by Lyn Julius, author of UPROOTED: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilisation in the Arab World Vanished Overnight

After taking control of Baghdad from Saddam Hussein, US troops discovered what came to be called the Iraqi-Jewish archive in the waterlogged basement of the Iraqi secret police headquarters.  This priceless collection of Jewish books and documents was shipped to the US for restoration at a cost of $3 million.

And now: it’s heading back to Iraq.

In spite of fierce protests by Iraqi Jews and even members of Congress, the US government, which is committed to an agreement signed in 2003, has announced that it will return the archive next September.

Why is this a problem?

Not only were its contents originally stolen from the rightful owners (the Jews of Iraq), but upon the archive’s return, it will almost certainly become inaccessible to scholars as well as to any Jews who may be interested in their own history.

Enter Al Jazeera and its article by Dalia Hakuta entitled, “Iraqi-Jewish archive triggers traumatic memories.”

The overwhelming impression to the reader is that the archive is the property of Iraq, and that it is the Americans who have stolen it from their rightful owners. Nowhere does the author explain that the archive is comprised of books and documents seized and stolen from Jewish homes, schools, synagogues and communal offices by the Iraqi regime in the 1960s and 70s.

Nor does the article explain that if it is returned to Iraq, there is little chance that descendants of Iraqi Jews, 90% of whom fled to Israel, will be able to even visit the archive.

And what of balance or insight?

The only Israelis author Dalia Hakuta interviewed were post-Zionist academics like Orit Bashkin, or radical leftists such as Yael Ben Yefet of the Keshet Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow.

Their statements, which do not reflect the sentiments of most Jews, Iraqi or otherwise, read like this quote from Bashkin:

The general sentiment is that the Americans took documents that belong to the Iraqis.

They introduce Bashkin as an historian and author of Impossible Exodus: Iraqi Jews in Israel. They don’t mention her separation from consensus Jewish opinion.

Other mind boggling quotes include:

…and that’s also connected in the Iraqi memory of the destruction of libraries and ancient collections that occurred during the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

So according to Al Jazeera the painful memories triggered by the archive are not, in fact, Jewish memories of persecution and exile at the hands of Saddam’s regime, but the trauma that Iraqis endured when the they themselves looted their own national museums and libraries, after Saddam’s fall.

Hakuta does not even pose the obvious question: of how Iraq will care for and preserve the archive, if at all.

Bashkin continues:

The archive talks about public life … and most of the period it covers is the interwar period and the 1950s and 60s of Iraqi Jews who didn’t migrate to Israel and lived in Iraq…and you see the degree of Arabisation of the Iraqi Jewish community. It shows you that you could be an Iraqi and a Jew and that there’s not an inherent contradiction there, and it shows you can be an Arab Jew.

But what happened to these Jews?

Bashkin does not say – nor does Hakuta, nor does anyone at all. Entirely whitewashed from the article is the fact that no matter how Arabised they were, the Jews of Iraq were imprisoned, executed, or driven to escape, ending a 2,700 year old community.

Assaf Shalev then brings the article to a whole new low:

It’s pretty clear that a lot of artefacts didn’t reach the West in a very ethical way.

Is that right?

In reality, the Iraqi-Jewish archive was shipped out after an official, transparent agreement was signed. The manner in which the documents reached Saddam’s secret police, was, on the other hand, highly unethical.

Shalev continues:

It’s very clear that the US holding on to it would activate [the] sensitiveness around Third World countries getting their cultural heritage stolen…If this collection goes to Iraq, Iraqi Jews won’t have access to it for the most part. I’m not sure where I fall exactly. I see merits in both arguments.

Then follows a quote from Yael Ben Yefet, focusing on discrimination against Iraqi Jews in Israel. This is, of course, an entirely unrelated topic. Yet context would require at least some mention of the hangings, torture, beatings and other abuses Jews suffered in Iraq. The reader is left with the inaccurate understanding that life for Jews in Iraq was somehow better than in Israel.

Unbelievably, Ben Yefet claims that most of the Iraqis in Israel today would be unable to see the archive if it remained in the US because:

…the educational and social-economic status of Iraqi Jews has declined from one generation to the next.

It is not clear what she means – that Iraqi Jews in Israel are too uneducated to view an archive? In fact, Iraqi Jews are one of the most successfully integrated of ethnic groups in Israel.

Buried in the last paragraph is a passing mention to the Farhud pogrom of 1941, which is, in fact, only one of many traumatic Jewish memories from Iraq.

These traumatic memories are often projected onto the archive…they know they can’t go back to Iraq and they do want access to it. And this genuine sentiment is being politicised and tied to the question of who represents world Jewry.

So this is a political tug-of-war between Israel and the Jewish diaspora? Yet it is the Iraqis who are claiming that the archive was “stolen” from them, an historical collection that was never theirs to start with.

So who is, in reality, “politicising” the issue?

Whose trauma is it anyway?