US accused of allowing Libya to keep seized Jewish property

Dar Bishi
The abandoned Dar Bishi synagogue in Tripoli on September 28, 2011

The United States is signing an agreement with Libya that activists say legitimizes the confiscation of Jewish property by the North African country.

On Tuesday, the State Department announced that the US will sign a memorandum of understanding that will impose restrictions on importing ancient materials from the country. In the announcement, the State Department said the memorandum continues “similar regulations” imposed in December through an emergency restriction. The agreement, which is set to be signed on Friday, prohibits artifacts dated 1911 and earlier from being brought into the country from Libya.

Jewish activists said the agreement gives the Libyan government ownership of materials taken from the Jewish community.

The emergency restrictions from December list many general categories of artifacts, and specifically mention “scroll and manuscript containers for Islamic, Jewish, or Christian manuscripts.” Among objects listed in the memorandum request last year were Jewish ritual objects, including antique Torah scrolls, tombstones and books.

Gina Waldman, a Libyan Jew who is the president and co-founder of the group Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, or JIMENA, said in a statement to JTA on Thursday that the agreement legitimized Libyan confiscation of Jewish property.

Thousands of Jews departed Libya amid public and state-sponsored anti-Semitism in the 20th century and were forced to leave behind both personal belongings and a rich cultural heritage that testified to over 2,000 years of Jewish presence in the country. Today no Jews remain in Libya.

Jewish
A photo taken in the Jewish quarter of a Libyan city.

Although I believe in protecting the heritage and patrimony of the Libyan people, I am extremely disappointed that the MOU doesn’t exclude the patrimony of the Jewish community,” said Waldman, who was only allowed to bring a single suitcase with her when she and her family were forced out of the country in 1967.

Marc Lubin, a government relations consultant assisting Waldman’s group, slammed the agreement.

“The Libya MOU’s inclusion of the confiscated property of Libya’s expelled Jewish community legitimizes and provides a legal cover for this crime making this MOU little more than a License to Steal,” he wrote in a statement to JTA.

The State Department did not provide a comment in time for publication.

“Restrictions are intended to reduce the incentive for pillage and trafficking and are among the many ways the United States is combatting the financing of terrorism and disrupting the global market in illegal antiquities,” its statement said.

The agreement is not unprecedented. The United States has similar agreements with 17 countries, including one reached in 2016 with Egypt. Congress also has passed emergency laws restricting artifacts from Iraq and Syria from entering the country. Such laws draw on a 1970 UNESCO convention that allows for the placing of import and export restrictions in cases where a country’s heritage is under threat of pillaging and its artifacts in danger of entering the black market.

Waldman likened the memorandum agreement to returning goods taken from Jews by Nazis to Germany.

“If a Nazi-looted Torah or any religious item was to appear in the United States, would the State Department give it back to the German government?” she asked.