Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Iraqi Jewish Archives

One of the artifacts recovered after the US invasion of Iraq were items detailing the long history of Iraq's Jews. Many of these pieces are currently being stored in America, and there is a bit of a fight brewing over whether and under what circumstances they should be returned.

There are, I think, three angles to this.

1) There is the fear that, in a country where "Jew" is a dirty word and anti-Semitism has considerable potency in the public square, the archives will simply not be safe in Iraq. There have already been concerns that Ezekiel's Shrine -- a Jewish holy place within Iraq -- will see its Jewish heritage erased under the guise of "restoration" under pressure by Islamic parties eager to suppress Jewish history and connections to the region.

2) The flip side of number one is the idea that preserving and publicly displaying Jewish cultural history in Iraq is an important way of restoring the values of pluralism and tolerance in that community, and dissipating the view that Jews are their enemies. During the controversy over Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni's possible elevation to a top UN position, one of the things that was concerning was his stated opposition to building a museum of Jewish-Egyptian culture on "anti-Zionist" grounds. This conflation of "Jew" with "Israel" in many parts of the Arab world is deeply problematic. Still more problematic is the ongoing belief that "Jews" aren't in some sense real human beings -- they continue to be perceived as a sort of extra-social malevolent force, based out of Israel, responsible for all global ills. Grounding Jewish lives and experience in their actual historical roots, including areas in the middle east, is important to checking that instinct. Many of the Iraqi officials who are promoting return of the artifacts to their country are making arguments that strongly echo the above. In large part, the debate between the first and second angles is whether a) you believe them and b) whether, even if you think they're genuine, you have confidence in their ability to maintain control over the situation in the face of hostile pressures.

3) The third angle has to do with whose heritage these pieces actually represent: Iraq's, or Iraq's Jews. Oh yes, middle eastern Jews -- how quickly they tend to be forgotten. The richness of Iraq's Jewish history is testament to its status as a centuries-old community that for a considerable time ranked as one of the largest in the world. Unfortunately, during the 20th century, the majority of the community was driven out through violence and intimidation; the current Jewish population of Iraq is estimated at around 10. Not 10,000 -- 10. Representatives of the Iraqi Jewish diaspora are somewhat incensed that their own history will be in the hands of the very people responsible for driving them out. More concretely, since substantial portions of the Iraqi Jewish community now resides in Israel, there is a good chance that any documents remaining inside Iraq will be inaccessible to them, as Iraq continues to have no diplomatic relations with Israel (hey, another victory for boycott policies!). The article indicates that representatives of the Iraqi Jewish community, though upset, are "resigned" that the material likely will be returned there -- which goes to show just how little power and influence that have on the decisions and discourses which affect their lives.

I don't have an answer to these problems -- they are quite vexing. But it is an issue that will have to be addressed somehow, in a way that is both just to all the heirs of the traditions at issue, and that contributes, as much as possible, to peaceful and just reconciliation between the affected communities.

1 comment:

chingona said...

Really interesting.

Until I clicked on the link, I had assumed they were kept in the National Archives. That they were in the basement of a secret police building reminds me of how the Nazis kept Jewish artifacts to put in some sort of museum once they finished with the Final Solution. (Though who knows how many people in the secret police even remembered that they'd stashed that stuff down there and why.)