Friday 22 November 2013

What is in this "Iraqi Jewish Archive"?

This is far beyond the topic this blog was set up to discuss, but if people are going to start using ad hominem arguments and calling me names because I disagree with them, then I feel a few words about what we are in fact talking about is required here.

What is in this "Iraq Jewish Archive"? You will not find this question posed or addressed in any of the websites of those loudly protesting the US decision to return a bunch of boxes of loose documents back to where they came from (e.g.,  "Iraqi Jewish Archives: Save our Jewish heritage", "Don't let the Jewish archive go back to Iraq!" and tagalong Peter Tompa here). They claim this material was all seized from persecuted Jews being "deported" from Iraq, and this is the emotive basis for their further arguments. What actually is the truth behind that? Is all of this mass of material (26 chest loads apparently) - as they claim - the personal property of identifiable individuals which can be documented as being taken by force? Or is some of it material collected - for whatever purpose - incidentally (for example bought up in antiquarian booksellers) or simply abandoned as people moved away from one place to another? This question is not really addressed anywhere, including on the Preserving the Iraqi Jewish Archive ( webpage.

Other questions you will not find discussed there include a number of issues of obvious importance in establishing the nature of the material. When was this collection put together (did it happen during the main emigrations of 1950-1 or subsequently)? How was it put together (what constituent collections is it composed of)? Who assembled it and why? To what extent is the collection now in the US representative of what was originally stored in the basement of the security services building and is there another part of this collection now in Iraq, or destroyed by enemy action in Iraq? Indeed was what was heaped in the courtyard after discovery in fact the contents of one collection, or are they parts of several discrete ones? What documentation exists of what was taken from which shelf or part of the storeroom at the time of discovery? These things are very important to establish if one is going to debate "what should happen to it", yet nobody engaging in this dispute seems to be doing this. Peter Tompa has likened this to a "Holocaust Art" case, but are they in fact comparable? Let those who want to question the US decision to send it back to where they took it from, present their detailed evidence, not some glib wafflings framed in emotive language.

I note that among this material is a whole lot of stuff which cannot really be seen as having been "seized" from anyone personally. In this "Overview of the Collection" (I wonder how many of the protesters have actually read this?) we find that the 3,846 records divide into two types, published books (more than 2,700), and other archival materials.

Among the books are:  School textbooks (some issues in duplicate copies) -  includes Hebrew primers, Israeli primary and high school books printed in Hebrew or Arabic for a variety of subjects, and school - related materials in English. There is also a "potpourri of materials: academic journals in Hebrew and Arabic, printed trade about the Middle East, and telephone books".

Among the manuscript and typescript material are, for example: "Material from the Kingdom of Iraq under British Administration" (1920s to 1930s) typed and handwritten correspondence originating primarily from British representatives in Iraq and the newly established Iraqi government during and closely after the British Mandate period (1920 – 1932). Topics include Iranian, Kurdish, and Assyrian relations.

Dissertations and Conference Proceedings , 1980s – 2000
s, the predominant topic is the Israeli - Palestinian conflict. There is an Arabic copy of Mahmoud Abbas’s doctoral dissertation from the Patrice Lumumba University of Moscow, there are  newspapers, 1950 – 1960s; 1990s The collection includes several Arabic newspapers and collections of newspaper clippings. The clippings focus on topics related to the Jewish community, especially citizenship laws.

Modern Arabic newspapers ( 1995 – 1997 ) include coverage of Saddam Hussein, the Israeli - Palestinian conflict, and Iraq’s regional politics
. Iraqi Government Material having no connection to the Jewish Community, and some of the documents contain sensitive information.

The documents concerning  Jewish schools in Baghdad, 1920s – 1975 include typed and handwritten archival documents and photographs including official documents such as curriculum information (exam booklets and book lists), financial records. Most of it comes from two schools.

In the "community records, 1910s – 1960s" there are  typed and handwritten archival and bound documents again only from the Baghdad community. Correspondence includes Government relations, financial and business records (receipts, invoices, telegrams, ledgers), and property information (leases, legal disputes).  "endowment, land, and general management agreements [...] correspondence between the Burial Society and the Engineering Administration of Baghdad regarding site plans for a vacant lot". There are also business documents of the Jewish pharmacies in Baghdad. Quite a lot of this stuff therefore relates to the functioning of the Jewish community of Baghdad in relation to local authorities and local businesses.

I would say that anyone looking at this overview objectively would soon consider the claim that this archive consists entirely of personal property of individuals seized when they were deported is to a large degree a vast exaggeration, and one it seems is made for propaganda purposes and in the conviction that few are going to check out its veracity. Some material of this nature does exist in the collection, but to claim that this is the sole component of the collection just shows that the ranters have not done the basic footwork to find out what it is they are shouting about. In their carelessness in checking the facts, they are allowing themselves to be manipulated with others with some kind of an axe to grind.

As I have said, the only possible approach is to send the documents back to where the US took them.  The campaigners and the ranters can then help the Iraqi Jewish organizations to lobby the Iraqis to allow the transfer of the documents to a suitable outside institution. But then, do they really want the telephone books, the primary school textbooks and newspaper clippings and so on? A little reasoned discussion would not go amiss there to offset the emotional ranting.

