Thursday, July 06, 2006

An Ancient Heritage Threatened

American tourist Diana Campuzano was having lunch on a Jerusalem sidewalk when a Hamas suicide bomber struck. Now a US court has ruled that since Iran supports Hamas financially, ancient Iranian artifacts housed at the University of Chicago may be auctioned to compensate Ms. Campuzano for her injuries. Here’s how court records describe the victim’s physical condition after the attack:

A team of doctors performed a five-hour craniotomy on Ms. Campuzano to remove multiple bone fragments, repair the ruptures in her brain coverings, and repair her anterior skull base fracture with mini plates, bone cement , and her own harvested tissue…Ms. Campuzano’s permanent injuries include impaired vision, damage to the retina of her right eye, cataracts in both eyes, destroyed left ear drum.

Ms. Campuzano, one of eight plaintiffs sharing the 300 million dollar award had this to say after Israel assassinated Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin. ”I'm so happy they killed that son of a bitch. I was so excited, so excited. I hate them. They changed my life. As far as I'm concerned, they can kill them all."

As if all this pain and anger was not enough, Ms. Campuzano’s monetary award carries with it a tragic irony . Having converted to Judaism after the incident, her court victory is about to inflict serious damage to this ancient heritage. The Achaemenid artifacts about to be auctioned off are nothing to Islam and everything to Judaism.

1200 years before Islam, the Achaemenid king Cyrus freed the Jews from their Babylonian captivity. An unnamed prophet in the book of Isaiah says: Thus said the Lord to Cyrus, His anointed one…I call you by name. I hail you by title though you have not known Me (Isaiah 45). About the rebuilding of the Second Temple the book of Ezra says “Thus said King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord God of Heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of earth and has charged me with building him a house in Jerusalem. (Ezra 1). There are verses in Ezra about the rebuilding of the temple that hint at undiscovered stories reminiscent of the support of some modern Diapora Jews for the state of Israel. “All their neighbors [Jews who preferred to stay in the Achaemenid empire rather than move to Jerusalem] supported them with silver vessels, with gold, with goods, with livestock, and with precious objects…”

Who were the Jews who stayed behind? Clues to their stories are somewhere in Achaemenid archeology. The bible follows only a few. Esther became a beloved queen to the Achaemenid king Xerxes. Her uncle Mordechai became the prime minister to the Achamenid empire. An Achaemenid Disraeli. What about the important Iranian Jews that the bible does not mention? Fragments of their lives may have survived in those tablets. The Jewish festival of Purim began with Achaemenid Jews. This festival commemorates a palace intrigue full of political rivalry, romantic seduction, gratuitous violence, and in an outdated sense, justice. What are the juicy historical facts behind Purim? The answers may be encoded somewhere in those ten thousand Achaemenid tablets and artifacts about to be auctioned to private collectors.

It would be misleading to claim that this particular set of Achamenian artifacts contain the history of Achaemenid Judaism. But tiny clues can unravel big mysteries. A seal here, a symbol there, the clues may be in the meaning of the inscriptions, in the chemical composition of the tablet, on a bit of reed or a strand of hair stuck in the clay. Less dramatically, each bit of knowledge contributes to the critical mass needed for the chain reaction of understanding.

The details of the legal tragedy are complicated. Basically the Islamic Republic of Iran did not bother to show up as a defendant, and the plaintiffs won by default. The issue has caused the executive branch and the Judicial branch to lock legal horns so that at this point an act of congress is the most promising way to save these artifacts. Elected officials however do not wish to appear to be taking the side of Iran. To make the job more attractive congress needs to know that there is public support for it. In a predominantly Judeo-Christian nation, emphasizing the connection of these artifacts to the bible would make it more likely for congress to act.

On the International front, Iran has threatened to retaliate if the artifacts are auctioned. Retaliate how? One may worry. By further destroying humanity’s common heritage? Iran must make it clear that this is not the content of its threat. By taking a morally strong position Iran would make it easier to gain public support for the cause of keeping these artifacts where they belong, in universities and museums.

The state of Israel is paying Diana Campuzano’s medical bills. To add farsightedness to generosity Israel should do what it can to help save these Achaemenid artifacts from being cast into the winds of commerce. Not only are the artifacts relevant to her own history, Israel should keep in mind that Iran may not stay a radical Islamic Republic. When the time comes for Iran to reassess her policy towards Israel, the Achaemenid Cyrus would be pleased that the nation he once freed from slavery remembered him and returned his favor.

