September 12, 2017

Repatriation: United States will return Iraqi Jewish Archive to Iraq in 2018.

Books and documents from the Iraqi Jewish Archive prior to conservation

On May 6, 2003, in the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s Mukhabarat headquarters, American soldiers from MET (Mobile Exploitation Team) Alpha, led by now-retired Chief Warrant Officer Richard “Monty” Gonzales, found thousands of Jewish communal and religious books in Arabic and Hebrew that appeared to record the life of Iraq's Jewish community  which flourished for over 2,500 years in the region of Babylonia. Unfortunately, the cache of historic items was discovered floating in hip-deep wastewater in the recently-liberated, bomb-damaged headquarters.

Former Chief Warrant Officer Richard Gonzales in waist-deep
sewage water in the basement of Saddam Hussein’s
Mukhabarat headquarters in Baghdad. Image Credit: Richard Gonzales

For emergency assistance in preserving the trove of books, manuscripts and documents, some dating from the mid-sixteenth to late twentieth century, Doris Hamburg, then Director of Preservation Programs at the United States National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) preservation program was contacted by the Coalition Provisional Author­ity in Baghdad.



Hamburg and Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, Chief of the Document Conservation Laboratory, in cooperation with the Iraqi officials, recommended freezing the documents as soon as possible as heat and humidity would produce a conservator's worst enemy: mold.  Freezing as a short-term solution is a common method which can quickly stabilize mold infestations until such time as an appropriate treatment to dry out materials can be undertaken.  The ability to freeze documents buys conservators time, allowing fragile material to be preserved until the documents can be sorted with care and worked on in a priority-centric  and carefully informed pace. 

Heeding NARA's advice, those on the ground moved the waterlogged damaged, and by now moldy documents into 27 large steel trunks.  In turn, these 2,700 books and thousands of Jewish paper documents were placed in a requisitioned freezer truck for storage until August 17, 2003 when a deal was struck between NARA and Iraq’s interim government.    

Citing Iraq's Antiquities Law No. 55, Dr Jaber Khalil Ibrahim, Chairman of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage at the Iraqi Ministry of Culture agreed to send the documents to the United States on a temporary basis, to allow NARA to undertake emergency conservation, on the condition that the material would be returned to Iraq within two years.

As their part of the agreement, NARA agreed to cover overhead costs for administrative functions, lab use, storage and utilities.  The US Military provided the security and transport of the archive from Baghdad to the United States where conservation treatment would occur. 

The trunks were brought to BMS Catastrophe (BMS CAT), a freeze drying company in Ft. Worth Texas utilized by NARA which deals with catastrophic damage and where salvage operations on the documents would start in earnest. Cleaning the documents of mold would be a complicated process, as those working with the materials would be required to wear protective suits for their own health and safety. 

Successful recovery of water-damaged archival materials is usually done in one of two ways: evaporation or sublimation, depending on the state of the water before it passes to vapor and escapes from the materials being conserved.  Water in the wet state can evaporate via air drying but this is not always the optimal method of choice. When freeze dried in controlled atmospheric conditions, water in its solid state, ice, will sublimate and can then be removed from the materials while still in its gaseous phase, without passing through the liquid phase. 

Freeze drying in a vacuum chamber was the conservation method of choice for the Iraqi Jewish Archive given the large numbers of waterlogged and damaged books, some of which had water-sensitive inks and coated paper.  It also limited the problems of bleeding and tidelines on the materials and helps to minimize document shrinkage and brittleness. Ultimately, vacuum freeze drying the texts allowed mold, mud, dirt, and dust to be vacuumed from the surface of the material in a controlled manner, so that conservators could focus their attention on reparations of the archive's contents, prioritizing which objects needed treatment first.  

A lengthy process, the archive's preservation at times has been hampered by funding concerns. As the Iraqi Jewish Archive is not a U.S. govern­ment collection, the United States National Archives and Records Administration funds could not be used for the conservation project.  Outside funding, provided by private donors, foundations or indirectly via other government agencies with authority was needed.

