Provenance & the Question of Custody versus Ownership: Iraqi Jewish Books & Documents

The LA Times posted a brief article today regarding a custody battle ensuing between Iraqis, Israelis, and Americans.  I suppose this story is slightly topical given last week’s WikiLeaks news and consequently has put pressure on involved parties to find a resolution.  The conflict involves rabbinical texts in Iraq seized in 2003 by U.S. forces which have been housed by the U.S. in Washington under the custody of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  The question of the rightful owners of the books and documents have arose and with it, calls for replevin.  Arguments of cultural heritage have been used by Iraqis claiming Judaism as part of Iraq’s history against those members of the Iraqi Diaspora who refuse to allow a piece of their heritage to be held in the archives of a war-torn country.

Despite the fact that the cultural and historical value of the unique material to the Iraqis and diasporic community are not an issue, these are valid points with precedents .  There are countless examples in the museum world where the politics behind situations involving the spoils of war can ultimately factor into the decisions made.

From a archival perspective, the fact remains that these materials were found wet in a basement and rescued from this less-than-ideal state by using common conservation techniques.  The reality has been that Iraq does not yet have the stable infrastructure or capacity to properly house the material, never mind executing conservation techniques when necessary.  NARA is suited to co-operate with and assist the other parties in forming a reasonable solution (NARA has been developing a digital preservation strategy for their archives and records for sometime).  Ideally the long-term preservation and conservation of these materials should not be left to the wayside but should play a pivotal part in the ongoing negotiations.  Nevertheless, the heated political nature of this debate is surely driving the negotiations.  I’ll continue to follow this story as it happens.

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