Esther’s Children A portrait of Iranian Jews.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting article demonstrating how terrorism has many unintended consequences. This article also demonstrates the difficulty of isolating Iran while demanding justice for their actions, or implied actions through the support of Hamas. It will be interesting to watch this case play out since often archeological pieces are protect from such fates as being used as bargaining chips. Judges are human and have been shown to be fallible; this ruling definitely smells of being such the case.

In regards to Israel's ability to preserve future relation with Iran, I honestly believe that Iran would go crazy to have insult added to injury, in the current geopolitical climate, to have Israel buy from an American court ruling artifacts that have come from Iran. Instead, if Israel wished to help preserve these cultural treasures, they should only work behind the scenes to ensure these artifacts remain public and in hands that are neutral to all involved. Worst come to worst, Iran will buy them back, and the rest of the world will lose further contact of our shared ancestry. As too often, all news involving Iran is that of loss and further isolation.


Ari Siletz said...

Yes, Israel enjoys much better relations with Congress than Iran does. The implication here is that Isael could help by acting behind the scenes.
The American people can also help if their church leaders understood the significance of these artifacts to bible history. Some churches are open to secular biblical scholarship.

Anonymous said...

When US law allows Persian artifacts of world heritage to be auctioned off to recompense victims of Palestinian violence in Israel, it means by implication that US law is concerning itself with the relationships that exist between Palestinians and Israelis. And when Iran is singled out by the US judicial system as the party to suffer the financial consequences of Israeli and Palestinian interaction then a precedence is set to legally auction Israeli assets in the US to recompense Palestinian victims of Israeli violence. In fact, collective punishment of Palestinians by the Israeli government for many decades, provides such a long list of deaths and injuries to be examined by the US judicial system, one wonders if Israel can ever monetarily or morally recompense so many Palestinian victims when legal judgment is rendered on her. In fact why stop there? Legal acts of confiscation of Israeli assets can also be carried out in the US on behaph of the Lebanese who suffered under Israeli occupation. Should Persian artifacts be auctioned then a precedence is established by which an argument could also be made for the auctioning of American documents of world heritage to compensate victims of Israeli violence since the US is the main economic and military supporter of Israel.

Of course, this precedence cannot be allowed to be established. It will open a pandora's box for governments everywhere all of whom have a stake in confining their past deeds to the pages of history books. Imagine what the US liablity would be to the Vietnamese or that of Russia to Soviet Union's former republics if US law were to be stretched to the extreme degree it has been in this particular case against Iran. The judgement for the plaintiff in this case is based on a technicality, namely that Iran did not present a defense. In the case of Israeli lack of legal participation, would it be allowed for the Constitution of the United States, the original document, to be auctioned so as to compensate so many Palestinian families who had their homes demolished by bulldozers supplied by the US to Israel?

In saving these important artifacts why doesn't the Iranian community tap into one of Capitalism's few virtues, philanthropy? There is no shortage of Iranian billionaires in the US. Theirs is the American success story, of taking calculated risks and investign with intelligence. It is about time for the Iranian version of the Getty Museum. The United States is home to the largest Iranian community outside of Iran. We have been and are going to continue to be defining our part in American life for a long to come. Our destiny is now intertwined with that of America.
Other immigrants have left us a legacy and role models we can use to preserve our cultural heritage.

Ari Siletz said...

A dangerous precedent indeed. As you may be aware the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FISA) could have safeguarded against this action. Iran however failed to appear in court to invoke this act, something Israel will certainly not neglect to do if Palestinians or Lebanese attempt similar lawsuits against Israel.

Your appeal to wealthy Iranians is quite solution oriented. I would propose it as a second line of defense however. Our first line of defense should be to prevent the precedent from being set in the first place. It is within the power of Congress to do that. Without being cynical I would like to point out that if wealthy Iranians are able to raise the necessary $300 million to buy the artifacts, they could certainly afford to buy--for a lot less--the necessary enthusiasm in congress. Also money can be used to purchase media time for educational purposes. So I agree with the fundraising idea, but I believe the money could be used more efficiently.

Anonymous said...


Iranian Americans and for that matter the Iranian government must prepare to employ different strategies to prevent the auctioning of these artifacts among which the purchase by wealthy Iranians of these artifacts must certainly be considered. I fully agree that approcahing members of congress could be very helpful in preventing this short-sided ruling. If there was ever an event that could galvanize a minority in America, this situation certainly qualifies as one. But where is our Iranian-American representation in congress? You will also note the absence of coverage in US mass media of this important affair, in response to which Iranians must also work on channels of communication outside of the mainstream. I commend your creation of this website toward this end.

Anonymous said...

IN the last post short-sided shoudl read short sighted.