Sarah Levin is the executive director of Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa or JIMENA for short. Sarah herself comes from a Turkish-Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish background. She has worked both in Israel and in the United States for non-profits focusing on human rights issues. She has been associated with JIMENA since 2010. At JIMENA, Sarah has focused on promoting awareness of issues impacting the Jewish diaspora from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). She is particularly proud of the briefs she has provided to the Canadian Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development and the U.S. Department of State on issues related to Jewish refugees. Sarah lives in Northern California with her husband and two children. She is passionate about ecology, human rights, and is an avid organic gardener.
Jews were once significant minority populations throughout the MENA region, having lived there since ancient times. As minorities during this whole period, they were all too often subject to systemic discrimination and periodic pogroms that were perpetrated under the authority of local Pagan, Christian and Muslim rulers. However, with the rise of nationalistic authoritarian governments beginning in the 1930s and the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, things got much worse. State-sanctioned efforts to whip up anti-Semitic hatred led to the ethnic cleansing and displacement of close to one million Jews from countries where they had lived for many generations. Some 650,000 of these Jews fled to Israel as refugees and the remainder scattered to other countries around the world, including the United States. Many Jews who were forced from their ancestral homes could take only a few of their most treasured possessions with them. Today, the only substantial Jewish communities that remain in the MENA region number 5,000 in Morocco and 1,000 in Tunisia.
While parts of the U.S. State Department have advocated for members of the Jewish diaspora, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) and its Cultural Heritage Center have treated Sarah and JIMENA as obstacles to completing Cultural Property Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with MENA governments. MOUs have become increasingly important diplomatic tools for ECA. MOUs originally were focused narrowly on protecting significant cultural artifacts for poor, third world countries which had difficulty grappling with the problem themselves. Over time, however, mission creep has repurposed and vastly expanded the program to repatriate most everything and anything made in a given country from prehistory to the early 20th century to an ever-increasing number of countries.
Egypt was the first such MENA country to receive a MOU back in 2016. Since that time, additional MOUs or “emergency import restrictions” have been completed in quick succession with Libya (2017), Algeria (2019), Jordan (2020), Yemen (2020), Morocco (2021) and Turkey (2021). This steady progression of MOUs with authoritarian MENA governments is no coincidence. Rather, this goal was only achieved after the State Department funneled money received from a major archaeological advocacy group to help MENA governments to generate MOU requests.
The concerns of JIMENA, B’nai B’rith and others with these MOUs and associated import restrictions are twofold. First, these agreements recognize the rights of these countries to exercise ownership and control over the cultural heritage of displaced minority populations. Second, associated import restrictions authorize U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to detain, seize and repatriate cultural goods of types on ever expanding “designated lists.” These import restrictions have implicitly or explicitly referenced Jewish cultural heritage including Jewish ceremonial and religious objects and other personal and community property. JIMENA instead believes that such material should be explicitly excluded from import restrictions and/or that any materials that are seized should be awarded to minority communities and not to the governments that are implicated in forcing their Jewish populations into exile. The problem is a serious one for those holding Jewish cultural heritage as heirlooms or collecting it as part of one’s own cultural heritage. Such material, particularly where it is of modest monetary value, typically lacks the documented provenance information necessary for legal import once it becomes subject to import restrictions.
Given these problems, Sarah and JIMENA have sought to convince ECA to consider the rights of minority communities in their decision-making. JIMENA’s testimony regarding the Libyan MOU was particularly powerful. It recounted how JIMENA’s president, Gina Waldman, was forced to flee rampaging mobs in 1967, narrowly escaping death when the bus in which she was fleeing was set afire. Gina’s testimony further described how personal, community and religious property of Libya’s fleeing Jews was confiscated, and how Jewish cemeteries and synagogues were desecrated in the aftermath of this violence.
JIMENA, along with 17 other Jewish organizations also petitioned then State Department Secretary of State Pompeo to address the issue. As the result of all these efforts, MOUs with Morrocco and Libya have been modified to explicitly exempt Jewish ceremonial and ritual objects. Nevertheless, despite their righteous cause, JIMENA and allied groups face determined bureaucratic intransigence in support of the diplomatic status quo. Indeed, during a Zoom call with a high-ranking State Department ECA official, Sarah’s impassioned pleas on behalf of the Jewish diaspora were met with a comment that MOUs are necessary diplomatic tools to encourage collaboration with unfriendly governments.
