How did Saddam seize the Jewish archive?

By now few people interested in Jewish affairs will have managed to avoid reading about the ‘Iraqi-Jewish archive’, or seeing with their own eyes examples thereof, exhibited until 5 January in the National Archives building in Washington DC.

Iraqi Jews have registered their outrage and consternation that this collection of records and documents, miraculously shipped to the US to undergo $3 million’s worth of restoration work, will be returned to Iraq next June, instead of to its rightful Jewish owners.

The archive represents the tip of a large iceberg. As Jewish families abandoned their homes in a desperate bid to escape the country in the early seventies, looters moved in, seizing private possessions, Persian carpets and silverware. They had little use for private diplomas and certificates, and there were instances of these being chucked into the dustbins.

But mystery still surrounds how the 2,700 documents of the Iraqi-Jewish archive came into the hands of the Mukhabarat, or secret police. Jews who lived through that horrific period are casting their minds back and exchanging theories of what they think happened.

The official version, according to Harold Rhode, the man who was responsible for retrieving the documents from the flooded basement of the Mukhabarat HQ, is that the collection was carted off in 1984 by Saddam’s henchmen from the Bataween synagogue, Baghdad’s last. The documents had apparently been stored there by Iraq’s dwindling Jewish community for safe keeping.

But other versions are beginning to emerge: one is that as the Jewish schools closed for lack of pupils, they were repossessed by the government and their contents transferred and centralised in the Mukhabarat building.

Another version holds that communal documents – marriage and school records – were confiscated from the Baghdad Jewish Community Centre in the mid-70s and transferred to the Mukhabarat.

Most likely, it’s all true.

According to Maurice Shohet, president of the World Organisation of Jews from Iraq, the Mukhabarat made use of a Jew to accomplish the seizure of those documents, although the Mukhabarat were themselves no strangers to raiding Jewish property.

According to one account, the Jew encouraged Iraqi intelligence to seize all Sifrei Torah from synagogues ‘except the handful needed for prayers’.

The man was Mordechai Khabaza, an Iraqi Jew living in Israel who had responded to Saddam’s 1975 call for Jews to return to Iraq. The call to return was made by several Arab regimes at the time: unlike Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians, Arab states could no longer be accused of denying a ‘right of return’ to their ex-Jewish citizens.

As soon as Khabaza arrived from ‘the Zionist entity’, he immediately aroused the suspicions and anger of the few hundred local Jews remaining in Iraq. They avoided contact with him, fearing that the authorities would accuse them of associating with a Zionist. Zionism had been made a capital crime, and Jews were commonly accused of fabricated spying charges.

After he had helped the authorities amass their stash of Jewish documents, nothing more was heard of Mordechai Khabaza. The community believed that Saddam had had him killed once he had outlived his usefulness.

Incidentally, three members of the Nawi family also returned to Iraq from Israel. A husband and wife, active members of the Communist party in Petah Tikva, moved back to Baghdad with their son. Mrs. Nawi exclaimed to reporters at Baghdad airport that now she had started breathing the Baghdad air, she felt she was back in paradise. After a while,however, this family too disappeared without trace – although some claim that they left Baghdad to safety.

According to one story, one day members of the Iraqi intelligence services delivered to the community a coffin, instructing them to bury it in the Baghdad Jewish cemetery. The agents accompanied the community to the cemetery, to ensure that the coffin was not opened. Some Jews immediately concluded that the coffin contained the bodies of the Nawi couple: Iraqi propaganda had ceased to have any further use for them. Others believe that the coffin was that of Mordechai Khabaza.

Nobody is suggesting that the Iraqi-Jewish archive too, if it is returned to Iraq, is destined for an end as ignominious as that of those Jews who returned under Saddam. But their tragic fate it is a salutary reminder, despite all assurances, of what might happen.

Please sign the petition: Don’t let the Iraqi-Jewish archive go back to Iraq.

About the Author
Lyn Julius is a journalist and co-founder of Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the UK. She is the author of 'Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilisation in the Arab world vanished overnight.' (Vallentine Mitchell)