UPDATE 3.12.13
The Iraqi Jewish propaganda machine grinds on. Now there is an article with equally emotive language in a Canadian newspaper  (which actually looks as though it's intended as a poke-in-the-eye for the USA ) Joe O'Connor, "‘Like sending back art Nazis looted’: Iraqi Jews who fled persecution fight to stop U.S. from returning stolen artifacts to Baghdad" National Post 29/11/13). Dr. Caroline Bassoon-Zaltzman found in the archive her Grade 6 report card, along with her school photo from the Menahem Daniel Elementary school in Baghdad [cue: Evil-looking Saddam photo] .
“I really felt violated seeing my report card because I knew the Iraqi secret police had no way of getting it unless they took it from our house,” Dr. Bassoon-Zaltzman says. “All I could think about was somebody being in the house I grew up in and stealing this document and storing it in the basement of the Mukhabarat — the secret police of Saddam Hussein. “Sending these items back to Iraq now would be like sending art that the Nazis looted from Europe’s Jews back to Germany.
You will seek in vain the internet for a specific link to this woman's school report, the reporters recounting this shock-horror tale do not give it. So you cannot check the context of her remark suggesting that abandoned (nota bene) property was "stolen" from her family's abandoned house.  What you do find if you search the government website, is that the school certificates listed there come in packages with other school documents. In other words they were taken not from people's homes, but school archives.  In which case, they are not personal property, but part of an institution's records.

But, for the sake of the argument and in the (probably vain) hope that it may be possible to discuss this rationally without getting misled by emotional rhetoric, let us just examine Dr. Bassoon-Zaltzman's assumption. First of all, if the Iraqi secret police went into her family's home after they'd left it, why would they take and keep ONLY an outdated school certificate (she "was 14 when her family fled the country") and nothing else? After all, as she said members of her family had been accused of spying for Israel, what possible use in investigating the family (at least four persons, two adults and two kids) does she imagine did just a child's school report card and no other documents have? Secondly, she accuses the secret services of stealing the document. How does she know that the secret services took the document? Does she not imagine that after the family left, people from the neighbouring district would not have been scavenging in the abandoned building? Dr Bassoon-Zaltzaman has no way of telling whether a member of the public found a loose document referring to a Jewish girl blowing around in the bushes in a backstreet where it had been dropped as somebody carried away a pile of stuff, and handed it in to the authorities. She just makes an assumption and then expresses it in the most inflammatory and damaging manner in order to garner attention and sympathy.

As I said, before one comes to a judgement on what this archive consists of, we'd have to know a lot more about how it was compiled and why, which is information the US official sources are not giving. I would not mind guessing that this is because the recovery was botched, and no proper record was made at the time of what was found with what and where in the flooded archives ("context of discovery" - which leads to interpretation of the "context of deposition" and its taphonomy). I bet the whole lot was hoiked out willy-nilly by invading squaddies who really had no idea what they were doing.

Oh and for the "intellectual background" to this discussion, do take a bit of time to look at the comments to this article. They are really revealing of the mindsets of some of the people with whom we share this planet. 
Is this the kind of thing we are discussing? Note the filing punch-holes on the edges, from a private home or a duplicate copy from a school archive?

Drew Angerer for The New York Times
A student’s school certificate from 1970.
From: Edward Rothstein, 'Exhibition Review: The Remnants of a Culture’s Heart and Soul
Iraqi Jewish Documents at the National Archives
' New York Times November 10, 2013


Dorothy King said...

My issue is that the people to whom some of the personal documents belonged - eg school certificates of a particular person - have not been given the opportunity to claim them. I for example would want my own A-level certificate back ...

Honestly, with the other more community material you can debate it ad nauseum ... yes, the historical / political letters are interesting, and I can see why both Iraq and Israel would want to have them.

My issue is with other material that was seized off Jewish families under Saddam after 1970 ... surely if the original owners or heirs come forward, a book, for example a family Torah, should go to them not the state that seize it off them?

The big issue is that what's in the Archive has been kept secret so long ... genuine claimants (ie Jews who come from Iraq not just random unrelated Jews) were not really given a chance to lodge their claim. It's all very well saying they can do that after it goes back, but we know that won't happen.

Paul Barford said...

I would imagine that the exam certificates are official copies lodged in the school or examining body and the families at one time received a copy. But then, this stuff has been kicking around ten years, how many requests has the Department of State received for information if Young Dorothy's exam certificate is there? How many will they get before summer next year when the stuff goes back?

I think the problem is that if you look at the "overview" this is a random collection of stuff, it is not clear how it came together in the first place. It is the newspapers that blew up this "human interest" bit with the sweet little schoolgirls etc. It would seem that this kind of material is in the minority.

If there is the possibility of identifying a "book or a family torah" as the property of a particular family, and show it was stolen then I am sure a US court could be induced now to examine the case and confiscate it from the Iraqi government (we've seen this happen a number of times in the past few years). This is a different issue than demanding the whole lot gets sent to Israel, or should stay in the USA.

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