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Do Iraqi-Jewish Treasures belong in Iraq or Elsewhere?
October 7, 2013 6:35 PM   Subscribe

On Oct. 11, provided the government shutdown doesn’t interfere, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D.C., will open an exhibit titled “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage.” On display will be some of the rarest of the materials that were salvaged from the flooded basement of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s dreaded intelligence service. All told, the collection contains an estimated 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents that once belonged to the Jews of Baghdad, who, until they began to flee for Israel in the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, constituted one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, dating back more than 2,500 years. - In the chaos of the 2003 war, remnants of a once-thriving Jewish past were saved (or stolen?) by America. Where do they belong?

Some more perspective
posted by beisny (75 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Isn't there anyone in the Iraqi-Jewish diaspora that would have a better claim to them?
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:55 PM on October 7, 2013


Why did Chalabi, Cheney, and Rumsfeld act so immediately on behalf of the archive? In an interview, Rhode said that these political leaders just “did the right thing.”
LOL. Chalabi, Cheney, Rumsfeld.... if you were thinking of a list of people least likely to "do the right thing" that would be a good start.
posted by ennui.bz at 7:15 PM on October 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


Well, you guys are in the same position the Brits were when they “saved” the Elgin Marbles…
posted by scruss at 7:26 PM on October 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Isn't there anyone in the Iraqi-Jewish diaspora that would have a better claim to them?


Yes. Every single item in the collection was stolen within living memory, and if the original owner is not alive, his or heir proper heir can be found.

Just don't expect to have a paper trail to document these things, as most Iraqi Jews were smuggled out by Kurdish guides who did not allow much carry-on along.
posted by ocschwar at 7:37 PM on October 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


“saved”

To the victor go the savings.
posted by pompomtom at 7:38 PM on October 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm with ocshwar. They should be reinstated to the families of the original owners, as, for example, objects stolen by Nazis have been.
posted by Miko at 8:01 PM on October 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Really don't like the closing paragraph:

It’s out of that sense of solidarity that some Jews are going to continue to demand the “restitution” of these archives to Jewish hands. But it’s a different kind of solidarity, and a hope for a different kind of justice, that motivates those who seek its return to Iraq.

I think that those hopes and that "different kind of solidarity" are good and important things, but a sense of justice would argue that the books should be given to the descendants of those who were forced to abandon them. If those people then wish to give the books to the Iraq Library and Archives, well then, that would be wonderful.

Also, the books' physical presence in Iraq is not a prerequisite for a society to remember its long history of Judaism. If Iraqis want to be sure that is remembered, they have the power to do that, aided in many ways, not least by the incredible digitization project now underway.
posted by Miko at 8:10 PM on October 7, 2013



It’s out of that sense of solidarity that some Jews are going to continue to demand the “restitution” of these archives to Jewish hands. But it’s a different kind of solidarity, and a hope for a different kind of justice, that motivates those who seek its return to Iraq.


The thing is, that is simply factually wrong. The Iraqi government wants the archive because they want to re-assert their sovereignty. You don't express solidarity with a minority you chased out of the country by holding on to goods you stole from them. But the taking of the Jewish archive was in breach of the understanding the Iraqi interim government had with the US Army in 2003, and that's why they want the stuff back.

I do NOT support returning the archive to Iraq, but I can see why the government would make that demand. What disgusts me is the Obama administration willingness to fold on the issue. If the archive stayed in DC, the Iraqi government would issue a perfunctory protest of this one final violation of their country's territorial sovereignty, and that would be the end of it. Baghdad has more important issues to confront, like the militias running around murdering their citizens, the civil war next door, the periodic invasions from Turkey and incursions from Iran, the repression of the Iraqi's Arab cousins in Iran, et cetera.

And the Iraqi citizenry would ignore the issue entirely. I'm Israeli, and one of the things you'll notice is that Iraqis are the one Arab nation that does not troll Israeli discussion sites. When they show up, they stay polite, and usually ask about the well being of Iraqi Jews. (This even applies with Youtube comments on Israeli clips). None of them really want this collection back. Some day, an Iraqi museum curator will decide to go out and acquire Iraqi-related Jewish artifacts for a display. And he will ask. Politely.
posted by ocschwar at 8:28 PM on October 7, 2013 [7 favorites]


In the process of invasion and occupation the US came across, (and accidentally destroyed or allowed to be destroyed) thousands of historical artifacts from civilizations across the ages.

"The United States and its allies ignored the warnings of organizations and scholars concerning the protection of Iraq's cultural heritage, including museums, libraries, archaeological sites and other precious repositories. Arsonists badly burned the National Library and looters pillaged the National Museum. Looters also damaged or destroyed many historic buildings and artifacts. The US constructed a military base on the site of ancient Babylon. Coalition forces destroyed or badly damaged many historic urban areas and buildings, while thieves have ruined thousands of incomparable, unprotected archaeological sites."

But somehow, in the middle of this cultural shitstorm the elite of the US political class decided it was desperately important to protect and illegally 'airlift' only those treasures that were Jewish.

Not Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Medo-Persian, Seleucid and Parthian,not Rashidun not Abbasid, not Mongol, not Turk, Kurd or Assyrian. Not Ottoman, Mamluk or Safavid. Just Jewish.

Just Jewish.
posted by fingerbang at 8:43 PM on October 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah, that struck me too. Because it was, er, "the right thing to do."
posted by Miko at 8:54 PM on October 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Sumerians called and said they're OK with their stuff being in the British Museum.

Seriously, did you read the articles? We're not talking about treasures: most of the stuff we're talking about is whatever was lying around in synagogues when their owners escaped. And the owners are still alive, or their heirs are. And the operation was initially organised and funded by Ahmed Chalabi himself. So it's a bunch of stinking, water-soaked crap that was lying around Saddam Hussein's basement and about which nobody cares except Iraqi Jews. I can't see any reason to object to this, other than the one you put forward: it's Jews.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:03 PM on October 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm not following you - you can't see any reason to object to what?

