US plans to return artefacts stolen from the Iraqi Jewish community – to the Iraqi government!

Before Treatment: Passover Haggadah, 1902. One of very few Hebrew manuscripts recovered from the Mukhabarat, this Haggadah was hand-lettered and decorated by an Iraqi youth.

There is outrage in the American Jewish community (which ought to be echoed by every Jewish community in the world) at plans by the US National Archive to return the Iraqi Jewish archive, (thanks to reader Debby Potter for the link) which had been taken to the US for repair and restoration after suffering severe damage in the war, to  to the Iraqi government.  The Iraqis are most definitely not the lawful owners of the items in this archive.  The artefacts comprising the archive were originally looted from the Iraqi Jewish community, and today there is almost no community left in Iraq at all.

In fact the last synagogue in Basra is falling apart – and there are only 8 Jews left in Baghdad; this after a glorious past where the Jewish population of Baghdad numbered some 40,0000 out of a total of 160,000.

The American Jewish media have been writing about and protesting this absurd decision by the US, and it ought to receive wider coverage.

Daniel Greenfield at Front Page Magazine explains why the Jewish archive should not go back to Iraq:

Iraq in the 40s had 350,000 Jews. Today it has somewhere between four and none.

Despite that the Obama administration plans to send the Jewish Archive consisting of religious artifacts, bibles, marriage contracts, community records and private notebooks seized by the Iraqi Secret Police from the Jewish community back to Iraq.

The material is not the property of the Iraqi government, either Saddam’s regime which stole it, or its Shiite successor which claims to want it, but not the Jews who owned it. It’s the property of Iraqi Jewish refugees and their reconstituted communities in America, Israel and anywhere else.

The personal material, like marriage contracts and school books, should go to the families that owned them and to their descendants. The religious material, which a Muslim country that purged its Jewish and Christian communities has no use for, should go Iraqi Jewish religious communities wherever they are now.


To its credit, the State Department in the past, which paid for the salvage and restoration of the records, did ask Iraq nicely. And the Iraqis have always insisted on seizing the Jewish Archive.

“They represent part of our history and part of our identity. There was a Jewish community in Iraq for 2,500 years,” said Samir Sumaidaie, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States. “It is time for our property to be repatriated.”

Was. Past tense.

Iraq does not have a Jewish community. It will not have a Jewish community. Its government does not want a Jewish community. It never did. It is a Muslim country and has no use for Jewish religious artifacts, except to resell them at auction to the highest bidder, unless some of the Salafis get their hands on the archive first and destroy it.


And its proper owners are not a Muslim Iraqi government that has responded with Anti-Semitic tantrums over the archive.

Among the most important items in the collection are the oldest copies of the Talmud and the Old Testament. That is why, experts argue, the former Iraqi regime kept the collection guarded in the intelligence building.

Experts add that Israel is keen on obtaining the manuscripts in order to prove their claim that the Jews had built the Tower of Babel as part of its attempt to distort the history of the Middle East for its own interests.

Arab League Deputy Secretary General Ahmed ben Helli has confirmed attempts by Israel to steal ancient Iraqi archives. “Iraq has been subjected to the biggest theft of its manuscripts and historic treasures,” he said. “Israel is accomplice to this.”

What possible justification is there for turning over Jewish documents to bigoted sociopaths like this?

Lisa Leff in Tablet Magazine gives us more background on the artefacts in the archive and explains on what basis it is claimed that the Iraqi treasures displayed in DC were stolen:

All told, the collection contains an estimated 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents that once belonged to the Jews of Baghdad, who, until they began to flee for Israel in the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, constituted one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, dating back more than 2,500 years.

The story of how these treasures of the Iraqi Jews were recovered from the basement of Saddam’s torturers is amazing enough to warrant space of its own within the exhibit. According to Harold Rhode, the Hebrew- and Arabic-speaking policy analyst then working with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, in May 2003, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress received a tip from a former intelligence officer that he passed on to a U.S. Army unit on the hunt for weapons of mass destruction. The soldiers took a detour to the basement and found the unexpected trove, submerged amidst the debris of the damaged building.

See this video where the restorers explain the complicated process of rescue and preservation of these priceless items:

The article continues:

It was quickly apparent to Rhode, who had been brought along on the mission, that the items—many of which were badly damaged—included some very old sacred texts. Rhode, from the Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment, was in Baghdad working with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA); he is also an Orthodox Jew. Understanding the value of what he was seeing, he immediately deemed the collection worthy of a rescue effort. With Chalabi’s help, he had water pumped from the basement, acquired hard-to-find generators and metal lockers, and had the materials carefully carried from the basement.

Leff and Rhode go on to explain the tortuous methods needed to raise funds for the restoration.

