Outrage: U.S. Returning Artifacts Looted from Iraqi Jews to Iraq, Instead of Lawful Owners

In 1984, Saddam sent henchmen with trucks to that synagogue. Those scrolls, records, and books were carted off to a place unknown. Local Jews who were at the synagogue at that time witnessed this thievery, and described to me personally how the material was carted off against their will.

Why did Saddam even care about this material, and why did he keep it in his intelligence headquarters? Did he think he might gain some insights into the Jewish mind by doing so? Did he think doing so would help him defeat the Israelis?

From a Middle Eastern cultural perspective, capturing the archive makes perfect sense.  Humiliation -- i.e., shaming another’s personal reputation -- is more important and more powerful than physical cruelty. From this cultural perspective, by capturing the Jewish archives, Saddam was humiliating the Jewish people. He was showing how powerless the Jews were to stop him. By keeping that archive and the Israel section in the basement of his intelligence headquarters, Saddam further humiliated the Jews and Israel. And by doing so, Saddam – again, in Middle Eastern eyes -- was also regaining a portion of the honor the Arabs lost through their constant military defeats at the hands of the (Jewish) Israelis.

Strange as it might sound to Western ears, Saddam also thereby demonstrated to other Middle Eastern leaders that he was in the vanguard of protecting and regaining Arab honor, and was therefore more worthy of Arab/Muslim leadership than were the others.

As for today’s Iraqi leaders, they too do not want to be humiliated, and therefore cannot say that they are prepared to let the Jews or Americans have this material.

Any Iraqi Arab leader who publicly surrenders the Jewish archive will be humiliated in the eyes of his fellow Arabs. That is most likely why so many of them privately said that they wanted to me get this archive out of Iraq quickly and as quietly as possible before anyone would know. That way, they would not be blamed for the archive’s removal.

Of course, according to international law, no country may remove or steal the patrimony or art effects of another country, even when captured in war. The U.S. therefore could not lawfully remove the Jewish material without the consent of the local Iraqi authorities. Accordingly, the Americans asked the Iraqis for permission to remove this material in order to restore it. The Iraqi cultural ministry authorities agreed to this, on condition that it eventually return to Iraq.

But did the Iraqi authorities have the right to demand the archives back?

The Iraqi government “acquired” this material by stealing it from the Jewish community and by persecuting a minority religious population.

The Iraqi Jews, under duress, had no choice but to relinquish control of their communal archives to the government. It was the Jewish community’s property, not the Iraqi government’s.

After our effort to retrieve the Jewish archives became publicly known, many former Iraqi Jews started exerting public pressure in an effort to take possession of the post-restoration archives. But the American bureaucracy -- which did not want to get involved in the archive’s rescue in the first place -- did its best to ensure that once the material was restored it would return to Iraq. The bureaucracy said that it is illegal for a conquering power to remove property from the country which was conquered, and the bureaucracy did not want to become embroiled in questions of provenance.

But the property was stolen property in the first place, meaning that the Iraqi government did not own it. It is the Iraqi government which has no provenance. The stolen property must be returned to its original owners -- according to international law.