Yes, I did read the articles, closely, and also have done a fair amount of study of repatriation and cultural patrimony issues. This one's pretty classic. It seems clear that the books weren't abandoned because they were "crap," but because it was impossible to consider disposing of them another way, and the people who they belonged to pointedly did not want to destroy them.

If we're "not talking about treasures," why the multi-million dollar digitizing project that will become of the world's most importantdigital archives of Jewish history?
posted by Miko at 9:08 PM on October 7, 2013


I mean, I'm not sure how you get "a bunch of stinking, water-soaked crap that was lying around Saddam Hussein's basement and about which nobody cares except Iraqi Jews" out of:
The materials... offer an amazing window into the Iraqi Jewish past. They include some very rare Jewish books: a 16th-century Hebrew Bible with commentaries; an 18th-century Babylonian Talmud; 48 Torah scroll fragments; a Zohar from 1815; a 1928 edition of Pirkei Avot with commentary in the Judeo-Arabic of Baghdad, published in Livorno; and a 5732 (1972-73) Hebrew- and Arabic-language Jewish calendar, one of the last produced in Baghdad. They also included all sorts of papers documenting Jewish life in 20th-century Baghdad: communal records, Jewish school records, applications for university admissions, business records, and even family photographs.

These materials have been called the “Iraqi Jewish archive,” but the name is somewhat misleading. An “archive” usually refers to a collection of papers that were saved, organized and made available for future use because of their historical importance. The Iraqi Jewish archive is more like what you might find in a Geniza, a repository in a synagogue or Jewish cemetery for Hebrew books that are no longer usable but cannot be thrown away because of their sacred character. These papers and books were left behind, probably in a Baghdad synagogue, by Jews as they fled Iraq; the majority—120,000—departed in 1950-51, in the mass migration called “Operation Ezra and Nehemiah,” which was facilitated by an Israeli airlift. The Iraqi state forbade Jewish emigrants to take much in the way of personal effects, let alone communal property. Rather than destroy the books and documents, emigrating Jews left them in the synagogue where they remained until they were seized by the Iraqi secret police in the 1980s. Two sets of hands thus put this collection together: Jews unable to bring them along on their journey from Iraq but unwilling to destroy them; and the regime that persecuted them, drove them out and, once they had gone, confiscated their property.
posted by Miko at 9:16 PM on October 7, 2013 [1 favorite]



But somehow, in the middle of this cultural shitstorm the elite of the US political class decided it was desperately important to protect and illegally 'airlift' only those treasures that were Jewish.


Nothing desperate about it. The US Army had good reason to race into Saddam's Mukhabarat HQ. They were supposed to hand everything to the Iraqi National Council, but, dude, it's the Mukhabarat. If there was anything in there that might reveal anything awkward, the US had an interest in at least being the first to know, if not hide outright from the INC to avoid triggering Iraqi on Iraqi violence.

Once there, they probably didn't even need more than two trucks to get the archive out. And only one of the many C130s flying out of Iraq empty at the time.


Not Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Medo-Persian, Seleucid and Parthian,not Rashidun not Abbasid, not Mongol, not Turk, Kurd or Assyrian. Not Ottoman, Mamluk or Safavid. Just Jewish.


All those periods are part of Iraq's heritage, and nobody would deny them their right to preserve it. But we are talking about the personal property of knowable nameable individuals who were treated abominably by Iraq.
posted by ocschwar at 9:20 PM on October 7, 2013 [4 favorites]



I mean, I'm not sure how you get "a bunch of stinking, water-soaked crap that was lying around Saddam Hussein's basement and about which nobody cares except Iraqi Jews" out of:


Because they were left to rot, soak and stink in a basement by Saddam Hussein's intelligence agency.
posted by ocschwar at 9:24 PM on October 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


ocschwar: Because they were left to rot, soak and stink in a basement by Saddam Hussein's intelligence agency.

While they do seem to have been left in the basement by the Mukhabarat, the article does mention that the water damage seems to be due to flooding resulting from an unexploded bomb dropped during the war. I don't think they were being deliberately desecrated previously, and I can imagine that the Mukhabarat had bigger fish to fry once UXO was literally crashing through the roof.
posted by curious.jp at 9:28 PM on October 7, 2013


"All those periods are part of Iraq's heritage, and nobody would deny them their right to preserve it. But we are talking about the personal property of knowable nameable individuals who were treated abominably by Iraq."

Ah now I understand.

It's because the Americans are desperately concerned with the personal property of Iraqis who have been treated badly.

There are literally of Iraqis from various backgrounds, Shia, Sunni, Arab, Turk, Kurd, Assyrian who have had their personal property appropriated by the state. Many have lost houses, land, possessions, money, jewelry, religious artifacts and more (family members, fingers, sanity etc.)

As soon as they get this shit digitized I'm quite sure the Americans will be back to find that personal property of those knowable nameable individuals. They're probably in the middle of planning it now! I'll let my family in Dohuk know to expect them.
posted by fingerbang at 9:44 PM on October 7, 2013


Miko, to say that the material valuable because they're digitising it is to beg the question. I presume the reason they're digitising it is that the material will be sent back to Iraq, where it will almost certainly be lost forever. So it's very important to Iraqi refugees, many of whom have literally no genealogical or other records of their family.

The most valuable-sounding text in financial terms is the "16th century Jewish Bible with commentaries", which I suspect is actually a single volume of the Plantin Polyglot. If it were not water-soaked it would be worth a thousand dollars or so. Some of the others might be worth a few hundred on Ebay, but it's quite telling that they single out "a 5732 (1972-73) Hebrew- and Arabic-language Jewish calendar". I have a 5732 Hebrew- and English-language Jewish calendar; do you think they would take it in exchange?

And, I stress that the Iraqis didn't want the Jews. The second-oldest Jewish community in the world, the only one singled out in Jewish prayers, home of the Babylonian Talmud and any number of other Jewish texts, is no more. The Iraqi Jews were all driven out, or killed. Do you really think that the Iraqis actually want Jewish documents for any reason other than spite?
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:52 PM on October 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Interesting how someone would infer special treatment for Jews in a story about Jews' religious artifacts being returned against their will to a Muslim country that they were expelled from
posted by knoyers at 9:53 PM on October 7, 2013 [9 favorites]


Here's a website with accounts from Iraqi Jews and a petition against the transfer of the archives: Iraqi Jewish Archives.

