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Will Jewish archive return to Iraq?

The United States is preparing to return a Jewish archive to Iraq, but Iraq does not appear ready to receive it, and many want it to remain outside the country.

BAGHDAD — The US State Department announced Sept. 10 that the United States would return the Iraqi Jewish archive to Iraq next year. The archive had been shipped to the United States in 2003, after American troops saved it from destruction by water leaking into the cellars of the Iraqi General Intelligence Service building in Baghdad. The archive includes tens of thousands of institutional documents, books, religious manuscripts, photographs and personal documents of Iraqi Jews.

Khedr al-Bussoon — a Tel Aviv-based writer, Iraqi Jewish rights activist and son of the prominent journalist Seleim al-Bussoon, who left Iraq with his family in 1973 under Baathist pressure — explained that security agencies and Baathist officials seized the material in the archive in the 1970s and 1980s. There are personal files and correspondence between the Frank Iny and Shamash schools during the mid-1970s, when the Baathist government nationalized them and renamed them Nizamitta. Also in the archive are documents from synagogues, including from the Meir Taweig Synagogue, in eastern Baghdad's Batawin district, and books — more than 2,700 according to Bussoon — left behind in Baghdad by Jews who had fled. Some of the homes of the departed Jews still stand in parts of Baghdad, including in Batawin, once one of the most heavily Jewish neighborhoods in the city, as do some shrines to Jewish prophets and synagogues in the southern provinces.

According to an agreement with the Iraqi government, the archive was scheduled to be returned to Iraq in 2014. When the time came, however, the agreement was revised for reasons related to Iraq’s readiness to preserve the archive after its return. The Baghdad government apparently was in no condition or position to provide proper upkeep. The war against the Islamic State, plus the decrease in world oil prices had contributed to an economic crisis. This increased the odds of the archive being maintained outside Iraq or once back in Iraq eventually being shipped abroad again for maintenance, which would require a new agreement between Iraq and the temporary host.

Some Jewish voices have emerged against the archive's return to Iraq. Some have demanded that Iraqi Jews somehow be made a party to the negotiation process. Bussoon stands at the forefront of the opposition to the archives return given that it is the “last signs of recognition of a Jewish presence in Iraq.”

“This archive tells the stories of our lives as the surviving Jewish generation that left Iraq in 1950-1951,” Bussoon said to Al-Monitor. “It also tells stories about the lives of our families. It represents our identity. Therefore, we cannot compromise it or leave it in the hands of a library or a museum in a country [Iraq] that does not allow Jews entry, especially since most Iraqi Jews live in Israel.”

Bussoon claims that his position represents that of “vast majorities of Iraqi Jews around the globe,” including in Israel. Bussoon added, “Iraqi Jews are angry at the possibility that the archive will return to Iraq.”

Explaining the value the archive holds for Iraqi Jews, Bussoon said, “We want to recover it, because it tells our story. This is why we call for preserving what remains of [our heritage] and what represents our memories. If this archive ends up back in Iraq, who guarantees us that fundamentalist Islamists wouldn’t burn the books of 'pagans'? It would eliminate all that is left for us: memories.”

On the other hand, Edwin Shuker, an interreligious dialogue activist and the vice president of the European Jewish Congress, takes a different position based on the content of the archive. He said that while the contents of the archive are mostly personal in nature and have some emotional value, the items are not particularly old and do not hold significant historical importance.

“After the generosity and expertise of the Americans guaranteed preservation and digitization of the archive content and therefore making it available for researchers and historians, it is now important to open a dialogue between the Iraqi government and representatives of Iraqi Jews in a way that guarantees a fair agreement on the return of the archive to Iraq,” Shuker told Al-Monitor. “It would reinforce the memory of Iraqi Jews and open the road for more cooperation concerning the material about the history of the community in Iraq to make available more of this material to exhibit before a larger audience.”

Speaking to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, a source at the Iraqi Ministry of Culture said that the importance of the archive goes beyond documents related to Iraqi Jews, as some of them also constitute documents of the Baathist Party and files dating back to when Iraq was a kingdom. The media has, however, focused on the Jewish aspect of the archive because of its emotional value to the Jewish minority that was deported.

Regardless, the source said, another issue is the necessity of holding an internal Iraqi dialogue on the competent governmental entity to handle the reception and management of the archive. Should the Iraq National Library and Archive or a security agency be vested with the responsibility given the importance of the material?

The central government in Baghdad is yet to comment on the US announcement of its intentions. Amid this silence and other discussions, the option has been raised of depositing the archive with a third party or keeping it inside the United States.

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