Despite limited protections in the MOUs with Morocco and Libya, there have been no exemptions for Jewish personal property, and recent import restrictions imposed by the Biden Administration to enforce a MOU signed at the end of the Trump Administration with Turkey have explicitly included Jewish ceremonial and ritual objects. Moreover, other displaced minority groups such as Orthodox Greeks from Turkey and Tibetans and Uyghurs from the People’s Republic of China have also been adversely impacted by such MOUs. Despite the best efforts of JIMENA and others, substantial bureaucratic obstacles to protecting the rights of diaspora communities remain.
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CCP Staff, U.S. Signs MOU with Yemen. This Time, No Testimony Allowed, Cultural Property News (September 7, 2023) (last visited October 16, 2023).
CCP Staff, Turkish MoU Will Devastate Minorities, Bolster Erdoğan Regime, Cultural Property News (July 11, 2021) (last visited October 16, 2023).
Alex Winston, War-Torn Yemen Demands Return of Jewish Treasures Now in the U.S., The Jerusalem Post (October 31, 2019) (last visited October 16, 2023).
Eben Brown, Yemen Claims Ownership of Jewish Artifacts Smuggled out of the Country, Fox News (October 30, 2019) (last visited October 16, 2023).
CCP Staff, American Jewish Groups Outraged by US Agreement with Libya, Cultural Property News (March 12, 2018) (last visited October 16, 2023).
 Peter K. Tompa is a semi-retired lawyer who resides in Washington, D.C. He has written extensively about cultural heritage issues, particularly those of interest to the numismatic trade. Peter contributed to Who Owns the Past?” (K. Fitz Gibbon, ed. Rutgers 2005). He formerly served as executive director of the Global Heritage Alliance and now is a member of its board of directors. This article is a public resource for general information and opinion about cultural property issues and is not intended to be a source for legal advice. Any factual patterns discussed may or may not be inspired by real people and events.
 See Peter Tompa, Why Have MOUs Become so Restrictive Against Coin Collectors? Coins Weekly (April 15, 2021) reprinted in Cultural Property News (last visited October 16, 2023).
 See Import Restrictions Imposed on Certain Archaeological Material from Egypt, 81 Fed. Reg. 87805-87810 (Dec. 6, 2016), (last visited October 14, 2023) (explicit import restrictions on Hebrew writings, implicit restrictions on other Jewish materials subsumed in more general categories); Extension and Amendment of Import Restrictions on Archaeological Material and Imposition of Import Restrictions on Ethnological Material of Egypt, 86 Fed. Reg. 68546-68553 (December 3, 2021), (last visited October 16, 2023) (same); Emergency Import Restrictions Imposed on Archaeological and Ethnological Materials From Libya, 82 Fed. Reg. 57346-57351 (December 5, 2017), (last visited October 16, 2023) (explicit import restrictions on metal containers for Jewish manuscripts, implicit restrictions on Jewish cultural heritage included in more general categories); Import Restrictions Imposed on Archaeological and Ethnological Material from Libya, 83 Fed. Reg. 31654-31659 (July 9, 2018), (last visited October 14, 2023) (implicit restrictions on Jewish cultural heritage); Extension of Import Restrictions on Archaeological and Ethnological Materials of Libya, 86 Fed. Reg. 11388-11393 (February 23, 2023), (last visited October 16, 2023) (same but with explicit statement that revisions clarifying that Jewish ceremonial and ritual objects are not covered); Import Restrictions Imposed on Archaeological Material From Algeria, 84 Fed. Reg. 41909-41913 (August 16, 2019), available at https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/08/16/2019-17743/import-restrictions-imposed-on-archaeological-material-from-algeria (last visited October 16, 2023) (implicit restrictions on Jewish cultural heritage included in more general categories of archaeological material); Import Restrictions Imposed on Archaeological Material from Jordan, 85 Fed. Reg. 7204-7209 (February 7, 2020), (last visited October 16, 2023) (same); Emergency Import Restrictions Imposed on Archaeological and Ethnological Material from Yemen, 85 Fed. Reg. 7209-7214 (February 7, 2020), (last visited October 16, 2023) (implicit restrictions on Jewish cultural heritage); Imposition of Import Restrictions on Categories of Archaeological and Ethnological Material from Morocco, 86 Fed. Reg. 6561-6566 (January 22, 2021), (last visited October 16, 2023) (same but with explicit statement that revisions clarifying that Jewish ceremonial and ritual objects are not covered); Import Restrictions Imposed on Categories of Archaeological and Ethnological Material of Turkey, 86 Fed. Reg. 31910-31916 (June 16, 2021), (last visited October 16, 2023) (both implicit on Jewish cultural heritage along with explicit restrictions on Jewish ceremonial objects, including Torah pointers, Kiddish cups, inscriptions in Hebrew).