Many philanthropic Jewish organizations balked at funding the conservation and cataloguing initiative knowing that it was highly likely that the collection would ultimately be returned to Baghdad and not remain in the United States or Israel. 

In late 2005, $98,000 was allocated via the National Endowment to the the Center for Jewish History who facilitated the second phase of the preservation project.  To establish preservation priorities for Phase II Susan Duhl and conservation technician were contracted to work under the direction of the National Archives to assess and document the condition of the collection. 

Focusing on proper storage, the pair inventoried the material and took digital photographs used to establish a preliminary digital archive and catalogue, which, with language expertise, could then help set priorities as to what documents were in the collection as well as what actually should be preserved first. 

Experts knowledgeable in Levant and Jewish history met in May 2010 and offered recommendations regarding priorities for preservation, access, and to discuss the potential of an online digital archive and exhi­bitions.

In 2011 the US Department of State allocated an additional 2.97 million for was was to be the final phase of the preservation project.  This funding specified that the project was to be completed in 2014, with the objects to be repatriated June 2014. 

On May 14, 2014, Lukman Faily, the Iraqi ambassador to the US, announced that the Iraqi government had authorized an extension period in which the archive could remain in the United States for a while longer, with key pieces displayed on exhibition.

The four-year extension to keep the Iraqi Jewish Archive in the U.S. is set to expire in September 2018. 

Call it cultural preservation, cultural imperialism, or call it stealing. 

Since the initial transfer of the Iraqi Jewish Archive to the United States, the question of its eventual repatriation to Iraq has been a source of continual contention.  Some argue that Iraq viciously persecuted its Jews and given their displacement, the archive should never be repatriated, belonging instead to the country's displaced jews. 

Others argue that the US is ethically bound to repatriate as they singularly promised the Iraqi Coalition Provisional Author­ity in Baghdad they would do so. 

Speaking to some individuals in Iraq, some feel strongly that the US government intervened solely because of the Jewish nature of the damaged objects.  They resent the special attention this archive received while other important archival documents and rare books belonging to the Iraq National Library and Archive, also impacted by the same type of wastewater flooding, were neglected. [NB the archival materials removed from the INLA were far more extensive than the Jewish documents held by the Mukhabarat and didn't fair as well with regards to preservation]. 

Marc Masurovsky of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project has said that while it appears that the US government is now of a mind to finally return these artifacts to Iraq in 2018, there will be others in clear opposition to that repatriation. 

He writes: 


Sigal Samuel, a self described Iraqi Jew, argues that the archive should go home. 

In a 2014 article in favor of the their return she stated:


On the argument of accessibility by Jewish readers when the artifacts go home Samuel argued:

"I understand that returning the archive to Iraq would make it difficult or impossible for most Jews — particularly Israelis — to safely access it. But even though I myself am saddled with an Israeli name and citizenship, I still don’t think this is an argument for keeping the archive in the U.S. I think it’s an argument for digitization — a process that’s already underway. Or it’s an argument for setting up loans, which would allow the exhibit to be housed permanently in Iraq but travel every few years to this or that Jewish population center.

In digital-age America, we take it for granted that everything we love should be at our fingertips. But relinquishing that luxury sometimes comes with distinct advantages. When it comes to returning this trove to Iraq, the advantages are clear: There, it will serve a vital educational purpose, both for world Jewry and for non-Jewish Iraq."

In a statement to the Jewish Telegraph Service this week, State Department spokesman Pablo Rodriguez said the four-year extension to keep the Iraqi Jewish Archive in the U.S. will expire in September 2018, as will funding for maintaining and transporting the contents of the archive. Outside of a new agreement being drawn up and signed between the Government of Iraq and a temporary host institution or government it looks like the archive is finally going to be repatriated.

Portions of the archive, featuring 23 recovered items and a “behind the scenes” video of the painstaking preservation process will be on display at the Jewish Museum of Maryland from October 15, 2017 until January 15, 2018.

Highlights include:

For more details please see:
https://www.ija.archives.gov/
https://www.archives.gov/files/publications/prologue/2013/fall-winter/ija.pdf

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