Speaking at a 31 March New York conference on the legal issues posed by the question of the Iraq-Jewish archive, American attorney Nat Lewin said that the community should not wait until the archive was returned to Iraq before taking action, insisting that the community would receive a sympathetic hearing in the US.
Harold Rhode, who was assigned to Baghdad as a defense analyst, told how the the Iraqi-Jewish archive was rescued from the waterlogged basement of the secret police headquarters in 2003. It was shipped to the US to be preserved, restored and digitized at a cost of $3 million. The archive is slated to go back to Iraq in June 2014 when an exhibition of 24 items from the collection ends at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan.
While the material is being exhibited it is protected from seizure under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
There is a precedent for cultural property to be returned to its owners: the Russian government was forced to return the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe's library to the international Hassidic organisation Chabad in New York. It had been seized by the Bolsheviks in 1917.
Nat Lewin, who has taken on numerous Jewish cases pro bono, represented Chabad in that instance. The Iraqi-Jewish archive was less straightforward, however, since there are multiple owners. Like the Chabad library, the archive was not valuable but represented the biography of the Iraqi-Jewish community.
Among the owners are the family of Carole Basri, herself a US lawyer. Her grandfather, Frank Iny, had in the 1940s established and privately owned the Frank Iny Jewish school. A large collection of Frank Iny records has been found in the archive.
At the conference Carole Basri remarked that this year was the 2,600th anniversary of the start of the Babylonian exile. It also marked the end of the Iraqi-Jewish community. Save for five Jews still in Baghdad, the Jewish community had been "ethnically-cleansed".
The memorandum of understanding obliging the US to return the archive to Iraq after restoration had been drafted in a hurry by the then government of Iraq, the CPA, explained lawyer Linda Lurie. The drafters had assumed that the archive was the cultural property of Iraq, but had had no time to look into competing ownerships.
However, the memo of understanding signed between the CPA and the National Archives did not have the force of an international treaty, pointed out Bruce M. Montgomery of the university of Colorado, author of an in-depth article on the archive.
The archive could not be considered 'war booty'. Under the 1909 Hague Convention, the US considered itself committed to helping the 'occupied' nation - Iraq - protect its property. But the current statutes did not take into account cases where the property belonged to a religious minority.
Chairing the discussion, Malvina Halberstam, a lecturer at Cardozo Law School, said that in the film The Monuments Men, US wartime personnel were ready to risk their lives to find and restore French works of art seized by the Nazis to France.
The Iraqi archive was part of the Jewish refugee problem, she observed.
The full (two-and-a-half hour-long) conference can be watched here.
Story originally published in Point of No Return blog. Republished by Arutz Sheva with permission from the author.
Arutz Sheva Staff contributed to this report.