Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Summary of CPAC Meeting on Requests from Yemen and Morocco

On October 29, 2019, the US Cultural Property Committee (CPAC) held an open session on proposed MOU’s with Morocco and Yemen.  Video conferencing was used for speakers in diverse locations to provide oral comments to CPAC members meeting at the State Department.

The following individuals were meeting at the State Department: (1) Andrew Cohen, CPAC’s ED; (2) Jeremy Sabloff, CPAC’s Chair (Santa Fe Institute- Museum Representative); (3) Rosemary Joyce (Berkley- Anthropology Representative); Karol Wight (Corning Glass Museum-Museum Representative: (4) James Reap (University of Georgia Historic Preservation-Public Representative);  (5) Dorit Strauss (Art and Insurance Advisory Services- Expert in the International Sale of Cultural Property); and (6) Stefan Passantino (Michael Best & Friedrich, LLP-Public Representative).  There were other State Department staff in the room and apparently other CPAC members listening remotely.

Andrew Cohen gave a short overview about the purpose of the proceeding.  Jeremy Sabloff then indicated that CPAC had received 185 public comments (mostly relating to Jewish religious artifacts), and that due to time constraints comments of public speakers would be limited to 4 minutes (rather than the usual 5).

Stefan Passantino asked Carole Basri (American Filmmaker and Lawyer of Iraqi Jewish Decent) if she would be satisfied with an exemption for Jewish artifacts.   She says a carve out is important, but the problem is that while Jewish artifacts have not been explicitly named in recent designated lists, Jewish artifacts still fall under more general categories.  She also indicated that it is often difficult to tell Jewish artifacts from similar looking Islamic ones.  She notes that Jewish Torahs are in effect private property lent to Synagogues for communal use.  MOUs have in the past have recognized MENA governments’ rights to such private property.

Glenn Corbett (Council of American Overseas Research Centers) has worked to document and preserve the contents of Yemeni museums.  He believes that his Yemeni government colleagues share CAORC’s concerns and truly do want to protect Yemeni cultural patrimony.

Mr. Epstein- Indicates that Torah scrolls are personal property that must be protected.  This property must not be awarded to the anti-Semitic Yemeni regime.

Kate FitzGibbon (Committee for Cultural Policy and Global Heritage Alliance) expressed concern about the short amount of time allowed for speakers along with the short two week long comment period.  She notes that the CPIA has certain criteria that should be met before a MOU is approved.  The State Department’s public summary of the Moroccan MOU request was produced AFTER the close of the public written comment period and did not identify the type of import restrictions or describe the objects for which import restrictions are being sought. Nor did the public summary describe any looting taking place today.   Ms. FitzGibbon appreciates that the CPAC is considering a carve-out for Jewish artifacts, but the issue would not arise if the Cultural Property Implementation Act were applied as written as restrictions would then be placed on far fewer categories of artifacts.  She also indicates there needs to be current looting to trigger the CPIA and that it not clear such looting is taken place in Morocco.  She also notes that Moroccan law is a bit unclear.  She notes that Dr. Sabloff (who also lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico) should recall a local shop that sold Moroccan cultural artifacts that were legally imported, but which would likely be covered under an all-encompassing MOU.

Benjamin Gladstone is a doctoral student.  He is appalled by reports that the US government is considering signing away the cultural heritage of Yemeni and Moroccan Jewry to the governments of those countries.  He is particularly concerned not only about Torah scrolls but grave goods as well.  Yemeni Jews were discriminated against.  Jewish orphans were subject to forced conversions to Islam.  Whether one was an orphan was determined by whether the father was living.  Lots of children were forcibly removed from Jewish widows, and then tortured into accepting Islam.   Young Jewish women who were “orphaned” were also forced to marry Yemeni Muslims.  For many years, the State of Israel sought to preserve the grave of a Jewish holy man in Yemen.  The Yemeni government sought to erase any trace of the grave by erecting a school over it.

Sarah Levin (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and Africa (JIMENA)) speaks for displaced Jews from Yemen, Morocco and elsewhere in the region.  Her group has contacted Secretary of State Pompeo and House Foreign Relations Chair Eliot Engel to express concerns about the US recognizing the rights of MENA governments to Jewish cultural artifacts when Jews have been ethnically cleansed from the region. Jews are not allowed access to Jewish cultural artifacts that remain in the region because they were not allowed to remove them when they fled.

Katie Paul (ATHAR Project) shows screen shots of Yemeni and Moroccan cultural artifacts available for sale on Facebook pages for groups within the region.  She maintains that some of these groups are very large and also have members in the US.  The images show a range of objects including statuary, Torah scrolls and coins.

Mr. Sissan (Spelling?)  Indicates that Jewish people saw themselves as foreigners in MENA countries and logically MENA countries should not be entitled to their cultural artifacts.

Peter Tompa (International Association of Professional Numismatists) states that CPAC needs to look before it leaps to approve yet another round of MOUs with authoritarian MENA governments.  The Yemeni MOU is very troubling because Yemen is complicit along with its Saudi allies in the intentional destruction of cultural sites, including the Dhamar Museum.  A few images of what purport to be looted material on Facebook is insufficient to establish that Morocco’s cultural patrimony is in jeopardy. CPAC should work to ameliorate damage done to coin collecting by ensuring that any import restrictions are only applied prospectively to coins proven to be illicitly exported from the State Party that received import restrictions after the effective date of any regulations.  Current procedures do not comport with the CPIA because they effectuate an embargo on all coins imported after the effective date of any regulations. 
Kate FitzGibbon notes that a number of the images on Facebook shown by Ms. Paul may be fakes.  

Ms. Paul indicates she vetted some with experts and that fakes are often used to hide real objects.

Carole Basri asks the Committee to review her Fordham law review article about Jewish cultural heritage. She notes MENA governments treat Jewish archival material poorly.  In one instance, some such material was almost incinerated.

Rosemary Joyce wants Ms. Basri and others to know that the Red List (which has Jewish artifacts on it) is not the same as the designated list. 

Carole Basri argues that any Jewish material that US Customs seizes should be given to Jewish groups in the US and not returned to MENA countries.

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