Dear Secretary Tillerson,
I write today out of deep concern over the recently reported decision to return over 2,700 pieces of Iraqi Judaica to Iraq next year. Four years ago, I urged then-Secretary of State John Kerry to delay and ultimately prevent the Iraqi Jewish Archive from returning to Iraq in 2014, the initial return deadline for the collection. Thankfully, after my urging, the deadline was postponed, however, the new deadline is now September 2018. These treasured artifacts belong to the Jewish community and, therefore, I am renewing my call for these artifacts to remain available and accessible to Jews worldwide – especially the exiled Iraqi Jewish community.
In 2003, American soldiers found the collection of Iraqi Judaica in a flooded Baghdad Intelligence Center, and the United States has spent over $3 million dollars preserving the collection. The collection, which includes partial Torah parchments and ancient prayer books, had been seized by Saddam Hussein’s troops and belonged to members of the exiled Iraqi Jewish community. Specifically, this priceless collection of Judaica consists of a Hebrew Bible with commentaries from 1568, a Babylonian Talmud from 1793, a Torah scroll fragment from Genesis, a Zohar from 1815 and other sacred ritual objects.
Items in the collection were seized by Saddam Hussein in 1984 from a Baghdad synagogue. Iraqi Jews placed the collection there during their mass exodus in the early 1950s. In the 1940s, outbreaks of anti-Jewish rioting occurred and in 1948, Zionism was made a capital crime. Between 1950-1952, more than 130,000 Jews left Iraq and were not allowed to carry more than one suitcase each. When the United States attempted to assist Iraqi Jews who wished to leave Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003, just 34 Jews were found in the entire country – a mere shadow of a 2,500 year old community which at its height numbered over 130,000 people.
These items belong to the people who were forced to leave them behind when the Iraqi government chose to exile them from their homes. Since the exile of Jews from Iraq virtually no Jewish life remains in the country – this treasured collection belongs to the Jewish community and should be made available to them. I strongly urge you to reconsider your decision to return these artifacts to the Iraqi government next year and urge you to work with Jewish organizations and the Iraqi Jewish community both in the United States and abroad to find a location to store and display these cherished items in a manner which respects their history.
U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer