The Cultural Property Advisory Committee at the U.S. Department of State has been signing Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) – agreements between the US and foreign governments that blockade the entry of art and cultural property to the USA and deny Jews and Christians from Arab countries the rights to their historic heritage.
The signing of the MOUs is done under the auspices of The Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA). This law provides for the US to enter into agreements with foreign nations to temporarily restrict the import of “significant” cultural items as part of a multi-nation effort to deter looting of ancient archeological sites. Over time the State Department has broadened the scope of the law to provide for “near permanent” bans on the import of ALL cultural items to the present time. The MOUs recognize those nation’s claims and seizures of all cultural property, including the personal property of individuals and the communal property of religious and ethnic groups.
The MOUs are based on a flawed premise – that Jewish cultural property constitutes the national heritage of Arab governments. In fact, under the color of law, Jewish cultural property in Arab countries was expropriated from private homes, schools, and synagogues. It is the heritage and patrimony of 850,000 indigenous Jewish refugees who were ethnically cleansed and fled their homes and property under duress. Arab governments have done little to preserve the remnants or memory of Jewish history in the countries and verified reports describe Jewish synagogues, pilgrimage sites, homes, and cemeteries being looted and destroyed. Jewish holy sites throughout the Middle East and North Africa have been appropriated and many demolished.
Examples of these MOUs include:
- Algeria: The Algerian government has recently requested an MOU from the State Department. The open session of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee met on July 31, 2018, to review the request.
- Egypt: The U.S. MOU with Egypt, signed in November, 2016, covers virtually all objects of cultural heritage dating from the Predynastic period (5,200 B.C.) through 1517 A.D, including Hebrew “scrolls, books, manuscripts, and documents, including religious, ceremonial, literary, and administrative texts.”
- Libya: On February 23, 2018, the US Department of State signed an MOU with Libya to restrict importation of objects of ‘Libyan cultural heritage’ including items owned by the ethnically-cleansed Libyan Jewish community.
- Syria: The 2016 designated list of import restrictions from Syria includes “[t]orahs and portions thereof” and “Jewish paintings [which] may include iconography such as menorahs,” and “religious, ceremonial, literary, and administrative material,” including but not limited to maps, archival materials, photographs, and other rare or important documentary or historical evidence.”
- Yemen: On January 31, the International Committee of Museums announced the release of a Red List for Yemen, which targets Hebrew manuscripts and Torahs, while reaffirming the Yemeni government claims to Jewish property. Frequently, issuing a State Department funded Red List is the first step in a campaign to smooth the way for an MOU.
No further agreement should be made with a state where Jews were subjected to state-sanctioned Anti-Semitism, Nuremberg like laws and ethnic-cleansing. Moreover, the annual State Department Human Rights Report annually reports violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and that Report must include violations of the Declaration’s Article 17. Article 17 states that no individual or community should be arbitrarily deprived of their property. Therefore, the United States should not enter into any agreement, and should withdraw from any existing agreement, with a foreign state that either condones, supports or promotes any Article 17 violation by that state.
These MOUs claim to be about looting, but their broad scope and limited evidence of success suggests their real impact is providing a legal vehicle to legitimize foreign confiscations and wrongful ownership claims. Legitimate efforts to curb looting are essential, but they must be targeted to preserve archaeological resources, and not to disguise the brazen property confiscations of tyrants.
These MOUs have set a dangerous precedent for Christian and other religious minorities from the region. Indeed, in a meeting on July 30th between State Department officials and leaders of the American Jewish community, State Department representatives said that they anticipate further requests from Arab nations in the near future. Future MOUs must carve out an exception for explicit Jewish or Christian religious and cultural artifacts, which are often similar to Islamic religious and cultural artifacts.