The State Department has rebuffed the request of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) not to return to Iraq the treasure trove of Jewish artifacts found by American troops in Baghdad in 2003 that Schumer said were “stolen” from the Iraqi Jewish community.
Under an agreement with the Bush administration at the time, the more than 2,700 artifacts — including partial Torah parchments and ancient prayer books — were to be returned to Iraq in 2014 after being restored and preserved by the National Archives in Washington.
In response to Schumer’s letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, a State Department spokesman, Pooja Jhunjhunwala, told The Jewish Week in an e-mail that the department would abide by its August 2003 agreement with Iraq.
“We are committed to returning the material to Iraq following the completion of the preservation project and the exhibition of the material in the United States,” he wrote. “Much of the project has now been completed by the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA), and NARA has announced that the material is being readied for exhibition in Washington at the National Archives.”
The public display had been scheduled to begin Oct. 11, but was delayed because of the government shutdown. No new exhibition date has been set.
In response to the State Department position, Schumer issued a statement saying, “I will continue to put pressure on the State Department so that these sacred artifacts remain accessible to the Jewish people who were exiled from Iraq. These treasures do not belong to Iraq and over the next year, I will do everything in my power to ensure the Iraq Jewish Archive is displayed in the appropriate location.”
Schumer had pointed out in his letter to Kerry that the artifacts were seized from a Baghdad synagogue in 1984 by Saddam Hussein’s forces and found nine years later by invading U.S. troops in the flooded basement of the Baghdad Intelligence Agency. He noted that the U.S. spent $3 million preserving the collection, which includes a Hebrew Bible with commentaries from 1568, a Babylonian Talmud from 1793, a Torah scroll fragment from the Book of Genesis, and a Zohar from 1815.
The State Department spokesman in his e-mail said the primary reason for bringing the artifacts to the United States was so that they could be “preserved, conserved, and restored for the benefit of the Iraqi Jewish community, as well as posterity.”
He noted that the project’s funding also included “provisions for training Iraqi conservation professionals in preservation and the exhibition and handling of the material after the collection returns to Iraq.”
“The preservation project has proceeded consistent with the 2003 Agreement, and the U.S and Iraqi governments have remained in regular contact on the project’s progress,” the spokesman added. “This Agreement expressly states that, upon completion of the preservation project and exhibition in the United States, the collection will be returned to the custody of the Government of Iraq. Digital images of the material will be accessible online so that everyone, from academic scholars to the general public, will be able to benefit from NARA’s efforts.”
The spokesman did not address Schumer’s contention that the artifacts “belong to the people who were forced to leave them behind when the Iraqi government chose to exile them from their homes” in the early 1950s. He noted that between 1950 and 1952 more than 130,000 Jews fled Iraq, permitted to carry no more than one suitcase each, after Iraq declared Zionism a capital crime in 1948 and anti-Jewish riots erupted. Just 34 Jews were found living in Iraq in 2003, and the number today is said to be no more than five.
“Since the exile of Jews from Iraq,” Schumer pointed out, “virtually no Jewish life remains in the country.”