One day in 1984, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein sent his henchmen to Bataween synagogue, one of the last working houses of Jewish prayer in Baghdad. The men carted off a trove of books and documents retrieved from Jewish homes, schools and synagogues. The material had been deposited for safe keeping in the ladies’ gallery. The few remaining Jews were aghast to see the archive driven away in trucks from under their noses.
Ten years have elapsed since the US military discovered the waterlogged documents in the flooded basement of Saddam’s secret police headquarters in Baghdad. But the restoration work could not be done on the spot, and the provisional government (CPA) decided to ship the ‘Jewish archive’, as it became known, out to the US. The CPA signed an agreement with the Iraqi authorities promising the archive would be returned as soon as the restoration was complete.
The archive was taken to Texas and vacuum-freeze-dried. The US State Department has since spent over $3 million stabilizing, digitizing, and packing the material.
Among the key items are a 400-year-old Hebrew Bible; a 200-year-old Talmud from Vienna; a copy of the book of Numbers in Hebrew published in Jerusalem in 1972; a Megillat Esther; a Haggadah edited by the chief rabbi of Baghdad; the Writings of Ketuvim containing Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Lamentations, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles published in Venice in 1568; a copy of Pirkei Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers, published in Livorno, Italy in 1928 with commentary written in Judeo-Arabic; a luach (a calendar with lists of duties and prayers for each holy day printed in Baghdad in 1972); a collection of rabbi’s sermons printed in Germany in 1692; thousands of books printed in Vienna, Livorno, Jerusalem, Izmir, and Vilna; miscellaneous communal records from 1920-1953; lists of male Jewish residents, school records, financial records, applications for university admissions. This archive does not have great rarity value, but is a unique record of Jewish history.
The World Organisation of Jews from Iraq has gained permission from the Iraqis to bury unusable or pasool fragments of Torah scrolls in the US. The National Archives in Washington DC will be putting the archive highlights on display. (The exhibition opens on 11 October and will run until 5 January 2014). When the digitizing process is complete, the archive will go back.
Iraq is adamant: It wants the archive back. “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.”
Repatriated? That assumes that the archive was Iraq’s property to begin with. There is a bitter irony in Iraq, which has driven its pre-Islamic Jewish community to extinction, demanding the return of ‘our property’.
The US government did the legal thing to sign an agreement with the Iraqis, but was it the moral thing to do?
The archive is the cultural property of the Iraqi-Jewish community, and save for five Jews still in Baghdad, that community no longer lives in Iraq, but in Israel and the West. To return the archive to Iraq will be to compound a crime: returning stolen property to those who stole it.
When Iraq did have a Jewish community, it took every step to persecute and destroy it. What is there to stop Iraq losing interest in the archive the minute it arrives back on Iraqi soil?
There are practical objections to return, too. Despite assurances to the contrary, Iraq itself does not have the resources to conserve and store the archive safely but would need to call in experts from the United Arab Emirates.
Even if the archive is digitized and accessible online, Iraq’s Jews and their descendants, 90 percent of whom are in Israel, will be debarred from access to the original documents.
The issue of the archive not only draws attention to the mass spoliation of nearly a million Jews driven from the Arab world, but is a test case. Here at last is a unique opportunity to return Jewish property to its rightful owners. Will the US take it up?
The petition asking the US government to stop the archive returning to Iraq may be signed here.