2019-07-29 | International News

Pattern of Abuse: Iraqi Jewish Archives and U.S. State Department Cultural Property Agreements

Iraqi Jewish Archive (IJA) Background

On May 6, 2003, just days after the Coalition forces took over Baghdad, 16 American soldiers, entered the flooded building of Saddam Hussein’s Intelligence agency the Mukhabarat. In the basement, under four feet of water, they found tens of thousands of books, artifacts and documents belonging to the Jewish community of Iraq – materials that had been seized from synagogues, schools and other and Jewish institutions.

With limited treatment options in Baghdad, and with the agreement of the-then Iraqi Ministry of Culture and the US Department of State, the materials were shipped to the United States for restoration and preservation. Since then, these materials have been freeze-dried, preserved and are digitized under the custodianship of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

The removal of these Jewish archives from Iraq was executed under the Immunities from Seizure Act, a law which allowed the conservation measures to take place while protecting the archives from possible seizure by claimants to both Iraqi assets and Jewish heritage.

Despite the protestations of the American Jewish community and bipartisan legislative efforts to return the Archive to Iraqi Jews, under this Agreement, the US State Department is to ship the entire collection back to Iraq in September, 2018. As recently as October, 2017 Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer urged the State Department not to send the Iraqi Jewish Archive back to Iraq.

IJA is Part of Larger Pattern of Abuse. MOUs

Unfortunately, the Iraqi Jewish Archive case is only one of several instances where our American Government has signed agreements recognizing Arab governments’ seizures of Jewish property. Our government 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 from Arab countries the rights to their historic heritage.  The signing of MOUs with Middle Eastern countries validates those countries’ confiscation of Jewish property and heritage and simultaneously denies the rights of Jews and other religious minorities to their cultural patrimony.

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, 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. Jewish patrimony was never the property or national heritage of Arab governments – in fact most Arab governments have done little to preserve the remnants or memory of Jewish history in the countries. Today Jewish communities from Arab countries and their descendants live outside of the Arab world and most are restricted from entering their countries of origin.

Examples of these MOUs include:

Turkey– In January 2021 the U.S. signed an MOU agreement with Turkey which explicitly covers Jewish items such as Kiddush cups, Torah pointers and finials, candelabra, religious books written on leather pages or scrolls (Torahs), and written records of “religious importance”.

Yemen – In 2020 the U.S. signed an MOU agreement with Yemen which covers ethnographic materials that are unique to the Yemenite Jewish community such as amulets and other silver pieces of Jewelry. The MOU also covers vessels and containers such as oil lamps and Torah scroll cases and manuscripts written on scrolls such as Torah scrolls.

Algeria: Despite the protestations of the organized Jewish community, on August 14th, 2019 the US Department of State signed a cultural property agreement with Algeria which validates Algerian claims to confiscated Jewish property.

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.

Egypt: The U.S. cultural property MOU agreement with Egypt, signed in November, 2016, covers virtually all objects of cultural heritage through 1517 A.D, including, Hebrew “scrolls, books, manuscripts, and documents, including religious, ceremonial, literary, and administrative texts.” This effectively hands ownership of Jewish property to the Egyptian authorities.

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.”

Iraq: In 2003 U.S. forces transported tens of thousands of confiscated Jewish items found in Iraq to Washington D.C. for restoration. The Iraqi Jewish Archive is slated to be returned upon the request of the Iraqi government.

The aforementioned nations either ethnically cleansed, expelled or terrorized their ancient Jewish communities into flight and seized their property.  Under UN Resolution 242,  Jews fleeing Arab countries were bona fide refugees yet today, these nations claim private and communal Jewish property as their own heritage through cultural patrimony laws. Unfortunately, US government agreements effectively endorse these seizures of Jewish property.

No further agreement should be made with a state where Jews were subjected to state-sanctioned antisemitism, Nuremberg like laws and ethnic-cleansing. No persecuting nation can lay claim to the legacy of a proud and ancient Jewish community. 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 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.

