18 Jewish Organizations Protest MENA Nationalization of Heritage to State Department

Letter to Pompeo on Cultural Property Agreements with Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Libya – and Future Agreements with Algeria and 5 Other MENA Nations

A family of Yemenite Jews walking through the desert to a refugee reception camp set up by the American Joint Distribution Committee near Aden. November 1, 1949. National Photo Collection of Israel.

Eighteen Jewish organizations have sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to protest the inclusion of objects of Jewish heritage in cultural property agreements with Middle Eastern and North African nations. Jewish and Christian ritual objects, including antique Torah scrolls, tombstones, books, Bibles and religious writings are covered under these agreements.  Family heirlooms, furnishings, and even clothing and jewelry broadly described as “Ottoman” are also blocked from entry, although these objects are hardly objects of national heritage, but instead were typical handicrafts manufactured for general use by all the urban inhabitants of Middle Eastern urban communities.

Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, founded in 882 CE and site of the Cairo Genizah. Copyright: International Association of Jews from Egypt, Tel Aviv, Israel.

Memoranda of Understanding and similar legislative agreements based on the CPIA structure are already in place with Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Libya. Along with archaeological materials, both Jewish and Christian family and community possessions have been placed on Designated Lists under Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA) agreements with these nations. Once listed, the objects belonging to minority religious communities are treated as “national” heritage for repatriation purposes, and may be seized on entry to the U.S. by Customs and Border Protection and returned to MENA countries.

Despite the history of Middle Eastern and North African governments’ forcible seizure of minority communities’ personal and religious property and the expulsion of entire Jewish populations from these countries, the agreements can require the U.S. to return Jewish and Christian possessions to the hostile governments that took them in the first place.

The letter was organized by JIMENA, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, which is dedicated to public education, and to achieving universal recognition for the heritage and history of the 850,000 indigenous Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa.

The letter to Secretary Pompeo:

Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa

December 9, 2018

 The Honorable Michael Pompeo
Secretary of State

Dear Secretary Pompeo,

On behalf of the undersigned Jewish organizations we are writing to encourage the State Department and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to explicitly recognize the rights of Jewish and minority heritage when negotiating future cultural property agreements with countries in North Africa and the Middle East. During the 20th century, 850,000 indigenous Jews from the region were ethnically-cleansed or forced to flee lands their ancestors lived in for over two-thousand years. Virtually all of their personal and communal property was confiscated. The dispossession and denationalization of nearly one million Jewish refugees was done under the color of law and today there are very few Jews remaining in most of these countries.

The State Department has signed Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) between the United States and other governments that deny Christians and Jews from Arab countries the right to their historic heritage. The Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA) was enacted to deter the looting of archeological sites by enacting temporary import restrictions on significant cultural items as part of a multilateral effort.  Unfortunately, over time these restrictions have expanded beyond both the law’s intent and its legal authority.

We recognize the importance of these MOU agreements in deterring the pillaging of archaeological and ethnological materials. However, an additional goal of these agreements, as noted in the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, is to, “increase international access to cultural property.” This has a particular relevance with regard to Jewish heritage, which encompasses both moveable (e.g., Torah scrolls, ritual objects, libraries, communal registers) assets and immovable (e.g., synagogues, cemeteries, religious shrines) assets. Regrettably, it is not safe – and in many cases forbidden by national law – for Jewish refugees from Arab countries to return to the countries that exiled them.

On July 31st, 2018, during a public hearing at the Department of State on the Request of the Government of the People’s Republic of Algeria for U.S. import restrictions on virtually the entire cultural heritage of Algeria, representatives of exiled Middle Eastern Jews urged the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to the President to withhold these import restrictions. Algeria has failed to meet the criteria set for restrictions under the Cultural Property Implementation Act. It would be unconscionable for the United States to give the Algerian government authority and control over the property of its oppressed and exiled Jewish and Christian citizens.

As MOU agreements demand that the governments themselves show they are taking measures to preserve and protect the heritage in their own countries, North African and Middle Eastern countries, including Algeria, requesting MOUs should be asked to present an inventory of remaining Jewish moveable and non-movable patrimony and an account of what they are actively doing with respect to the care of synagogues, cemeteries and other sites and items of Jewish and Christian heritage.

The recent statement by the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs, Joan Polashick, that the State Department is working on an additional five MOUs with Middle Eastern and North African nations makes it essential that a policy is in place that protects Jewish and Christian heritage by explicitly excluding them from any import restrictions and rejecting any state claims to individual and communal property.

We ask that the State Department’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Heritage adheres to the limitations set by Congress under the Cultural Property Implementation Act by denying broad, excessive import restrictions to nations that have neither valued nor cherished the ancient heritage of Jewish, Christian, and other minority peoples. We  further request that all future MOUs from the region include provisions that list and name specific Jewish and Christian items to be excluded from the restricted list of items. Such items include: Torah scrolls, Torah cases, Jewish prayer books, Jewish manuscripts, religious ceremonial articles, and all Jewish ritual and prayer materials that include Hebrew inscriptions or references to original Jewish owners – whether they be individuals or Jewish institutions.

