Ill. House Rep. David Harris fights for Iraqi Jewish archive

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State Rep. David Harris and Suzanne Strassberger, Associate Vice President, the Jewish Federation’s Government Affairs department.
Illinois State Representative David Harris filed House Joint Resolution 68 in an attempt "to urge the United States Department of State to renegotiate with the Government of Iraq … to ensure that the Iraqi Jewish Archive collection be kept in a place where its long-term preservation … can be guaranteed." Suzanne Strassberger, Associate Vice-President of Government & Community Partnerships and the Federation's registered state lobbyist, represented the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and signed on in support of JHR 68 when presented to the IL House International Trades & Commerce Committee on Thursday, March 20.  

The State Department recently announced its plan to return the Iraqi Jewish Archive collection, currently on display at the U.S. National Archives in Washington, D.C., to the Iraqi government this summer, stating the Iraqi people are the rightful owners.

Under the George W. Bush Administration, shortly after Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003, the Pentagon assigned Middle East expert and 27-year Pentagon official Harold Rhode, an Orthodox Jew, to work for the U.S. occupation authority through Operation Iraqi Freedom. When Rhode arrived in Bagdad that April, he learned through on-site intelligence officers that thousands of centuries-old Iraqi Jewish archives were discovered in the basement of Hussein's intelligence service headquarters.  For years, during Hussein's rule, his intelligence operatives improperly seized papers from synagogues and Jewish families, mostly during random searches or shortly before Jewish families emigrated, in an attempt to marginalize the Jewish people and Jewish culture in Iraq.

During his visit in 2003, Rhode personally arranged for the artifacts to be shipped directly to the U.S. National Archives to be cleaned, preserved, and properly stored. A portion of these artifacts recently went on display at the Archives, which includes 2,700 books and 10,000 documents.

Among these documents are a 200-year-old Talmud from Vienna, a 19th century Passover Haggadah published in Bagdad, a copy of "Ethics of the Father," published in 1928 in Livorno, Italy with handwritten notes in Hebrew, and a collection of rabbinical sermons made in Germany in 1962. When Rhode learned that these Jewish archives could be shipped back to Iraq, he equated the return to "the giving of the personal effects of Jews killed in the Holocaust back to Germany." 

Although part of an original agreement between the State Department and the Iraqi Government, U.S. Congress is pushing back and trying to stop the return of these archives to Iraq by strongly encouraging the State Department to reconsider the resolution. The U.S. Senate unanimously passed Resolution 333, calling for the State Department to re-negotiate its original agreement, and a similar resolution is awaiting a vote in
the House.

Rep. Harris feels strongly on this issue, both on a personal and professional level. 

"Having served in Iraq for 14 months, I was concerned about what would happen to the artifacts if they were returned to the Iraqi government," he said. "The decision to return them should be renegotiated so that the artifacts are returned to the original Jewish owners, if possible, and if that is not possible, then returned to the Jewish community where they would be respected and preserved."

With this resolution, Harris hopes the Illinois General Assembly's support will help influence the appropriate government authorities to reconsider and keep the Iraqi Jewish Archives in a location that is accessible to scholars and Iraqi Jews around the world.

Since its filing on Jan. 20, Joint House Resolution 68 has received bipartisan support, with Deputy Majority Leader Rep. Lou Lang, Rep. Michael Bost, Rep. Scott Drury, and Rep. Jack Franks as co-sponsors. The resolution passed unanimously out of committee. Harris will now read it and attempt to have it passed on the floor of the Illinois General Assembly. The Jewish Federation will continue to work closely with Harris to pass HJR 68.  

Mara Ruff is the associate director of State & Local Government for the Government Affairs department of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

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