“Harold Rhode and Operation Ezra and Nehemiah number two, this time for the Jewish Iraqi soul”

Nothing better could have happened to the ancient Iraqi, or rather, in part, Babylonian, Jewish documents inundated in Baghdad by the water caused by an American bomb aimed at a basement of the Mukhabarat, the secret services of Saddam Hussein, than to have chanced upon Harold Rhode. Harold, a civilian volunteer during the war of 2003, has for decades been one of the Pentagon’s specialists in Islamic Affairs, a member of ONA – the Office of Net Assessment, a think tank of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He was also a close friend of Ahmad Chalabi, an actual Iraqi Shi’ite prince and a staunch antagonist of Saddam. Chalabi received a visit: an official of the Mukhabarat delivered the news of the flooded archives in exchange for help escaping from an Iraq in flames.  Rhode, who was immediately informed, ran to the rescue, but the documents were in a wretched state, a sorrowful picture of the history of the Jews in Iraq.

For us Italians, Verdi’s “Vapensiero” (Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) describes them: in 586 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the First Temple and deported them from Jerusalem. Their weeping, recorded in Psalm 137, was so convincing that in 539 B.C. Cyrus the Great allowed them to return home, where Ezra the Scribe, who led them, produced the first scrolls of the Torah which were to become the Bible. Many Jews stayed on in Babylon, which became their greatest center for scholarship. It was there that the Babylonian Talmud, a fundamental collection of rules and opinions on the Jewish laws, was compiled in 500 A.D. And for centuries the Iraqi Jews were the custodians of a vast tradition, which was looted by Saddam, as well as by many other despots.

Rhode handled the inundated documents with his bare hands; the American experts who spoke with him on the phone insisted that he dry the scrolls with hot air, and Harold, in the midst of war, did his best to comply by whatever means he could scrape together. He saw the parchments in ruins in the water and, being a religious Jew with a fluent knowledge of Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, and the history of all these cultures, he immediately knew that these were precious texts expropriated from the Jews during their odyssey. Persecuted, killed, and hunted, their properties looted, the women raped, from the beginning of time until the pogrom known as the “Farhud” in 1941, until their sudden expulsion upon the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. In 1950, the vast majority of the 130,000 remaining Jews were forced to flee with the Israeli-organized “Operation Ezra and Nehemiah,” and only a few isolated elderly remained in Baghdad.

Rhode, along with New York Times journalist Judith Miller, and Richard Perle, Chairman of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee, devoted themselves to finding funds, and, with an indomitable spirit, he slipped into the water to save the documents with his own hands, advised on the phone by NARA, the National Archives and Records Agency. The first help came from a tycoon who donated $15,000, but the complete restoration cost the USA $3 million. The then Vice President Cheney put his efforts at the service of Rhode’s passion. The story has only a relatively happy ending: It’s true that the documents reached Washington, were restored under the watchful supervision of Rhode, and 27 [archeological] finds on display (out of hundreds) can be seen in Washington. But when the U.S. brought the sacred parchments and books to its own home, it pledged to return them to Iraq.

Today Iraq is claiming them, but both the American-Iraqi and the Israeli Jewish communities are up in arms about it. Harold Rhode explains: “The problem is that here we are dealing with private property stolen by governments from Jewish families, 85 percent of which are now living in Israel. In 1950 the Jews were forced to leave everything behind. And almost nobody remained. Before the Second World War, the Jews of Baghdad numbered 80,000, a quarter of the population. One only has to think of what they are reduced to today — a few old men and women — to understand how rough the persecution was, and still is. These parchments, if sent back to Iraq, would suffer the same fate: marginalization and loss. The collection will thrive in Israel, where the Iraqi-Jewish institutions will take loving care of it.”

English copyright, The Gatestone Institute

About the Author
Fiamma Nirenstein is a journalist, author, former Deputy President of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, and member of the Italian delegation at the Council of Europe.