And here's a website featuring a Jewish Iraqi exile's memories of his life in Iraq before the Farhud: Reminisce. It's quite charming; short anecdotes attached to drawings.

Finally, here's Harold Rhode's own account of the texts' rescue. You can guess his position from the article's title. Outrage: U.S. Returning Artifacts Looted from Iraqi Jews to Iraq, Instead of Lawful Owners
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:29 PM on October 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't really have a dog in this fight, but it seems like a really strange hill to die on, siding against refugees' having some relatively inexpensive personal/community effects--books, papers, family photos and records--returned to them, in favor of these same effects being sent back to the country that originally expelled them. The argument being what, that the secret police there have the stronger claim to them--as what, trophies? Or that some other personal effects from some other refugee group have not been returned--'It's not right to do the right thing in Case A because the right thing has not yet been done in Cases B or C?

It really takes some suspiciously tendentious torturing of the ethical circumstances to argue the inheritors of the oppressive regime that expelled them have more rights to grandma's photos than the grandchildren have. It's almost as if there's some other motivation at play in making that call.
posted by perhapsolutely at 10:43 PM on October 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


There is a special irony in the vehemence with which this property is being demanded to be returned to its rightful owners, even where there is no documented proof of ownership.

I support the return of the artifacts. Although it is a shame that Iraqi-Jewish history will ultimately leave Iraq forever, I guess that bridge has pretty much already been crossed. Also a shame.
posted by MuffinMan at 11:49 PM on October 7, 2013


[No metadiscussion in-thread, please.]
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 2:40 AM on October 8, 2013


Definetly not in the US. Artifacts always belong to the society [which changes of course] and place where they originated. It's more important that Iraqi's know that there was a Jewish population in Iraq than it is that Isreali Jews possess these books. Lets please not forget that Iraq was largely secular for a long long time.

I know there is some value in the object but this is not Cleopatra's Needle. There is a difference now in that the content of books is easily reproducable. These artifacts are easily scanned and made available.

I think the polite thing to do would be to digitize the books and then offer the original copies to whomever would best keep them.
posted by vapidave at 3:35 AM on October 8, 2013


Vapidave wrote: Artifacts always belong to the society [which changes of course] and place where they originated.

These documents were not created by the Artifact Fairy. They are private belongings confiscated (only a few decades ago!) by a violently racist regime that extirpated the community in which they were created. To the extent that it survives, it is outside Iraq.

It's more important that Iraqi's know that there was a Jewish population in Iraq than it is that Isreali Jews possess these books.

OK, I'm channeling a hypothetical Iraqi Jew, Sam: "Sam, Vapidave thinks that your family's records should stay in Iraq so that Iraqis know that there was a Jewish population there. How do you feel about it?"

Sam: "Iraqis are perfectly aware that there was a Jewish population in Iraq and they take great pains to ensure that it doesn't return. Most Iraqi Jews were rendered stateless and literally driven out at gunpoint. Giving these articles to Iraq would legitimise the original act of theft and be a further insult to the victims. But here's a thought: let Iraq show contrition by allowing Iraqi Jews to return to their homes and compensate them for their confiscated property. That way there would actually be a Jewish population there and other Iraqis wouldn't need any reminder given by a hypothetical museum that does not and never will exist."

Hmm. Sam seems pretty convincing to me, Vapidave. Any response?
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:21 AM on October 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Iraqis are perfectly aware that there was a Jewish population in Iraq and they take great pains to ensure that it doesn't return. Most Iraqi Jews were rendered stateless and literally driven out at gunpoint. Giving these articles to Iraq would legitimise the original act of theft and be a further insult to the victims. But here's a thought: let Iraq show contrition by allowing Iraqi Jews to return to their homes and compensate them for their confiscated property. That way there would actually be a Jewish population there and other Iraqis wouldn't need any reminder given by a hypothetical museum that does not and never will exist."

Samy: "Israelis are perfectly aware that there was an Arab population in Palestine and they take great pains to ensure that it doesn't return. Most Palestinians were rendered stateless and literally driven out at gunpoint. Giving these articles to Israel would legitimise the original act of theft and be a further insult to the victims. But here's a thought: let Israel show contrition by allowing Palestinians to return to their homes and compensate them for their confiscated property. That way there would actually be a Palestinian population there and other Israelis wouldn't need any reminder given by a hypothetical museum that does not and never will exist."
posted by xqwzts at 5:06 AM on October 8, 2013


[Speaking of hypotheticals: maybe not so much with the imaginary interlocutors, or the substituting one people for another? Please address the facts at hand instead, thank you.]
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 5:19 AM on October 8, 2013


Xqwzts, I think your analogy throws more heat than light, but if expatriate Palestinians were trying to recover their confiscated documents and personal records from the Israeli government I would totally endorse their return.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:27 AM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


[A few comments removed: no ad hominems. At this point it's either assume good faith, assume the assumption of good faith, and direct your comments at the topic and not other users; or walk away from the thread for the time being and/or take it to MeFi Mail or MetaTalk.]
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 6:57 AM on October 8, 2013




There are literally of Iraqis from various backgrounds, Shia, Sunni, Arab, Turk, Kurd, Assyrian who have had their personal property appropriated by the state. Many have lost houses, land, possessions, money, jewelry, religious artifacts and more (family members, fingers, sanity etc.)


Iraqis who can be safely presumed to be still in Iraq, and whose personal effects, if found in Mukhabarat HQ, could stay in Iraq while the authorities investigate how to return them.

As opposed to Jewish property, where all of the owners departed long ago.

Fingerbang, please explain what the problem is here.
posted by ocschwar at 7:01 AM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Joe in Australia: I specifically quoted your whole text because you brought up the right to return. You say you endorse the return of confiscated documents, ignoring the return of confiscated property.

I don't believe you support the Palestinian right to return to the lands they were unjustly evicted from, although that is what you mention in your hypothetical conversation from another perspective. I simply changed the actors. but the situation and wordage is the same.

