The claim being made by the Iraqi government for the return by the U.S. government of the massive archives of the former Jewish community of Iraq is, in a certain sense, understandable.
Of course, one might reasonably ask, what does Iraq want with the 2,700 ancient Jewish books and documents, including 500-year-old copies of Tanach?
Baghdad’s answer is that since they were found in an Iraqi government building, and Iraq’s right to reclaim them was promised by American officials, they are now exercising that right.
It is also understandable that in the current discussion, Iraqi officials omit mention of the unpleasant fact that these treasures were stolen by Saddam Hussein’s police in 1985 from a synagogue in Baghdad. They had been gathered there to protect them from the anti-Semitic rampages that were visited upon the Iraqi Jewish community during World War II and after the establishment of the state of Israel.
When the 130,000 Jews of Iraq fled the pogroms there in the early 1950s, they were, in many cases, allowed to carry out only one suitcase. They were forced to leave behind most of their possessions, including the official records of their communities and the rare sefarim that are rightfully their possession and the possession of the Jewish people as a whole.
But the Iraqis want them back.
That’s understandable, too. They believe themselves to be the absolute proprietors of everyone and everything under their reign. They deem it their sovereign right to dispossess minority populations of anything they see fit — their freedom, their property, their heritage, their lives. They refuse any suggestion that it might be incumbent upon them to make restitution to the refugees, even as they foment terrorism by Palestinian refugees pressing their claims against Israel.
The unapologetic attitude of the Iraqis in this matter is understandable. In fact, they are quietly proud of it. Harold Rhode, the recently retired Defense Department cultural expert who was instrumental in recovering the archives, explained the motivation behind the theft. Saddam ordered it to humiliate the Jews and Israel and boost his reputation as an Arab leader.
“By capturing the archives, Saddam was humiliating the Jewish people. He was showing how powerless the Jews were to stop him,” Rhode said.
Regaining the treasure would be, in their eyes, a reassertion of their religious and national supremacy, and not just the exercise of a narrow legal right.
However, what is less understandable — nearly incomprehensible, in fact — is the complicity of the United States in this outrageous claim.
In whose name did the State Department extend this generous promise to the Iraqis? Certainly not in the name of the Jewish refugees of Iraq. They were never even consulted.
The argument that the U.S. is legally bound to return the archives because they were recovered on Iraqi property is entirely specious. By the same logic, all the Jewish property seized by the Gestapo should have been turned over to the German government after World War II. Yet, even the Germans acknowledge that Jews whose wealth was stolen by the Nazis should be compensated.
The decision of the State Department to deliver these archives into the hands of anti-Semites who can be trusted only to treat them with contempt, as they have other Jewish treasures, compounds the humiliation that Saddam sought to perpetrate. Not only can the Iraqis claim that they have made the Jews pay for their supposed Zionist crimes, but they have now forced Israel’s powerful and hated sponsor, the United States, to join in the payment.
Without imputing any more sinister motive, the willingness of the State Department to recognize the Iraqi “rights” in this case can possibly be understood as a misguided attempt to preserve relations with the oil-rich friends they had hoped to make by overthrowing their brutal dictator.
But both a realistic appraisal of the attitude of the Iraqis toward the Americans not as liberators but as occupiers, and recognition of the undeniable moral right of the Jews of Iraq to the remnants of their heritage, should impel the U.S. government to reconsider.
We commend Sen. Charles Schumer, who has urged the State Department “to do everything in their power to ensure that these treasured artifacts remain available and accessible to Jews worldwide.”
The State Department has so far declined comment.
This, too, is understandable, for until they respond positively to the outcry of the Jewish community over this grave injustice, they should be too ashamed to say anything.