Academic journal article The George Washington International Law Review

Remembrance of Things Past: The Iraqi Jewish Archive and the Legacy of the Iraqi Jewish Community

Academic journal article The George Washington International Law Review

Remembrance of Things Past: The Iraqi Jewish Archive and the Legacy of the Iraqi Jewish Community

Article excerpt


By early May 2003, the United States military had occupied Baghdad for about a month.1 Mobile Exploitation Teams (METs), military units formed to seek out nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, scoured the city for contraband.2 On May 6, however, sixteen members of one team, MET Alpha, engaged in a mission entirely unrelated to the discovery of so-called weapons of mass destruction.3

The new mission had been conceived several days earlier, when a member of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the former opposition-in-exile to Saddam Hussein's government, told the INC that an ancient Talmud, a Jewish holy book,4 was in the basement of the Mukhabarat, the secret police headquarters.5 The informant had been the Mukhabarat's Israeli-Palestinian section head and claimed to have hidden the holy book to protect it during the U.S. bombing.6 The INC contacted MET Alpha to solicit the unit's aid in recovering the valuable book.7

Initially the commander of the METs, Col. Richard R. McPhee, was reluctant to send MET Alpha on a treasure hunt. Regardless of whether they recovered the Talmud, searching for it was not part of their mission to find unconventional weapons,8 yet he felt that the book was too valuable not to find.9 The book was allegedly from the seventh century, which would make it one of the oldest extant Talmuds.10 MET Alpha, therefore, traveled to the Mukhabarat, together with members of the INC, members of the Department of Defense's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, Harold Rhodes, an Orthodox Jew who worked in the office of the secretary of defense, and a reporter.11 At the Mukhabarat, the soldiers found the basement flooded to a depth of three to four feet and the stairwell leading to it covered with debris.12 The pipes had burst when the United States bombed the building.13 The air was stagnant with the smell of rot; amongst the detritus from the building, dead animals floated on the water.14

Three soldiers plunged into the murky water to search for the Talmud,15 but they did riot find it. Instead they found a cache of intelligence concerning Israel, including scale models of the Knesset and Jerusalem neighborhoods, and a collection of historic and modern books and documents on the Iraqi Jewish community.16 Throughout the next week, the soldiers cleaned the basement and assembled a large collection of books and archival material from the nearly defunct Jewish community of Iraq (the Archive).17 The Archive had been severely damaged by the water,18 so MET Alpha laid it outside to dry while determining what to do with it.19 Although the soldiers were unsure of how to proceed, they knew that they had inadvertently stumbled upon an invaluable collection pertaining to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, a community that was now approaching extinction.20

This Note addresses the significance of the Archive, the solution the United States devised to save it, and the implications of that solution for world cultural heritage. Part II traces the history of the Iraqi Jewish community, from its ancient origins to the time of the present U.S. occupation, and examines what happened to the Archive subsequent to its discovery by MET Alpha. This section discusses the examination of the Archive by preservation experts from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and their conclusion that the best treatment to save the Archive could be provided by NARA in the United States. Part II also discusses the agreement reached between the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the U.S. military-led occupation government of Iraq, the Department of State, and NARA to bring the Archive into the United States for preservation. This section examines the statutory means-the Immunity from Seizure Act21 (§ 2459 or the Act)-the parties used to ensure that the Archive could be brought into the United States and protected from various claimants so that it could eventually be returned to Iraq and its Jewish community. …

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