When Jews were driven from the Arab lands, they left synagogues, documents, religious objects, and much else behind them. Now, writes Lyn Julius, the governments of those countries are asserting legal claim to these items:
Synagogues can’t be moved and clearly it is better for Arab states to preserve them as memorials to an extinct community than not at all. However, these states are also declaring Torah scrolls, communal archives, and books to be part of their cultural heritage. For instance, the Egyptian government claims that all Torah scrolls and Jewish archives, libraries, communal registers, and any movable property over 100 years old are “Egyptian antiquities.” However, Jews consider Torah scrolls their exclusive property. . . . Fleeing Jews have often prioritized scrolls and books over their personal possessions.
In Egypt, registers of births, marriages, and deaths of Jews from Alexandria and Cairo dating back to the middle of the 19th century were once kept in the two main synagogues in each city. But in 2016, government officials took away the registers to be stored in the Egyptian National Archives. Egyptian Jews living abroad cannot even obtain photocopies of certificates, often the only formal Jewish identification they have to prove lineage or identity for burial or marriage. Repeated efforts since 2005 to intercede with the Egyptian authorities have come to nothing.
The Egyptian case is symptomatic of a larger problem. Since 2004, the United States has been bound by law to impose import restrictions on archaeological and ethnological material that constitutes a country’s cultural heritage and has signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) to this effect with Algeria, Egypt, Syria, and Libya.
It is understandable that the international community should wish to prevent the looting and smuggling of ancient artifacts and their sale on the international art market. That is how Islamic State financed much of its conquest of northern Iraq and Syria. But there is a distinction between theft for financial gain and the legitimate salvage of Torah scrolls or [religious] books [by Jews who left them behind while fleeing persecution].