signed by organizations including the Anti-Defamation League, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the World Jewish Congress North America.
It calls on Pompeo to ensure “that a policy is in place that protects Jewish and Christian heritage by explicitly excluding them from any import restrictions and rejecting any state claims to individual and communal property.”
The letter recognizes the need to deter the theft of important archeological and ethnological materials, but points out that the agreements are also supposed to require governments to protect minority religion heritage sites such as synagogues and cemeteries, a stipulation that is often ignored.
Last year, JIMENA protested an agreement that the U.S. reached with Libya, saying it did not exclude Jewish artifacts. The State Department later told JTA that certain Jewish artifacts were exempt from the deal. Earlier this year, the organization fought to keep an archive of tens of thousands of Iraqi Jewish documents and artifacts discovered in 2003 by U.S. soldiers from being returned to Iraq (the fate of the archive is still undecided).