Saying that the treasure trove of Jewish artifacts found by American troops in Baghdad in 2003 “were stolen” from the Iraqi Jewish community, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has called on the State Department not to return them to Iraq.
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 by June of next year after being restored and preserved by the National Archives in Washington. The National Archives plans to exhibit some of them in the near future.
In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, Schumer asked that he “do everything in your power to ensure that these artifacts remain available and accessible to Jews worldwide – especially the exiled Iraqi Jewish community.”
Schumer pointed out that the items had been 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.
A State Department spokesperson was not immediately available for comment as of Thursday afternoon.
“These items 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, Schumer wrote.
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. … I strongly urge you to reconsider your decision to return these artifacts to the Iraqi government and urge you to work with Jewish organizations and the Iraqi Jewish community both in the United States and abroad to find a location to store and display these cherished items in a manner which respects their history.”