I hope that we can recognize that crime and justice should be held to universal standards regardless of the nationality/ideology of the victims or perpetrators. In this situation the parallel exists between the Iraqi Jewish community and the Palestinian Arab community, yet the justice proposed for one is far from acceptable for the other. One of the frustrations in discussing Arab-Israeli issues is this sense of hypocrisy and I felt this example could shed some light on it.

FWIW I support the right of return of all indigenous peoples to their lands and oppose colonialism and ethnic cleansing in all their forms. Is it naive to think that in this day and age other rational people should feel the same way?

As for the exhibit in the OP, I think the question is can these artifacts be considered Jewish and not Iraqi? I don't believe so. I don't see why the religion matters more than the cultural connection. And if they are not to be returned to individuals and are to be held in a museum then surely they are more connected to Iraq than to Israel?
posted by xqwzts at 7:56 AM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't believe you support the Palestinian right to return to the lands they were unjustly evicted from, although that is what you mention in your hypothetical conversation from another perspective. I simply changed the actors. but the situation and wordage is the same.

A fourth of Baghdad's land area was stolen from Iraqi Jews and is inhabited by squatters. It will never be returned, nor will there ever be financial compensation.

You're right that there are parallels between Iraqi Jews and Palestinian Arabs, although saying this to Palestinian advocates is a good way to send them into fugues of outrage. Both groups would be delusional to think there will be any return of real estate. (One group IS delusional in so thinking, but let's not go there...)

But this isn't real estate. These are the personal effects of Jewish families. Returning them to their proper owners is simply the right thing to do. Returning them to Iraq is an assertion of Iraqi sovereignty (when demanded by the Baghdad regime,) and an expression of pure contemptible spite (whe demanded by individual Iraqis.)

I think the question is can these artifacts be considered Jewish and not Iraqi?

These artifacts are the personal property of knowable and nameable individuals who have been told in no uncertain terms, (with the utmost of candor, I dare say) that they are not Iraqi.
posted by ocschwar at 8:33 AM on October 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


[The easiest way to "not go there" is to NOT GO THERE. Make an effort please and take personal accusations/discussions to MeMail and not here. Thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 8:44 AM on October 8, 2013


It would seem to me you can make a claim for it to go back the original owners as well as the Iraqi government but that the claim for the original owners is stronger. Personal property belongs to 'you' before it belongs to the state.

It would also seem to codify a situation where a country can willfully chose to expel a minority and yet profit from their belongings.
posted by rosswald at 10:00 AM on October 8, 2013


Both groups would be delusional to think there will be any return of real estate.

Of course it is right, and pragmatic, to return personal property to Iraqi Jews now in Israel. But it only makes sense to argue from the perspective of moral right once one draws an arbitrary dividing line between different types of property.

It's hard to argue that something is the right thing to do while also inferring that the property dispossession by one group off another somehow counterbalances the property dispossession of a third, unrelated group.

In short: returning private property is the right thing to do. Of course it is. But it's hypocritical to appeal to what is right and/or what is pragmatic on the one hand while Israel has and continues to take and destroy property, building on it as part of a strategy to make returning it as impractical as possible.

Anyway, back to the article. The prevailing assumption upthread is that this is all private property. Some of it, perhaps most of it is. The article does not say. But the article also mentions community records and makes mention of property that will have belonged to synagogues. These aren't private property in the same way family photographs, household possessions or works of art owned by named individuals are. One can still argue that they should move where the community has moved, that community property is still in a sense not-state, but that is a different and more complex argument.

Outside this particular bunfight, the idea that even culturally valuable private property still has some element of "state" ownership is not uncommon - one cannot export culturally valuable items even when acquired legally without an export licence in certain cases. Clearly this case is not analogous with an individual freely selling something valuable, but nonetheless - states can and do exert ownership over property for reasons of retaining cultural value because it is part of their shared history. I don't think that cultural value to Iraq merits retaining private property in this case but it does muddy the waters, in my view, in regards to [older] community property and certainly to community records.

Furthermore the presumption is that Iraq would only do this for spite. This is, I'm sure, true among hardliners. However, the article also mentions that items left in synagogues were not seized until 30 years after the mass exodus of 1950/1 and only suffered damage from post-war flooding. It is an unsubstantiated, cartoonish characterization of Iraqi academics and curators that they would only wish to keep culturally important artifacts for reasons of spite. In effect it requires them to be anti-semites. It presumes them to act for the worst of reasons. It assumes there aren't Iraqis that place a cultural value on the country's Jewish heritage.

Perhaps worse, though repatriating all Jewish remaining artifacts plays to both hardline Zionists and antisemites. On the one hand it brings things of cultural value back to the place they will be valued most and cherished. On the other it effectively erases Jewish history from Iraq.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:05 AM on October 8, 2013 [2 favorites]



Anyway, back to the article. The prevailing assumption upthread is that this is all private property.


It is. Most of it was left in that synagogue in order o empty out the homes of people leaving. That does not mean ownershipw as ever relinquished, to the synagogue or to Iraq. And the property of a congregation is still private property.

It is an unsubstantiated, cartoonish characterization of Iraqi academics and curators that they would only wish to keep culturally important artifacts for reasons of spite

It is substantiated by those same Iraqi academics and curators not making inquiries among the Iraqi Jewish community to obtain permission from the artifacts' owners. If they want to assemble a display of judaica, nothing's stopping them from going on Ebay and buying some.
posted by ocschwar at 11:34 AM on October 8, 2013


It is an unsubstantiated, cartoonish characterization of Iraqi academics and curators that they would only wish to keep culturally important artifacts for reasons of spite.

Do you not realise that there are no Jews left in Iraq? That Jews can't even visit Iraq openly? That Israelis, perhaps even people with an Israeli visa cannot travel there? Surely you don't think Iraqi colleges offer courses in Jewish culture. Why would you possibly imagine that there are Iraqi academics interested in this material?

The prevailing assumption upthread is that this is all private property. Some of it, perhaps most of it is. The article does not say. But the article also mentions community records and makes mention of property that will have belonged to synagogues. These aren't private property in the same way family photographs, household possessions or works of art owned by named individuals are.

