The three main arguments for keeping the trove here go something like this. First, Iraq stole these artifacts from the Jews; that makes these Jews (or their descendants) their rightful owners. Second, Iraq persecuted its Jews to the point of extinction; why should they get to keep our things? Third, nowadays only about five Jews remain in Iraq, a country that most of world Jewry cannot easily visit; shouldn’t the artifacts be kept someplace accessible?This is a difficult one. In practical terms, the most important consideration is what the State Department decides to do with the archive. It has the power to do pretty much what it wants. A closely related issue is, of course, international law, on which I am not qualified to comment.
My response? No, no and no.
However much we as Iraqi Jews may resent having had this property stolen from us (and believe me, I’m not pleased about it), the only reason we’re seeing it now is because the State Department got it out of Iraq by promising, ultimately, to send it back there. There’s a word for people who take stuff, promise to return it, and then don’t. It’s called stealing.
It’s also called cultural imperialism. Hauling these precious artifacts out of Iraq and into an American gallery brings to mind the Egyptian artifacts that were taken out of their native country to fill the display halls of the British Museum. After all that the U.S. forces did in Iraq — including creating the unstable conditions that led to the plundering of that country’s National Museum in 2003 — we should blush at the thought of expropriating this archive for our own museums.
In moral terms, the following considerations seem to me to be the most important (your mileage may vary).
1. Personal effects, such as report cards, should be returned to living owners or the immediate families of dead ones, if they want them.
2. Centuries-old Torah and Talmud manuscripts and the like should be kept wherever they are safest and they should be available for scholars to study. I am not sure Iraq is the best place for either desideratum. They are the heritage of humanity, not just of Iraq and not just of Jews, although if specific owners can be established, I suppose they would have a claim on them too, as per point 1 above.
3. The claim of Iraq to the archive is tenuous at best. If the manuscripts had been looted from a museum, there would be a much stronger case for their return to that museum. (Parallel case here.) They were not. They were recovered from the offices of the Iraqi secret police, who looted them from Jews who were expelled from Iraq. The analogy of returning art stolen by Nazis to Germany has some force to it. And this is not the best time to bring up Egyptian artifacts.
4. It's generally a good idea for the State Department to keep its promises or, if not, to have a compelling reason for breaking them.
Whether all that adds up to a solution, I leave up to you. I blog, you decide.
Follow the link to this most recent post on the Iraqi Jewish archive, which has links leading back to 2003.