The preamble to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict says that “damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind, since each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world.”
Nevertheless, the cultural property of many peoples indigenous and aboriginal to the Middle East is in grave danger at the beginning of the 21st century, and the West—rather than prevent this from occurring—is actively participating in its permanent theft and loss from the property’s original and legal owners.
At the beginning of the last century, nearly 1 million Jews lived in the Middle East and North Africa. Living in what is today known as the “Arab world,” these Jews had preceded Islam and the Arab presence in much of the region by around a millennium.
However, this all came to an end during the middle and latter part of the last century when these indigenous communities were forcibly expelled en masse, leaving no more than a few tens of Jews left in the Middle East outside of Israel.
In May 2003, with the Jewish community long since being forced to flee—leaving their assets and property, personal and communal behind—more than 2,700 Jewish books and tens of thousands of documents, records and religious artefacts were discovered flooded in the basement of the Iraqi intelligence headquarters by a U.S. army team.
This archive acts as a testament to the 2,600-year-old Iraqi Jewish community.
As a result of their poor and neglected state, the archives came to the United States to be preserved, catalogued and digitized, and have been on exhibit in a variety of cities for several years.
Now, against the will and objections of the Iraqi Jewish Diaspora, the U.S. government is preparing to ship the archives back. Based on an agreement signed on Aug. 19, 2003, between the Coalition Provisional Authority and the National Archives and Records Administration—and extended by the U.S. Government in an executive order signed by President Barack Obama—the Iraqi Jewish Archives are set to be returned in September 2018, where its original and legal owners will never have access to or even be able to see it.
Unfortunately, this cultural appropriation is taking place because of the Emergency Protection for Iraqi Cultural Antiquities Act of 2004 (Title III of Public Law 108-429) as amended effective April 30, 2008.
Additionally, and with a similar purpose, Memorandum of Understandings have been signed and enacted as recently as February of this year for Syria, Egypt and Libya, where Jewish property, history and assets are being appropriated and stolen before our eyes.
It could soon include other countries in the Middle East, like Yemen, where Jews have long lived a second-class status with the threat of death by senior officials hanging over them. That is why all but a handful of Jews have fled the country.
Some grabbed what they could, like religious possessions, but even these could be under threat of return to Yemen.
On Jan. 31, the International Council of Museums (“ICOM”) announced the release of a Red List for Yemen. The Red List directly targets Hebrew manuscripts and Torah Finials, while reaffirming the Yemeni government claims to Jewish property.
To quote the Red List: “Yemeni authorities will ask for the retrieval and the repatriation” of these items. Frequently, issuing a Red List is the first step in a process to hold public hearings, and ultimately, pass Memorandums of Understanding between the United States and foreign governments (like Yemen) that blockade art and cultural property, and deny U.S. citizens the rights to their historic heritage.
Further, concerning Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, no such decisions, laws or Memorandums of Understanding should have been made or be made with a state where Jews were subjected to ethnic cleansing and state-sanctioned anti-Semitism. In Iraq, Nuremberg-like laws were enacted and led to ethnic-cleansing.
This issue is not just a Jewish one because at this very moment, many other indigenous groups are being disenfranchised and forced to flee from parts of the Middle East, including the Yazidis, the Kurds, Coptic Christians, Sunnis and Shi’as.
Like the Jews, these and other groups are not just losing their homes and communities, but their communal treasures, personal assets and, by extension, their history.
It is unconscionable that the United States is aiding and abetting this theft of property, assets and culture. This must stop, and America can make it happen.
The Iraqi Jewish Archives should be returned to its private and communal Iraqi Jewish owners, who were never consulted on the expropriation of their property or on the agreement made between the United States and Iraq on the return of their property to Iraq.
The United States should reverse its policies on the return of personal and communal Jewish assets to countries where Jews are not welcome. They should also, before it’s too late, stop the signing of an MOU with the government of Yemen—a place where Jews have been ethnically-cleansed with only a handful remaining there.
This is not only a matter of law; it is above all a matter of justice.
Carole Basri is a writer is a lawyer of Iraqi Jewish descent, an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School and visiting professor at Peking University School of Transnational Law, and a former member of the U.S. State Department’s Future of Iraq Project. From July 2003 until July 2004, she was a member of the Coalition Provisional Authority working with the Iraqi Reconstruction Development Council (IRDC).
David Dangoor is a businessman and philanthropist, and has been vice president of the World Organisation of Jews from Iraq (WOJI) for the past 10 years.