Here's an account of the theft of the material:
One day in 1984, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein sent his henchmen to Bataween synagogue, one of the last working houses of Jewish prayer in Baghdad. The men carted off a trove of books and documents retrieved from Jewish homes, schools and synagogues. The material had been deposited for safe keeping in the ladies’ gallery. The few remaining Jews were aghast to see the archive driven away in trucks from under their noses.
You can't legitimise this by saying that the things they took weren't really private property.

Perhaps worse, though repatriating all Jewish remaining artifacts plays to both hardline Zionists and antisemites.

Surely it was Iraq's confiscation of Jewish property and the expulsion of Jews that "played to hardline Zionists"; that is why so many of them ended up in Israel. In any event, it's a bit patronising to tell these refugees that they can't have their property back because you think it will encourage antisemites. I suspect they would tell you that it's antisemites that want to keep it from them.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:05 PM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why would you possibly imagine that there are Iraqi academics interested in this material?

Why would academics and curators be in important historical artifacts and community records? The very thought! It's not like Jews in Iraq were an important and substantial community at one point?

You can't legitimise this by saying that the things they took weren't really private property.

Which is fine, because I'm not. I don't think most private property should be repatriated to Iraq. I empathise with arguments with why private property of high cultural value should go either way. I think stuff the article also mentions like records and so forth that belonged to the community stretch the definition of private. I said as much above. If it makes it more fun to just insert the summary of what you wanted it to say go ahead, but it makes for a boring back and forth.

In any event, it's a bit patronising to tell these refugees that they can't have their property back because you think it will encourage antisemites.

Again, I'm not. Good night. I'm out.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:31 PM on October 8, 2013


Moveable property goes with its owners, individual or collective. The prerogative of local historians who remain behind does not trump personal property rights. The suggestion that it does is a really strange argument. This isn't that complicated.
posted by perhapsolutely at 1:04 PM on October 8, 2013


In short: returning private property is the right thing to do. Of course it is. But it's hypocritical to appeal to what is right and/or what is pragmatic on the one hand while Israel has and continues to take and destroy property, building on it as part of a strategy to make returning it as impractical as possible.

This is nothing more than a tu quoque.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:54 PM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Unrelated story about a huge project digitising Jewish manuscripts, with pictures of some gorgeous ones: Ingathering and digitizing the Diaspora’s rare Hebrew books
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:11 PM on October 14, 2013


A really sincere website; a bit clunky, but such great content: Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center
Check out their magazine, Nehardea (named after the location of an ancient Yeshiva);
and Iraqi Jewish liturgical music.

Here's a funny story from the magazine: SHAKESPEARE AND CUSTODY IN BAGHDAD - although I suppose it wasn't very funny at the time.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:58 AM on October 16, 2013


Miko, to say that the material valuable because they're digitising it is to beg the question. I presume the reason they're digitising it is that the material will be sent back to Iraq, where it will almost certainly be lost forever

No, it's not really. Speaking from the perspective of a museum person, the act of ditigizing speaks to its value. There are uncountable heaps of material in actually more serious need of digitization than this. What actually gets digitized is determined by the complex interactions of institutional capacities, funding and funders, and politics. There are some significant forces pushing for this to be done - it's not important just because it would be lost forever, because there are many other significant documents that are essentially "lost" in the world's archives, even in Western democracies, and will never again be seen if not digitized.

So it's very important to Iraqi refugees, many of whom have literally no genealogical or other records of their family.

Right, and that in itself isn't a claim to importance. Many people of the world have literally no records of their families. Restoring family records isn't sufficient to argue for the expense and labor of digitization, which is huge. There is something else behind this effort; if it's not scholarly, it's political, or it's both.
posted by Miko at 7:37 AM on October 16, 2013


I honestly don't think the suggestion that Iraq is motivated by scholarly concerns can be taken seriously: if Iraqi scholars were interested in it they would probably be talking to the owners or subjects of those papers, many of whom are still alive. To the best of my knowledge there is literally no academic cooperation between Iraq and Israel, or Jewish academics generally.

I think the reasons for recovering, preserving and digitising the documents were definitely political. This account of the documents' rescue credits it to the personal interventions of "Sharansky, Cheney, Perle, Rumsfeld, [and] Ahmed Chalabi" - that is, a senior Israeli government minister, the Vice-President of the USA, the Chairman of the Defence Policy Board Advisory Committee, the USAn Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Iraqi National Congress. I suspect that initially the rescuers thought they had valuable documents and probably didn't realise that preservation would be so very expensive. Now, of course, it has become another political issue: the USA arguably has a treaty obligation to return the documents to Iraq, but under the circumstances the USA will look like heartless brutes (and idiots) if it complies.

Restoring family records isn't sufficient to argue for the expense and labor of digitization, which is huge.

I think you're mistaken; genealogy is a Very Big Thing and a number of companies (and many amateurs) are competing to do just that. Iraqi Jews probably think the money is well spent, although that doesn't explain why the USA is doing it. I suppose USAn authorities may be hoping to escape the dilemma they caused by removing the documents from Iraq.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:22 AM on October 17, 2013


I fully agree.

I think this is a political effort. But I think it's more complicated than you posit: I think it ties into American Zionism and its intersection with the religious right, and has drawn funding for that reason. This is why I keep raising this point: there is clearly a confluence of moneyed interest and political maneuvering. This is not being done for the pure scholarly potential - because if that were all that argued for digitization, these things would molder for another 100 years waiting for someone to fund the project. In short, I think there is a story behind why this project is being pursued that has not been fully revealed; the facts as they have been presented do not justify the scale and expense of this effort (speaking as someone privy to these kinds of decisions as my career).

I think you're mistaken; genealogy is a Very Big Thing and a number of companies (and many amateurs) are competing to do just that

Right, I understand all about the importance and popularity of genealogy, but public institutions don't see any of that money. It's a big issue, actually; institutions preserve and organize and digitize this material, and Ancestry.com and the like make money from it. Be very clear: the profit potential in genealogical research is not something that motivates the digitizing projects of a public institution.
posted by Miko at 6:37 AM on October 17, 2013


I think it ties into American Zionism and its intersection with the religious right, and has drawn funding for that reason.

