JERUSALEM - The United States should not return the Iraqi Jewish archive that is currently on loan to the US government to Baghdad, the archive’s chief rescuer urged.
A retired Middle East analyst at the Office of the US Department of Defense who was instrumental in securing the Iraqi Jewish archive and ensuring its shipment to the US for preservation, said that "sending the material back to Baghdad would be comparable to the US returning to the German government Jewish property that had been looted by the Nazis" because the material had been plundered from the Jewish community by the Saddam Hussein regime.
Rhode, who discovered the precious artifacts while on assignment to Iraq’s transitional government, made the remark at a World Jewish Congress/Israel Council on Foreign Relations symposium, "The Imperiled Legacy of Iraqi Jewry and the Struggle to Prevent the Return of its Archive to Baghdad."
The event examined the story about a trove of Jewish documents and holy books rescued from Baghdad documenting 2,600 years of a Jewish presence in Iraq. The archive, which consists of artifacts seized from Iraqi Jews and their institutions by the Baath regime during the 1970s and 1980s, was brought to Washington in 2003 after the fall of Saddam Hussein. It is scheduled to be returned to Iraq in June 2014 pursuant to an agreement made when the archive was discovered.
American Jews, including the WJC-United States, have taken the position that the archive must remain protected and accessible to Iraqi Jews around the world and that “it would be inappropriate to return the Iraqi Jewish archive to Iraq” this year. The American Jewish umbrella group the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations wrote a letter to US Secretary of State John Kerry late last year asking him to “consult with representatives of the Iraqi Jewish Diaspora” about the archive before any action is taken.
The Jerusalem gathering also explored the question of justice for Jewish refugees from Arab lands. Irwin Cotler, Canada's former minister of justice and attorney general, told a capacity audience of activists, diplomats, academics and students that it is "high time that the forced exodus of Jews from Arab lands be introduced to the international agenda after the unconscionable neglect of the issue for six decades."
A third panelist, Edwin Shuker, a London-based Jewish communal leader from Iraq and former president of the Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, shared with the audience his discovery that his school report card was among the documents retrieved from Baghdad by Rhode.
Jews lived in Iraq from Babylonian times, but in the 20th century the rise of Arab nationalism and the conflict in Palestine made their situation precarious. In 1941, local extremists in Baghdad killed hundreds and injured thousands of Jews in several days of rioting and looting that came to be known as the Farhud pogrom. After the establishment of Israel in 1948, the Iraqi government retaliated against the Jewish population with harsh and discriminatory laws. Most Iraqi Jews had fled Iraq for Israel by the early 1950s.
After World War II and the establishment of the State of Israel, the World Jewish Congress was perhaps the foremost organization assisting Jews in Arab and other Muslim countries. In the 1950s, the WJC negotiated the safe passage of Jewish refugees with a number of Arab governments, especially in North Africa. The issue of the 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands continues to be a focus of the organization.
The WJC is committed to raising the plight of Jews who fled from, or still live in, Arab lands and their specific concerns with governments and international organizations. Where illegal seizure of assets took place, these should be returned to their former owners, or adequate compensation should be paid. Jews remaining in Arab lands, as well as other religious minorities, should be granted religious freedom and allowed to practice their faith according to their traditions.
Jewish communal sites in Arab countries must be preserved and respected. The cause of Jewish refugees from Arab countries was the subject of a November 2013 conference at the United Nations sponsored by the World Jewish Congress, Israel's Mission to the United Nations, the Presidents' Conference and Justice for Jews from Arab Countries.
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