U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) has urged the State Department to not return more than 2,700 Jewish artifacts to Iraq. In 2003, American soldiers found the collection of Iraqi Judaica in the flooded Baghdad Intelligence Center (for the amazing story of the discovery, read Prof. Harold Rhode's account). The collection, which includes partial Torah parchments and ancient prayer books, had been seized by Saddam Hussein’s troops and belonged to members of the exiled Iraqi Jewish community. The collection is being preserved by the National Archives in Washington, DC and the United States has agreed to return the materials to Iraq in 2014.
Schumer said that because these ancient items were stolen, they do not belong to Iraq and therefore, the United States should not return them. Schumer is asking the State Department to work with Jewish organizations and the Iraqi Jewish community to determine an alternative location for these sacred artifacts.
The items of the collection were seized by Saddam Hussein in 1984 from a Baghdad synagogue. The collection was placed there by Iraqi Jews during their mass exodus in the early 1950s. In the 1940s, outbreaks of anti-Jewish rioting occurred, and in 1948 Zionism was a capital crime. Between 1950-1952, more than 130,000 Jews left Iraq and were not allowed to carry more than one suitcase each.
“These sacred artifacts were taken from the Iraqi Jewish community and thus do not belong to the Iraqi government; rather they belong to the thousands of Iraqi Jews, an ancient and once-vibrant community, who were exiled many years ago,” said Schumer. “The Iraqi government illegally obtained these artifacts and I am urging the State Department to do everything in their power to ensure that these treasured artifacts remain available and accessible to Jews worldwide.”
The collection had belonged to synagogues and Jewish organizations in Baghdad. The Iraqi Judaica includes a Hebrew Bible with commentaries from 1568, a Babylonian Talmud from 1793, a Torah scroll fragment from Genesis, a Zohar from 1815 and other sacred ritual objects.
“The Iraqi Jewish community was large, vibrant and once one of the oldest communities of Jews anywhere in the world. Tragically, they were targeted for discrimination and abuse and suffered exile by the tens and tens of thousands, losing precious possessions, including these religious materials, which rightly belong to the exiled community of Iraqi Jews,” said Schumer.
The Iraqi Jewish Archive was shipped to the United States and is now at the Washington, D.C. National Archives. The United States spent $3 million restoring select documents and on October 11th, the National Archives and Records Administration opened an exhibit that displays 24 of the recovered objects.