Miko, with the very greatest of respect: have you any evidence at all for that conclusion? Like, has AIPAC been lobbying for it, or have there been demands from whatever organisations constitute the religious right? Because from what I can see, there is nothing like that. The push to retain the documents is coming solely from Iraqi Jews, who wish they had someone powerful standing with them.

the facts as they have been presented do not justify the scale and expense of this effort [...] the profit potential in genealogical research is not something that motivates the digitizing projects of a public institution.

In the context of US expenditure on Iraq - and this must be seen in that context - $3 million is literally insignificant. Pallet-loads of cash were being despatched to keep local warlords happy and even that was only a tiny percentage of the war's total cost. Harold Rhode says that the money for restoration and digitisation came from the State Department, which is the body that originally took possession of the archive. I presume they were trying to smooth over an embarrassing mistake: they effectively took responsibility for stabilising and restoring the archive before they how much the whole thing would cost, and they took possession of the archive before they realised how controversial its return would become.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:29 PM on October 17, 2013


The push to retain the documents is coming solely from Iraqi Jews...

Where is the money coming from?

In the context of US expenditure on Iraq - and this must be seen in that context - $3 million is literally insignificant.

That is a lovely thought and one with which I am in sympathy. Yet the fact that the US spends ridiculous amounts of money on military activity does not mean that similar amounts of money are available for cultural projects - or for taking care of the elderly or veterans, feeding the poor, etc. I mean, I don't disagree, but our government's spending priorities are what they are.

Now, I read that piece. I have no idea what that website is or why I should consider it credible; it has all the hallmarks of fringe journalism. It also opened up a bunch of ad windows in my browser, so I am cranky. But if it is true that the money came from the State Department, then you're right that it is political. But the other pieces say the money came from a private donor. Is that a smokescreen? Definitely could be. But I'd like to see another source from a more credible outlet saying the money came from State, and someone going on record about it.

I did say above that motivations were likely political. Covering up a mistake is political. But that all agrees with my point that this digitization project is highly unusual and very expensive for a cultural institution. $3 million is a paltry sum from a budget like the State Department, but it represents a big chunk of appropriations for digitizing for the National Archives. It's just not something they'd be doing if there weren't some motivator other than scholarly interest.
posted by Miko at 5:53 AM on October 18, 2013


Miko wrote: Where is the money coming from?

The US State Department. I don't think anyone says that the bulk of the money came from private sources, just the initial expenditure. My point about it being small in comparison to the amount spent in Iraq is that it the USA's commitment to the project was ultimately made by the same people responsible for spending untold billions in Iraq. I hope that NARA's budget didn't suffer as a result, and I see no complaints that it did.

It's just not something they'd be doing if there weren't some motivator other than scholarly interest.

I totally agree. The problem is that the USA committed itself to preserving the documents ten years ago. They might not have realised how much it would cost; they may not have cared; they may have thought that rescuing a persecuted Iraqi minority group's past was a valuable symbolic move. Now, ten years later, the point of the symbolism is lost: we no longer think that Iraq will turn into a multicultural democracy. The huge sums that were sloshing around have mostly dried up. But the USA still has the documents, and backing out of the deal is both arguably illegal and will lead to immense criticism from Iraq and from formerly-Iraqi Jews.

The digitisation project is undoubtedly a reaction to protests by Iraqi Jews, with whom I have a great deal of sympathy. I don't suggest that sympathy is a good reason in itself: the good reason is that the return of the documents to Iraq is also arguably illegal, and digitisation potentially offers a way to escape the dilemma caused by competing claims.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:49 AM on October 19, 2013


The US State Department. I don't think anyone says that the bulk of the money came from private sources, just the initial expenditure.

Source?
posted by Miko at 7:53 PM on October 19, 2013


From that website that gave you popups (I use NoScript and AdBlock Plus and I never see things like that), we learn that the people rescuing the documents initially
managed to secure a grant from philanthropist Harvey Krueger, an investment banker then of Lehman Brothers, who heard about the project from friends and managed to get us about $15,000 to continue the operation.
This was subsequent to and in addition to the assistance from Ahmed Chalabi (i.e., the interim Iraqi government). The Coalition Provisional Authorities were later instructed to pay for drying, stabilising and storing the material; I have no idea how much that would have cost, but it came from the occupation budget. This either took a long time or the documents sat in storage for years, because the next event is:
In 2011, the State Department kicked in over $3 million for stabilizing, digitizing, and packing the material.
Anyway, you can see that the initial expenditure was ordered by politicians involved in the occupation of Iraq, presumably for political reasons. The USA unarguably has a duty to give those documents to somebody, and I presume that the reason for the digitisation is that there are two groups with ostensibly-valid claims, and even if digitisation doesn't offer a way out of the controversy it will at least provide a plausible claim to having done the right thing. The fact that this latest expenditure comes from the State Department supports my analysis; it's an attempt to head off an international incident.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:14 PM on October 19, 2013


From what I understand to be an Iraqi (Kurdish) newspaper: Documents Open Window to Iraq’s Vanished Jews

It contains an interview with Saad Eskander, Director of the National Library in Baghdad, who is very adamant that the documents return to Iraq. Via Point of No Return, which doesn't think much of his position.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:01 AM on October 20, 2013


From that website that gave you popups (I use NoScript and AdBlock Plus and I never see things like that),

1. That website's not credible. That's why asked for another source.
2. Yay for you. Credible websites don't allow that shit.
posted by Miko at 7:22 PM on October 20, 2013


I don't know what you mean by "credible" in this context: it's a first-person account of the events by a guy who was apparently at the heart of it. I don't like pop-ups either, but I can't see how they affect the reliability of his account.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:38 PM on October 20, 2013


Oh, and I think I found an email for him if you want to ask him directly. Or I suppose you might ask NARA or your congressperson whether the funds actually did come from the State Department. But at this point I'm not sure what, if anything, you're arguing about and I'm still a bit perturbed at your suggestion in an earlier comment that
I think it ties into American Zionism and its intersection with the religious right, and has drawn funding for that reason. This is why I keep raising this point: there is clearly a confluence of moneyed interest and political maneuvering.
So perhaps we had better just drop this.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:42 PM on October 20, 2013


Right. Credible: offering reasonable grounds for something to be believed. I need corroboration from someone who witnessed or has details of this first-person perception; I'm looking for independent journalistic corroboration. Otherwise, how do I know it's not totally fabricated ideological bullshit, which by every indication this site exists to promulgate?

