Returning Jewish books and objects to the Iraqi government, as the United States is supposed to do according to a 2003 agreement, would be like giving Jewish property looted to the Nazis back to Germany.
That’s what Harold Rhode, a Defense Department policy analyst assigned to Iraq’s transitional government, says. He was one of the first to find a trove of confiscated sacred Jewish books, religious parchments and other Jewish and Israeli items, now known as the “Iraqi Jewish Archives,” in the flooded basement of Iraq’s intelligence agency in Baghdad.
American authorities after weeks of delay — and only after the intervention of Natan Sharansky, Vice President Dick Cheney and other officials — ordered the water pumped out of the basement. The items went to the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, which was supposed to restore, preserve, digitize and display them and then return them.
Now Iraqi Jewish expatriates and their descendants are working with the U.S. and Iraqi governments to keep the material from returning to Iraq.
“The material was stolen by the government of Iraq from the Jewish community,” Rhode told The Jewish Week.
The material includes, for example, 24 items illustrative of the Iraqi Jews’ rich past, extending back 2500 years to Babylonia. Some examples: a Hebrew Bible with commentaries from 1568, a Babylonian Talmud from 1793, and a Haggadah from 1902.
Saddam Hussein had ordered his troops in 1984 to seize the items, which were stored on the second floor of a Baghdad synagogue, Rhode said. Iraqi Jews had placed them there at the time of their mass exodus in 1950-52. As many as 135,000 Jews left the country, allowed to carry no more than one suitcase of clothing each.
Joseph Dabby, 67, an Iraqi Jew in Los Angeles who was one of about 25,000 Jews who remained in the country at that time, said he fears that should the items be returned, they would simply be locked away and never exhibited.
Dabby, board chairman and former president of the Kahal Joseph Synagogue, which is home to 300 Iraqi Jewish families, said he escaped from Iraq in 1971 after several imprisonments and does not trust the present Iraqi leadership.
He dismissed the claim of Saad Eskander, the head of the Iraqi National Library and Archives, who reportedly met with U.S. officials in 2010 to promise that the archives would be prominently displayed when returned.
“In Iraq today there are 300 old [Torah] scrolls that were supposed to be exhibited in the Iraqi National Museum but have been kept in its basement buried in dust,” Dabby said. “Nobody cares about them.”
He pointed out that Iraq has “shrines to three important Jewish prophets” and that the U.S. government gave Iraq $3 million with which to restore them. But he said a recent newspaper article about the Tomb of Ezekiel said all Hebrew lettering has been erased, that Ezekiel has been turned into a Muslim prophet, and that the tomb has become a Muslim shrine.
“Where is the pride in keeping Jewish heritage in Iraq?” Dabby asked.
Gina Waldman, president and founder of Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), said she is “very grateful that NARA took [the material] and is restoring and digitizing it because it probably would have been lost.”
Waldman agreed that the material does not belong to Iraq but was “illegally expropriated from the Iraqi Jewish community. … We never saw the archives, but we understand they include the school records of individuals who have a right to claim them. And there is communal property, some very old. The fact is that they do not belong to the Iraqi government. They were taken from the Jewish community. What were they doing in Hussein’s secret police headquarters?”
“The archives,” Waldman pointed out, are “a symbol of what happened not only to Iraqi Jews but to those in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Libya. It is estimated that close to 850,000 Jews were forced to flee [their Arab homeland] and, like the Jews of Iraq, were told they could leave but had to give up their citizenship.”
She added that the “Iraqi government needs to show goodwill, and we hope the U.S. government will play a constructive role to convince the Iraqi government that it would be in the interest of all parties to see the material go to the Jewish heirs.”
Rabbi Elie Abadie, co-president of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, told The Jewish Week in a statement: “While we appreciate the intervention of the U.S. government in rescuing these Jewish archives, the agreement … to ultimately return this collection to Iraq was based on a flawed premise: that the archive is part of Iraq’s national heritage. In fact, it is the patrimony of Iraqi Jewry and must be returned to its rightful Jewish owners.”
Carole Basri, an international lawyer whose great grandfather had been the chief rabbi of Iraq, pointed out that there was “no consultation” with the Jewish community when the Bush administration made the agreement with Iraq’s transitional government.
She said her grandfather ran a high school in Baghdad during World War II and that she believes some of the school records being digitized are from that school. But Basri said she does not know for certain because the U.S. government has refused to disclose an inventory of the material it holds.
Doris Hamburg, director of the preservation program at the National Archives, was not available for comment because of the government shutdown.
Maurice Shohet, president of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq, said his group is working with Hamburg, “the Iraqi government through its embassy in Washington, and the State Department to secure the preservation and digitalization of the material because it is filled with mold and is in bad shape.”
Preservation and restoration work on the material began even before the material was flown to the United States in 2003. Shohet said individuals and foundations contributed money for the work and that in 2011 the U.S. government contributed $2.9 million.
He said that about 60 percent of the material has already been preserved and digitized, but that some of the material is beyond repair, including 48 parchments that were part of a Torah.
“There are no Torah scrolls, only damaged parchments that can’t be restored,” Shohet said. “We want to bury them in our plots at the New Montefiore Cemetery [in West Babylon, L.I.]. We got approval for that from the Iraqi government, and we are awaiting a delegation from Iraq that wants to participate in the burial process.”
The remaining 40 percent yet to be preserved is a “significant amount when you are talking of such a large amount of material – some 2,700 books and thousands and thousands of documents. Because of the mold, a lot of documents are
still attached one to the other, and we don’t know if they cover different subjects.”