Saturday, January 16, 2010

Iraqi Authorities Continue Erasure of Evidence of Jews

Knee-jerk repatriationists in the archaeological community and bureaucrats within the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs who believe Torah scrolls written in Iraq years ago should be repatriated there would do well to read this story. See http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1263147896786&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull

According to the Jerusalem Post,

For centuries Jews, Christians and Muslims came to Al-Kifl, a small town south of Baghdad, to visit the tomb of the Prophet Ezekiel and pray.

The distinctive Jewish character of the Al-Kifl shrine, namely the Hebrew inscriptions and the Torah Ark, never bothered the gentile worshipers. In the 14th century a minaret was built next to the shrine, but the interior design remained Jewish. The vast majority of Iraq's Jewish community left some 60 years ago, but Shi'ites took good care of the holy site.


Until now.

Recently "Ur," a local Iraqi news agency, reported that a huge mosque will be built on top of the grave by Iraq's Antiquities and Heritage Authority, while Hebrew inscriptions and ornaments are being removed from the site, all as part of renovations.

I first heard the news of tomb desecration from a friend of mine who is a German scholar. After visiting the site he called me and said that some Hebrew inscriptions on the grave were covered by plaster and that a mosque is planned to be built on top of the tomb. He told me that he found the changes at the tomb disturbing and warned me that I'd better act quickly, before any irreversible damage will be inflicted," Moreh said.

"I had contacted Mr. Shelomo Alfassa, US director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, and told him about this situation. Then I saw the report from the Ur news agency, mentioning the decision of the Antiquities and Heritage Authority to build a mosque and to erase the Hebrew inscriptions and ornaments," Moreh said.

He asked friends to check out the developments at the site. The most recent to visit the shrine said that some of the inscriptions are now hidden by a layer of plaster.

Iraqi press reports claim that the building must be destroyed because of its poor condition. However, Alfassa believes that Iraq's Antiquities and Heritage Authority "has been pressured by Islamists to historically cleanse all evidence of a Jewish connection to Iraq - a land where Jews had lived for over a thousand years before the advent of Islam."

According to the Baghdad-born Moreh, many of the Muslims who visit the tomb today are unaware Ezekiel was a Jew.

Iraq, the biblical Aram Naharaim, is rich in Jewish religious sites. Not only Ezekiel is buried there, but also Ezra, Daniel, Nehemiah, Nahum and Jonah. (Another tomb attributed to Ezekiel is located in Dezful, in southwestern Iran.)

Soon after the US-led invasion in 2003, Iraqi authorities indicated that they intended to take good care of the Jewish sites, which might become an powerful tourist magnet. In May 2009, the Tourism Ministry declared that it intended to preserve all of Iraq's heritage sites, regardless of creed, and would soon begin the renovation of Ezekiel's tomb.

But the future of Jewish sacred sites looks grim in the intolerant current climate of post-Saddam Iraq, where only eight Jews are left, the Christian minority is severely persecuted by the fundamentalists and ancient Shi'ite mosques are blown up.

"Let's hope that the Jewish sites will be spared, but someone must intervene before it's too late," Moreh warned.

For more about efforts to repatriate Torah scrolls and continued anti-Semitism in Iraq, see: http://culturalpropertyobserver.blogspot.com/search?q=torah

For a thoughtful critique of the modern Iraqi State's claims to Jewish artifacts, see also
http://culturalpropertyobserver.blogspot.com/2008/07/joffee-critiques-justifications-for.html

This story was reported on the Iraq Crisis List here: https://lists.uchicago.edu/web/arc/iraqcrisis/2010-01/msg00007.html

Addendum: Coincidentally, the Washington Post on 01/17/10 has reported about Iraq's efforts to repatriate a Jewish archive that the US Army rescued from the bombed out headquarters of Saddam Hussein's secret police. See http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/16/AR2010011602583.html?sub=AR

It seems odd to me that our government would even consider returning artifacts presumably confiscated by the Iraqi Secret Police from fleeing Iraqi Jews to a nation that continues to erase them from the archaeological record. Even if the director of the Iraq National Library is well meaning, recent history as recounted above suggests that these newly restored artifacts will not be cared for and may even ultimately be destroyed. Under the circumstances, wouldn't they be better off with an Iraqi Jewish group in in exile?

2 comments:

Wayne G. Sayles said...

It's sad to see this happen to any holy place, of any religion. When visiting the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, I was struck by the garish remains of Christian symbols that had been defaced by being chiseled out of the marble blocks -- and some apparently not that long ago. For a more reasoned approach, one might look at the U.S. military chaplain's service, where all faiths are supported by all chaplains regardless of individual persuasions. The first hand account from the ground in Iraq, by Chaplain Emilio Marrero Jr. in "A Quiet Reality", puts truth on the table and ought to be read by every thinking person - zealots included.

Arthur said...

This is so tragic, but it is not surprising that there has been zero response from any member of the archaeological community.

I should mention that someone I know with an interest in Jewish culture has proposed the creation of an "Iraq Antiquities Extraction Fund", whose purpose would be to advertise for and buy any and all material that the Iraqis claim but that is likely to be extingushed. This would include archaeological material inside Iraq, documents of interest and concern -- essentially anything that is threatened with destruction because of Iraqi behavior or policies, including development policies. The individual concerned is thinking of setting up a tax-exempt organization that would take contributions from all those with an interest and convert these into antiquites that would be selected for their vulnerability.

I advised the individual that he was placing moral behavior above the law and that certain lawyers and archaeological organizations would go ballistic if they ever thought that such a thing might be created. The individual looked at me and smiled and said "of course."

Warm regards,

Arthur