"Apparently." I don't just believe something some guy says, especially on a website as cockamamie as that one.

So perhaps we had better just drop this.

If you have no further evidence to offer, then sure. If you have something that you think might support the truth of this account, then great, let's see it.
posted by Miko at 7:43 PM on October 20, 2013


Also, Harvey Krueger seems to be an American Zionist. So perhaps I end up right on this either way.
posted by Miko at 7:57 PM on October 20, 2013


In the absence of credible evidence (evidence I believe, I mean) to the contrary, it's a safe bet that some shadowy 'Zionist' conspiracy involving the American religious right deserves credit is to blame for the return of digitized COPIES of BOOKS and FAMILY PAPERS to a bunch of political REFUGEES half a century after they were stolen from them, because who else but an alliance of Zionists and the religious right could mastermind such a mitzvah diabolical plot?
posted by perhapsolutely at 11:54 AM on October 21, 2013


Listen - I don't get your point. You're going to the most hyperbolic dimension, and that's nothing I've offered. If Joe in Australia's link is credible, and I don't find it to be terribly convincing nor to stand up to critical evaluation, then an American Zionist is paying for this. That reasoning, at least, should be uncontroversial.

I'm not a conspiracy person, and nothing about this needs to be "shadowy" for it to be true that someone may be taking a particular interest in the matter and has donated the money to cover something that would otherwise not be likely to be a funded priority for an American institution. If you're saying more than that, you're saying more than I'm saying. Also, you may have forgotten that I have said the only right thing to do is return it to the families. The question of who paid for this not-very-high-priority-for-the-National-Archives project is a separate one.

The important thing: "Credible" is not as subjective a term as you seem to be assuming. It's not just "do I/don't I believe that this is saying." I recognized a bias and few external, independently verifiable details. It is not credible in the journalistic sense of having established itself over its history as fair, reputable, not subject to strong bias, relying on independently verifiable information, and subject to check and correction by readers and other journalistic outlets. It's important to critically evaluate news sources, particularly those on the web which often obscure their foundations, and Joe in Australia just completely skipped that step. Who is PJMedia? Who founded it? (A mystery novelist). Who pays for it? What kinds of things do they publish? Why should I trust them? Why are they most often linked to only by other right-wing opinion blogs? Why would they have their own "institute," a "research and education arm? If it's an independent Institute, why does it run on paid membership? Why, especially, should I believe a personal essay that is corroborated nowhere else that I could find on the entire web? How should I weigh their ideological slant, described by their CEO as:
people were worried that their rights and freedoms were deteriorating, and the next generation was going to be shackled with massive government debt. We heard people's concerns about how the country was moving away from its founding principles and watched as Tea Party activists and others protested these changes.."
I mean, on immediate first read I understood that this was propaganda, not news. I'm not at all sure that Joe in Australia can perceive that. If you're not asking yourself these kinds of critical quesitons before you read a piece like this, you're not able to understand the context in which the piece was created or presented. I am perfectly happy to call this piece "not credible" and the site in general "not credible," because in the wake of its history of scandals and challenges and its general lack of inclusion as a source by serious news outlets, it's just plain not. It is what it is - a ranty right-wing blog. What it isn't is journalistically credible, whether or not you're inclined to agree with their take on things.
posted by Miko at 2:29 PM on October 21, 2013


This is the point at which I say "Oh, FFS". Miko, you're sounding increasingly unpleasant and conspiratorial. I don't know what you think the big secret here is, but your hunt for "Zionists" is the sort of thing you find in other forums, those populated by people who write letters to the paper in green ink with lots of CAPITAL LETTERS and exclamation marks (!!!).
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:36 PM on October 21, 2013


conspiratorial

I don't understand how I can be sounding "conspiratorial" when I do not believe in any conspiracy.

I wonder if part of the problem is that you don't understand that Zionism is a real thing, a thing that people take seriously, not just something that loonies natter about when they lose touch with reality. If I am saying someone is a Zionist, it is because they have self-identified in that manner. It is a philosophy of support and protection for Jewish communities which has as a central pillar a Jewish nation-state. Since it is a broad movement, that basic principle is all that Zionists necessarily have in common, and that is plenty of reason for someone to want to be supportive to a Jewish community that has been threatened in a geopolitical incident.

I think the problem here is in your perceptions, not in the actuality of the thing. It may be that the only time you encounter the word "zionism" it is in some fringe place of the kind it seems to be your wont to read. However, there are countless reasonable people who are, and identify as, Zionists, and there are many kinds of Zionism. It's too bad that fuzzyheaded angry people have done all they can to coopt that word, but I'm not using the word in that ignorant sense -- I'm not levying some frothing, insane charge here. I'm noting that the person your writer identified seems pretty unequivocally to be a Zionist.

I think you might just lack the American context to understand this, and also, definitely, any familiarity with museums and archives practice..

You still haven't corroborated the piece, by the way. The irony is that what you posted is actually perfectly representative of "one of those other forums." It seems as though your thinking is very confused - on the one hand, you're accepting garbage as evidence, and from an ideological site I don't even think you agree with, without even a shred of supporting material; and on the other, tilting at windmills based upon only your own misunderstandings of a religious movement.
posted by Miko at 7:19 PM on October 21, 2013


I think what really matters is that once again Zionists have been implicated in doing the right thing. Apparently. Or maybe not. Also I learned Joe in Australia misunderstands what Zionism means. Another case closed!
posted by perhapsolutely at 10:26 PM on October 22, 2013


Sure, looks that way.

