Senators work to keep Jewish artifacts in US

Bipartisan group of senators discussing bill to keep Iraqi Jewish Archive in US.


Iraqi artifacts on display
Iraqi artifacts on display

A bipartisan group of senators is discussing a bill to keep a trove of Iraqi Jewish artifacts in the United States.

An announcement is expected this week, a source with knowledge of the talks told JTA on Wednesday. A handful of Democratic and Republican lawmakers are involved in the discussions.

Last year, the State Department told JTA that it would return the Iraqi Jewish Archive in September 2018.

The archive was brought to the United States in 2003 after being discovered in the flooded basement of the Iraqi secret service in Baghdad. It contains tens of thousands of Jewish items including books, religious texts, photographs and personal documents that activists say were looted or left behind by Jews forced to flee the country. Under an agreement with the government of Iraq, the archive was to be sent back there.

The US government spent over $3 million to restore and digitalize the archive, which has been exhibited across the country. The archive includes a Hebrew Bible with commentaries from 1568, a Babylonian Talmud from 1793 and an 1815 version of the Jewish mystical text Zohar.

Activists have urged the US not to return the artifacts, saying they should be kept somewhere where they are accessible to Iraqi Jews and their descendants, and questioning whether Iraq would properly take care of the items were they to be sent back. Most of the Iraqi Jewish community fled the country by the 1950s, with some 10,000 remaining by the early 1960s. Thousands more left the country in the 1970s, and by the late 2000s, less than a dozen Jews remained in Iraq.

Iraq and proponents of returning the archive say it can serve as an educational tool for Iraqis about the history of Jews there and that it is part of the country’s patrimony.