In 2011, NARA finally received the $3 million it needed for the restoration and digitization of the archive. The staff, including three fellows from the Iraqi National Library, was busily getting ready for the exhibition’s Oct. 11 opening date. The materials to be included offer an amazing window into the Iraqi Jewish past. They included some very rare Jewish books: a 16th-century Hebrew Bible with commentaries; an 18th-century Babylonian Talmud; 48 Torah scroll fragments; a Zohar from 1815; a 1928 edition of Pirkei Avot with commentary in the Judeo-Arabic of Baghdad, published in Livorno; and a 5732 (1972-73) Hebrew- and Arabic-language Jewish calendar, one of the last produced in Baghdad. They also included all sorts of papers documenting Jewish life in 20th-century Baghdad: communal records, Jewish school records, applications for university admissions, business records, and even family photographs.

These materials have been called the “Iraqi Jewish archive,” but the name is somewhat misleading. An “archive” usually refers to a collection of papers that were saved, organized and made available for future use because of their historical importance. The Iraqi Jewish archive is more like what you might find in a Geniza, a repository in a synagogue or Jewish cemetery for Hebrew books that are no longer usable but cannot be thrown away because of their sacred character. These papers and books were left behind, probably in a Baghdad synagogue, by Jews as they fled Iraq; the majority—120,000—departed in 1950-51, in the mass migration called “Operation Ezra and Nehemiah,” which was facilitated by an Israeli airlift. The Iraqi state forbade Jewish emigrants to take much in the way of personal effects, let alone communal property. Rather than destroy the books and documents, emigrating Jews left them in the synagogue where they remained until they were seized by the Iraqi secret police in the 1980s. Two sets of hands thus put this collection together: Jews unable to bring them along on their journey from Iraq but unwilling to destroy them; and the regime that persecuted them, drove them out and, once they had gone, confiscated their property. (Why the regime didn’t destroy the papers is anybody’s guess. Of course, Saddam Hussein would not be the first dictator to seize the treasured books and papers of the Jews he persecuted, hoarding them away in a secret location long after their owners had fled.) Neither the Jews themselves nor the state that seized their books and papers ever expected they’d become an archive in the sense that scholars use the term.


… What’s not in the title but will be visible everywhere in the exhibit is the loss and destruction that these things represent: the destruction of a thriving and ancient community due to anti-Jewish persecution; the loss of its cultural artifacts, seized by a dictatorship after most of its members had been forced to flee; the damage those books and papers suffered because of the flooding cause by an unexploded bomb dropped into the Mukhabarat by coalition forces in the 2003 war.

Yet in the eyes of the many Jews who have raised their voices in the press in Israel and the United States, another loss is soon to take place once the exhibition closes in 2014, when, in fulfillment of the 2003 agreement, the Iraqi Jewish archive will return to an Iraq that is no longer home to a Jewish community.

In this sense, the exhibit sidesteps the question that has made the Iraqi Jewish archive such a hot topic in the Jewish press for the last 10 years: Should the United States honor its agreement to return these things to Iraq, or should they instead be sent to Israel, where most Iraqi Jews fled and many of their descendants still live? While international law may be clear—belligerent troops may not cart away the cultural treasures of a conquered nation—for many Jews, the law doesn’t seem to serve justice in this particular case.


But such technical solutions do little to address the sense among many Israelis and American Jews that to comply with the 2003 agreement and return the Iraqi Jewish archive to Iraq is just plain wrong. It is a curious aspect of modern life that archives, the ordinary bits of paper produced in the course of daily life, are often treasured as deeply as great works of art and religious objects. It was surely for their symbolic meaning more than any practical use that they were confiscated in the first place by Saddam’s secret police, which was determined to exercise its power over a terrorized population. It was also because of this powerful symbolism that Rhode, who helped discover the waterlogged books and papers in the Mukhabarat basement, went to such incredible lengths to salvage them and have them restored. As a religious Jew, Rhode has a view of the archive itself as being sacred because of the ritual sacredness of the Torah scrolls and other holy texts it contained.


In the face of loss, the desire to repair what is broken and to see justice done is a natural human desire. Jews feel it particularly strongly when it comes to the suffering of other Jews, even those who live far away, and especially when those Jews suffered merely on account of their Jewishness. It’s a solidarity borne of the knowledge that it could have happened to us. It’s out of that sense of solidarity that some Jews are going to continue to demand the “restitution” of these archives to Jewish hands. But it’s a different kind of solidarity, and a hope for a different kind of justice, that motivates those who seek its return to Iraq.

Left to right: Harold Rhode in the Mukhabarat basement; Torah scroll drying in a courtyard; 1918 letter from the British Military Governor’s Office in Baghdad to the Chief Rabbi regarding the allotment of 500 sheep for Rosh Hashanah

Read also Harold Rhode’s personal account of how the archive was discovered and how the huge efforts required to rescue it from destruction. Some of his story reads like an Indiana Jones adventure:

The next problem we faced was what to do with the material once we got it out of the Mukhabarat building. Chalabi gave us 27 large aluminum trunks and gave us space to dry out the material in the Orfali Art Gallery courtyard, which was part of his INC’s headquarters. Since the American bureaucracy did not want to participate in the rescue of the Jewish archive, we needed advice on how to do so ourselves. Through friends, we were put in touch with Jerusalem’s Hebrew University document and book restoration section, whose director tried to give us instructions by phone on how to handle the material. She told us we needed low humidity — dry, air-conditioned rooms to help dry the material out and to prevent mold. There was only sporadic electricity in Baghdad at that time, and therefore no possibility of following her instructions.

