Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Group Identity and the Possession of Texts

Groups (families, ethnic groups, religions, nations) make texts iconic when they base ownership claims on some kind of historic identification with the texts, their authors or previous owners. The problem is, of course, that these identity claims often come into conflict with those of others. Many such conflicts rage over texts and other artifacts in Western museums, but I know of few that illustrate the stakes for group identity as clearly as the argument over who should get the Iraqi Jewish archives.

Alex Joffe in Jewish Ideas Daily describes the situation of the archive discovered in 2003 by American troops in a building of the Iraqi secret police:

The earliest item dates to 1568, but most of the other materials are from the late-19th and early-20th centuries.Judeo-Arabic manuscripts, Torah scrolls and mantles, children's primers, family photographs, letters, all seized from Iraq's long-banished Jews. Through a confluence of initiatives involving the U.S. military, the Iraqi opposition, the Coalition Provisional Authority, and the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, the trove was transported to the U.S. where it was freeze-dried, conserved, and photographed. It remains in the charge of the National Archives and Records Administration and the Center for Jewish History.Representatives of the Iraqi Jewish community in Israel have staked a claim to the trove. But so, for its part, has Iraq itself, whose new Minister of Tourism and Antiquities has named the return of the archive as a top priority.
After recounting the history of Jewish persecution in Iraq, Joffe asks: "By what right should a society that barely tolerated and then expelled its Jews, and that loathes and forbids the presence of Jews now, be given 27 cases of Jewish documents and books?" He suggests: "International refugee law provides for 'non-refoulment': that is, refugees must not be returned to a situation where they would be put in jeopardy. Might a similar principle be considered for antiquities?"

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