It is more important than ever for the United States to stand in solidarity and defense of Christian, Jewish and other religious minorities in the Middle East and North Africa, to ensure that these living communities are not deprived of their rich cultural heritage. Thank you for your attention.  We look forward to remaining in communication with the State Department on this crucial issue.

Thank you,

Gina Waldman                                       Sarah Levin
President, JIMENA                                 Executive Director, JIMENA


  1. A.A. Society
  2. The American Sephardi Federation
  3. ADL: The Anti-Defamation League 

  4. B’nai B’rith International

  5. Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA)
  6. Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations
  7. Harif: UK Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa
  8. Historical Society of Jews from Egypt
  9. Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF)
  10. JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa  

  11. JJAC: Justice for Jews from Arab Countries
  12. The Lawfare Project
  13. Morial: French Association of Algerian Jews
  14. Sephardic Educational Center
  15. Sephardic Legacy Project
  16. Simon Wiesenthal Center
  17. World Jewish Congress North America
  18. Yemenite Jewish Federation of America

Will US sign another agreement under CPIA with Algeria?

Great Synagogue of Oran, Algeria, now converted to Mosque of Abdallah Ibn Salam.

Another agreement under the Cultural Property Implementation Act is currently pending with Algeria. Several representatives of Jewish organizations spoke at the single, one hour public hearing before the Cultural Property Advisory Committee on July 31, 2018.

At the same hearing, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) delivered a highly critical commentary objecting to the proposed Algerian agreement. The AAMD’s testimony noted the overly broad, unspecific list of objects to be covered, the lack of professional capacity for preservation and conservation in Algeria and the resulting damage to objects and monuments and the difficulties that European partners have had in navigating Algeria’s ministerial bureaucracy. The AAMD also suggested a simple, sensible remedy to overbroad agreements that would also have the effect of removing sensitive Jewish and Christian materials from consideration: simply applying the standards set by Congress in the statute itself would remove the items of concern to religious minorities from the Designated Lists.

A Simple Solution: Follow the Law

Plain adherence to the statute would require no conflict with the over-reaching requesting governments, or complicated explanations of what is Muslim, Christian, Jewish or “Ottoman” about particular objects. It would also avoid the diplomatic headaches inherent in asking nations that define themselves as Arab Muslim to accede to a ‘carve-out’ for Jewish items.

The Cultural Property Implementation Act states:

(i) no object may be considered to be an object of archaeological interest unless such object–

(I) is of cultural significance;

(II) is at least two hundred and fifty years old; and

(III) was normally discovered as a result of scientific excavation, clandestine or accidental digging, or exploration on land or under water;[i]

Chevra Kadisha burial society, Algeria 1901, courtesy JIMENA.

The vast majority of the types of Jewish and Christian materials from Muslim nations that circulate in the West are less than 250 years old and from an urban context. Yet in order to place them on a Designated List, they have somehow been squeezed into the “ethnological” category.

The Cultural Property Implementation Act states:

(ii) no object may be considered to be an object of ethnological interest unless such object is–

(I) the product of a tribal or nonindustrial society, and

(II) important to the cultural heritage of a people because of its distinctive characteristics, comparative rarity, or its contribution to the knowledge of the origins, development, or history of that people.

These requirements under the Cultural Property Implementation Act appear to rule out almost all of the objects of Jewish and Christian heritage from the Near East and North Africa that have been sold in the last decade at auction in the U.S., the U.K. and the major European markets. The Jewish heritage from Algeria (where an agreement is pending), from Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Libya (where agreements are already in place), and from Tunisia and Morocco (from which requests for agreements are expected), does not belong in either the archaeological category or the category of objects from a tribal, nonindustrial society. Nor is listing this material “essential to deter a serious situation of pillage.”[ii]

Five More Middle East-North African Pacts Threaten Minority Heritage in 2019

Jewish immigrants, 1951. Courtesy Israel National Archives.

A State Department representative, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs, Joan Polashick, stated at the conference “Building Bridges: A Symposium on Global Cultural Heritage Preservation,” on October 24, 2018, that the State Department is now considering requests from five other Middle Eastern and North African nations. It remains to be seen whether Secretary Pompeo and the officials of the State Department’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Heritage will respond to the serious concerns of the Jewish community expressed in the letter above – and will refuse to countenance overly broad demands from MENA nations that exceed the statutory requirements of the law.

[i] Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act Definitions: 19 U.S.C. §§2601-2613, § 2601(2)(C)

[ii] Id. at 19 U.S.C. § 2602(a)(1)(C)(i)

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