We let the material dry out for a few hours in Baghdad’s humid air and hot sunlight.

We were forced to roll out on the ground the Torah and other holy scrolls we had rescued —  something which is normally absolutely prohibited in Jewish law — so that we could dry them out however slightly, and then roll them back up and place them in the aluminum trunks. Had we not rolled them out, they would have dried and hardened, and therefore been forever unusable and destroyed.

When the books and documents were still damp but not yet dry, we put them in the large aluminum trunks Chalabi’s people had found for us. Despite our best intentions, these temporary solutions could not salvage the material for the long run. But day after day, we and the Iraqi workers went down into the Mukhabarat building’s basement, rescued books, papers, and other materials, brought our load to the Orfali courtyard some two miles away, and dried out the daily stash. This process went on for about four weeks.

He also adds further insight as to why the archive should not return to Iraq:

After Israel became a state in 1948, martial law was declared in Iraq and many Jews left in the mass exodus in 1950-51. Almost all of those who remained behind left by the 1970s. They were not allowed to take much with them.

In 1950-51, they were allowed one suitcase with clothing — sometimes not even their personal documents — and nothing more. They were forced to leave everything else behind, including their communal property. For many years, Jews were not permitted to leave Iraq at all and were persecuted. With time, the few Jews who remained in Baghdad transferred what communal holy books and religious articles they had to the one remaining synagogue which functioned. This was in Batawin, a section of Baghdad which in the late 1940s was the neighborhood to which upwardly mobile Jews moved. The remaining Jews stored this property in the synagogue’s balcony, where the women sat during prayer.

The Jews did not freely relinquish this material. They did it under duress, having no other option.

In 1984, Saddam sent henchmen with trucks to that synagogue. Those scrolls, records, and books were carted off to a place unknown. Local Jews who were at the synagogue at that time witnessed this thievery, and described to me personally how the material was carted off against their will.

Why did Saddam even care about this material, and why did he keep it in his intelligence headquarters? Did he think he might gain some insights into the Jewish mind by doing so? Did he think doing so would help him defeat the Israelis?

From a Middle Eastern cultural perspective, capturing the archive makes perfect sense.  Humiliation — i.e., shaming another’s personal reputation — is more important and more powerful than physical cruelty. From this cultural perspective, by capturing the Jewish archives, Saddam was humiliating the Jewish people. He was showing how powerless the Jews were to stop him. By keeping that archive and the Israel section in the basement of his intelligence headquarters, Saddam further humiliated the Jews and Israel. And by doing so, Saddam – again, in Middle Eastern eyes — was also regaining a portion of the honor the Arabs lost through their constant military defeats at the hands of the (Jewish) Israelis.


As for today’s Iraqi leaders, they too do not want to be humiliated, and therefore cannot say that they are prepared to let the Jews or Americans have this material.

Any Iraqi Arab leader who publicly surrenders the Jewish archive will be humiliated in the eyes of his fellow Arabs. That is most likely why so many of them privately said that they wanted to me get this archive out of Iraq quickly and as quietly as possible before anyone would know. That way, they would not be blamed for the archive’s removal.

Of course, according to international law, no country may remove or steal the patrimony or art effects of another country, even when captured in war….


But the property was stolen property in the first place, meaning that the Iraqi government did not own it. It is the Iraqi government which has no provenance. The stolen property must be returned to its original owners — according to international law.

Where are these Iraqi Jews, and since this robbery took place between 40 and 60 years ago, where are their descendants, who clearly are the rightful owners? Iraqi Jewry is scattered throughout the world. Today, about 85% of them and their descendants live in Israel. The rest live mostly in the UK and in the U.S. Only 20 remain in Iraq.

These people are the rightful owners of the Iraqi Jewish archives now housed temporarily at the U.S. National Archives in suburban Washington D.C., not the Iraqi government, which has never taken responsibility for Iraq’s role in destroying the more than 2,500-year-old Jewish community.

The injustice of returning these priceless artefacts to a government hostile to the Jews and Israel cries out to the Heavens. What can we do to stop this action? We can sign the petition linked below and pass it on to everyone you know:

Sign the petition to stop the transfer here

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3 Responses to US plans to return artefacts stolen from the Iraqi Jewish community – to the Iraqi government!

  1. Joseph Komissarouk says:

    This would be like returning artifacts from New York Jewish Museum back to Germany.

    • anneinpt says:

      Assuming you mean Nazi Germany then yes, exactly.

      If you mean Germany today, it’s a different story. Germany has a thriving Jewish community today and would never dream of destroying the archive. We cannot rely on the Iraqi regime not to destroy the archive, or to allow Islamic extremists to destroy it.

  2. Pingback: Good News Friday | Anne's Opinions

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