Friday, April 30, 2010

US and Iraq Clash over Cultural Property

The damaged documents from Baghdad in US custody (photo:NPR).

A potential cultural property dispute is brewing between the US and Iraq over relics of the Jewish community of Iraq. When US forces discovered the cache, it was suspended in sewage water inside the former offices of the Iraqi secret police. Initially, as I recall, this concatenation of Jewish, Zionist, and Israeli objects and texts, puzzled observers. What were very, very old Torah scrolls and a book by Ben-Gurion doing in the basement of the Mukhabarat? At the time, some read it is a kind of Judaica fetishist's trove. However, according to the
WaPo story, the apparent randomness of the collection is the clue to its origin. This is the totality of what Iraqi Jews left behind for their inquisitors to seize -- a "snapshot" of the refugees' former life; their genizah. But you can see that the different property claims to this stuff are being fought out over just that issue: is the detritus of the community, or its metonym? Is it an "archive?" Papyrologists, among other scholars of antiquity, are always asking themselves, "What is an archive?" For what it's worth, I still think you could get a pretty interesting take on the Mukhabarat's culture and outlook at that historical moment by analyzing what they decided to keep in their archive.

In any case, the US government is treating this piece of cultural property precisely as they would treat any other. It belongs to the nation-state of Iraq, but we're its guardian for now. In other words, despite the warm relationship between Natan Sharansky, Dick Cheney, and a certain Pentagon official, Jews aren't getting special treatment. But there is certainly room for negotiation. The Cypriots got the State Department to ban the import of coins minted in Cyprus during the Graeco-Egyptian Ptolemaic "occupation" of the island, even if they were unearthed today in Egypt or Turkey. Samir Sumaidaie, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States, seems to want to tie his claim here to implicit claims of looting during the invasion, laying liability for the whole lot at the Americans' feet. Rhetoric that ties the loss of cultural property during US occupation to losses sustained during Ottoman occupation is much more likely to receive a friendly hearing in the court of public opinion. Why quibble about these lamentably damaged Jewish documents while the Istanbul archaeological museum is bedecked with Mesopotamian loot?


J. said...

I thought this issue is fascinating. Of course, my visceral reaction was to reject the Iraqi claims. At one level, it would be a moral travesty to have these artifacts stored in Iraq where they would practically be inaccessible to many Jewish scholars. Israelis who are not dual nationals would be completely barred, and I would wager a guess that most Iraqi Jews with foreign citizenship would likely not feel comfortable going to the Baghdad Museum or national archives, at least presently.

Secondly, I assume, although I don`t know the facts, that at least some of these artifacts were illegally expropriated from the Jewish community without any compensation being paid. Perhaps many artifacts were also abandoned, but even here, that abandonment was probably not an act of choice: it was dictated by the circumstances of Jewish-Iraqi emigration.

Finally, the State Department`s position made me wonder: have "nation-states" historically been accorded primacy over communities/ethnic groups in cultural property cases under international law? Would private or individual claims to these artifacts by Iraqi Jews have any legitimacy under international law?

Noah Feldman anyone?? Any other international lawyers out there?

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Anonymous said...

Wow, interesting. I didn't know about this. Hopefully researchers and scholars will be able to get a look. -G

Noah K said...

It's going back to Iraq.