Tug-of-war erupts over planned return of Jewish archives to Iraq

Tue Nov 26, 2013 4:09pm EST
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By Sylvia Westall and Jonathan Saul

BAGHDAD/LONDON (Reuters) - Jewish books and documents found by U.S. soldiers in the flooded headquarters of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and sent to the United States for restoration have touched off a dispute between Baghdad and Iraqi Jews who fled the country.

After a $3 million restoration, the collection has been put on display at the Washington-based National Archives. But bowing to demands from Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim-led government, the United States says it will return the collection next summer. Some of the artifacts date to the 16th century.

A National Archives spokeswoman said the materials, whose removal from Baghdad was agreed in 2003 - when a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam and the country lurched into widespread sectarian turmoil - would be going back to Iraq and the decision was made by the U.S. State Department.

Members of Iraq's Jewish community, many of whom fled the country in previous decades, say the materials were forcibly taken from them and should not be returned.

Edwin Shuker, 58, who escaped to Britain with his family from Baghdad in 1971, said he had discovered his long-abandoned school certificate on display as part of the National Archives exhibition.

"This is more than a school certificate - it is the identity we were forced to leave behind," he told Reuters, likening the document's journey and survival to his own.

"I would like to be reassured that my children and future generations will have unrestricted access to this collection."

Cynthia Kaplan Shamash, from the New York-based World Organisation of Jews from Iraq, said Iraqi Jews were grateful for the restoration but did not want the archive to go back. "Returning the collection to a Jewish-free Iraq in the current conditions is incomprehensible and unacceptable," she said.   Continued...

A Passover Haggadah from Vienna, 1930 is pictured after treatment in this undated handout photo from the National Archives obtained by Reuters November 26, 2013. REUTERS/The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Handout via Reuters