Return Iraqi artifacts to Jewish community, U.S. lawmakers urge

WASHINGTON (JTA) – A bipartisan group of Congress members want to make sure the Iraqi Jewish artifacts currently on display in Washington D.C. are returned directly to the Iraqi Jewish community and not the government.

Reps. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) are leading the effort to return the thousands of books, photos, texts and other materials that were found by the U.S. and coalition forces in 2003 and brought to the United States to be restored to the Jews of Iraq, many of whom live in the United States.

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The artifacts, which had been submerged in water at Saddam Hussein’s flood secret police building, were brought to this country to be restored and digitalized. The collection is supposed to be sent back to Iraq next spring.

The two politicians wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, which states in part, “The Government of Iraq has no legitimate claim to these artifacts. We firmly believe that these items should be returned to the descendants of the Iraqi Jewish community, who still mourn the loss of these priceless reminders of their former lives in Iraq.”

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) also is involved in the effort. He recently told the Daily News, “These sacred artifacts were taken from the Iraqi Jewish community and thus do not belong to the Iraqi government. They belong to the thousands of Iraqi Jews, an ancient and once-vibrant community, who were exiled many years ago.”

Ros-Lehtinen agreed, noting, “The Iraqi government has absolutely no right or legitimate claim to these artifacts. These communal, religious and personal items were left behind in a temple in Baghdad to be safeguarded as the vast majority of Jews were forced to flee Iraq due to rampant persecution, harassment and anti-Semitic hatred, only to see them stolen by Saddam Hussein and his thugs.”

She said it “would be criminal for the U.S. government to be complicit in the denying the Jewish community what is rightfully theirs.”

The collection includes more than 2,700 Jewish books and tens of thousands of documents in Hebrew, Arabic, Judeo-Arabic and English, dating from 1540 to the 1970s. Some of these items are on display at National Archives through Jan. 5, 2014.