Take Action

Sign Petition to Protect Jewish Cultural Property

Talking points and action items to advocate for the issue by clicking here. 

1) MOU Cultural Property Agreements from the Middle East should include carve-outs that list and name specific Jewish and Christian items to be excluded from the restricted list of items.

2) We ask that the State Department adhere to the limitations set by Congress under the Cultural Property Implementation Act by limiting restrictions to significant cultural items as specified in statue and ceasing the adoption of broad, excessive import restrictions to nations that have neither valued nor cherished the ancient heritage of Jewish, Christian, Yazidis, and other minority peoples.

3) MOUs demand that the governments themselves show they are taking measures to preserve and protect the heritage in their own countries and therefore, governments should be asked to present an inventory of remaining Jewish moveable and non-movable patrimony and an account of what they are actively doing with respect to the care of synagogues, cemeteries and other sites and items of Jewish and Christian heritage.

4) Article 17 of the U.N Declaration of Human Rights 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 agreements, with a foreign state that either condones, supports or promotes any Article 17 violation by that state.

5) We ask Congress and the Department of State to recognize, in the clearest terms that Torah scrolls, Jewish manuscripts, and Jewish cultural materials bearing Hebrew letters are rightfully owned by Jewish communities in diaspora.

6) Jews and other Americans must never be subject to the unsubstantiated claims of foreign tyrannies and all detentions and seizures enforcing MOUs should be governed by the provisions of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act.

JIMENA’s Timeline of Activities

JIMENA comments to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee at the U.S. Department of State regarding the proposed Algerian MOU – June 23, 2018

Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo Regarding Cultural Property Agreements – December 9, 2018

Letter to Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo Regarding Cultural Property Agreements – December 9, 2018

Letter to Secretary of Treasury, Steven Mnuchin Regarding Yemen Emergency Import Restrictions – March 19, 2019

JIMENA comments to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee on Yemenite MOU – October 15, 2019

Letter to Secretary of State, Antony Blinken Regarding Turkey MOU – March 2, 2021

JIMENA comments to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee on Renewal of Libyan MOU – July 26, 2022

JIMENA comments to UNESCO on proposed model provisions on illicit trafficking – November, 2022

Further Reading

Cultural Property News, Cultural Property: Rights of Jews and Christian Minorities
Cultural Property News, A General Guide

Association Internationale Nebi Daniel, The Community Registers
U.S. Department of State, Secretary Kerry Signs Cultural Property Protection Agreement with Egypt
Cultural Property News, Now That Jews Are Gone, Egypt Says It Will Restore Sites
Cambridge Digital Library, Cairo Genizah

U.S. Department of State, United States and Libya Sign Cultural Property Protection Agreement, 2018
Cultural Property News, US Blocks Imports of Art and Artifacts from Libya, 2017
Cultural Property News, American Jewish groups outraged by State Department Agreement with Libya
JTA: Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 2018, US Agrees to Libyan requests that activists stay prevents Jewish artifacts from leaving country

Cultural Property News, Libyan Jewish Community Fights for Rights of to Heritage, 2022

Website,  Save the Iraqi Jewish Archive Campaign 
Times of Israel, Do not give holy Jewish artifacts to country that expelled Its Jews

Jerusalem Post, Iraqi Jewish archives need to be returned to Iraqi Jews

Associated Press, Jewish artifacts disappear from Damascus in fog of Syria war
Paul Getty Occasional Paper in Public Policy, Cultural Cleansing and Mass Atrocities: Protecting Cultural Heritage in Armed Conflict Zones
Cultural Property News Special Report, Bearing False Witness: The Media ISIS and Antiquities
U.S Department of State Cultural Heritage Center, Syria

Cultural Property News, Yemen Red List Includes Jewish Religious Artifacts

U.S. Department of State, Cultural Advisory Committee Meeting Notice. CALL FOR PUBLIC PARTICIPATION. MUST REGISTER BY JULY 15! 

For further information please contact:
Sarah Levin, Executive Director