US and Iraq Fight Over Jewish Texts

Even though US troops have left Iraq, the US and Iraq are now embroiled in another conflict: over the status of a massive cache of Judaica that was found in 2003 during the Second Gulf War, with both sides claiming the items are theirs.

In 2003, coalition forces looking for weapons of mass destruction discovered a collection of Judaica items in a basement used by Saddam Hussein’s secret police.  The items found included Judeo-Arabic texts from the 10th century, Torah cases and even children’s Hebrew manuals.  The oldest item is a religious book from 1568.  The items were brought to the US for restoration at the National Archive and Records Administration, where they have been for the last eight years.  However, they have sat untouched because the money required for a massive restoration effort had not been raised yet. Last year, Iraqi officials began a campaign to get the item back.

Iraqi officials, especially Culture Minister Taher Nasser Al-Hamood, claim the US has no intention of returning the items, saying they do not trust the US.  Iraq would like the archive back because it is the heritage of a once vibrant community that was the largest in the Middle East and was in existence from the 6th century BCE until the creation of the state when most of the Jews were driven from their homes and moved to Israel.

The State Department has agreed to return the items, but said there were problems with the restoration that was preventing the return. Hamood has rebuffed those claims, citing imagined pressure from American Jewish groups and scholars who would like access to the trove so that they may be documented and analyzed, something that will be impossible if the items return to Iraq.  However, the Iraqi government itself seems to be divided on the matter, with the Foreign Ministry wanting the US to perform the work and the Culture Minister claiming they were told recover anything that went missing during the Gulf War and US occupation.

The Jewish community has been quiet on the matter, only saying that they hope the items will be a way of opening communication with Iraq so as to protect Jewish cemeteries and shrines in Iraq that in the past were destroyed in waves of anti-Semitism.