Note I never said it was good/bad or right/wrong to digitize the materials - just noted that it would not normally have been a funded priority for the National Archives to do so.
posted by Miko at 9:21 AM on October 23, 2013


I'll say it then. It is good. And right. Considering that they've been promised to two distinct parties, to honor those promises, it's the very least the gov can do. Even if private citizens--whatever their opinions about the post-Ottoman disposition of the Levant--have to pick up the check. Which may or may not be the case.

(Meanwhile Joe in Australia's posting history seems to indicate he may have more than a passing familiarity with the Herzl legacy, fwiw....)
posted by perhapsolutely at 10:49 AM on October 25, 2013


I see it as politically expedient for our government to do, and it's not in and of itself a bad thing to digitize historical documents, of course.

My perspective is more one of raising the questions of institutional resources and why this jumped the line. It's hard to say whether, based on content alone, and in the absence of the funding and political imperatives, it would normally deserve priority over the other digitizing projects the Archives has in the queue (without any knowledge, of course, of what those are). In this institutional context, it's impossible for us to say exactly where this would rank in terms of scholarly/historical importance relative to the rest of the collection, and as compared with whatever else they had established as priorities before this dropped into their laps, but it is fairly safe to say that it would probably not have led the list.That's the limit of my point; I basically confine myself to noting that the content alone is not the driver of this project, therefore there must be other drivers.

And if that's true about Joe, then I'm surprised that he's making such rashly ignorant assumptions here.
posted by Miko at 11:00 AM on October 25, 2013


Sometimes the boss gets himself into a pickle and needs some emergency copies made on the company machine and the temps have to drop whatever routine printing job they're doing to get it taken care of. You may consider the routine printing sacrosanct, but the boss needs to keep the peace and cover his butt when he makes mutually exclusive commitments and so he makes executive decisions about resource appropriation that aren't strictly in line with established protocol, per se, but still are very much the realpolitikal right thing to do.

The oblique implication that some shadowy Zionist lobby is pulling the strings may itself have unspoken and darkly sinister motives besides an innocent curiosity about National Archives by-law compliance, but I wouldn't care to speculate about what those might be. Sometimes the innocuous explanation is the right one to find satisfaction in.
posted by perhapsolutely at 12:12 PM on October 25, 2013


The oblique implication that some shadowy Zionist lobby

See, that's all you guys. You are conflating what I actually said with the bogeyman in your head. You are tilting at windmills, and it seems to be blinding you to what I'm actually saying.

Sometimes the innocuous explanation is the right one to find satisfaction in.

You're trying to have it both ways. Is it innocuous, or is it the State Department deploying its power over this public agency to cover its ass for an international mistake? Isn't that what JiA was suggesting (you seem to be able to speak for him, so go for it)?

an innocent curiosity about National Archives by-law compliance

As I've said over and over, this is my field and I understand it well. I do indeed have curiosity about the ways in which politics and deep-pocketed interested parties can sway a mission and reprioritize institutional activity. It's an honest, pragmatic, and direct curiosity and, if there is any truth in Joe's link, then I was right in calling it early on. You don't need conspiracy to explain bog-standard realities. You don't need to be paranoid. If this is what happened, it's what happened. You yourself call it realpolitik - if it is, what's it about? This is politically expedient why?

I'm not sure why you need so badly to make a villian of me, but give it a rest. You look ridiculous.
posted by Miko at 12:51 PM on October 25, 2013


Yes. The State Department, a public agency, does seem to be doing what it takes to rectify this mistake. That seems to involve cooperation of another public agency--whether voluntary or begrudging. The propensity to resort to speculation on Zionist collusion at the highest secret levels to explain this good deed comes off as a bit of an idée fixe, absent any evidence, and since you consider my pointing that out merits only ridicule, I'll leave you to it. Some credit should go to State for not reflexively shafting the refugees, here, which would have been easier, but you know, cherchez les Juifs, amigo!
posted by perhapsolutely at 1:20 PM on October 25, 2013


I mentioned no collusion, therefore no idée fixe.

So you agree with me that the account Joe in Australia linked to is not reliable?
posted by Miko at 1:37 PM on October 25, 2013


In the absence of any other evidence, I don't think it can be conclusively determined how right or wrong it is. It is a data point to consider. Do we have to draw a reliable conclusion at this early point for some reason?
posted by perhapsolutely at 2:45 PM on October 25, 2013


I think it ties into American Zionism and its intersection with the religious right, and has drawn funding for that reason. This is why I keep raising this point: there is clearly a confluence of moneyed interest and political maneuvering.

I'll admit you didn't use the word 'collusion'. Now I've really gotta let this go. There's no(t a) story here (yet). Cheers.
posted by perhapsolutely at 2:59 PM on October 25, 2013


In the absence of any other evidence, I don't think it can be conclusively determined how right or wrong it is. It is a data point to consider.

In the absence of any other evidence, it's not worth considering.

No, there really isn't a story and there isn't going to be, despite how painfully badly you clearly want to read one in. Just as content to drop the entire cluster.
posted by Miko at 6:50 PM on October 25, 2013


More photos of the archive: Chuck Schumer tries to block return of Jewish artifacts to Iraqi government

Not that they have much choice: Try diplomacy first, says WOJI
The US-based World Organization of Jews from Iraq has finally broken its silence on the question of the controversial Iraqi-Jewish archive (IJA). Before the US government returns the archive to Iraq, WOJI is anxious to see the entire archive digitised, a process that is only 40 percent complete. In its strategy of exhausting diplomatic channels with the Iraqis, which it has been quietly pursuing, WOJI has the support of major US Jewish bodies. Here is the full text of a statement issued to members of the Iraqi-Jewish community by WOJI President, Maurice Shohet.

posted by Joe in Australia at 5:30 AM on October 28, 2013


Thanks for following this up, Joe.
posted by perhapsolutely at 11:51 AM on October 28, 2013


Yes, thanks for the follow-up.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:00 PM on October 31, 2013


The exhibition's opening was delayed by the US government shutdown, but I'm pleased to see that it is now online. You can follow the links from there or just enter the exhibit.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:04 PM on November 7, 2013


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