Harold Rhode (Photo: Arie Jerozolimski)
The amazing story of the discovery of Jewish books and documents in the flooded basement of the Iraqi secret police (Mukhabarat) headquarters in 2003 resurfaces in this interview with Harold Rhode, a Middle east expert lately of the Pentagon. Rhode was instrumental is rescuing the archive from Iraq and shipping it to the US for restoration. On the thorny question of whom the archive belongs to, Rhode is unequivocal: it is the patrimony of the Jewish community of Iraq, now in exile. "Wherever they are, it's theirs", he tell the Jerusalem Post (with thanks: Lily):
"One day I get a call from Judith Miller of The New York Times that someone has come to an opposition leader in Baghdad and said that there is a very ancient Talmud in the Muhabarat [intelligence agency] and she figured that I’m an Orthodox Jew and who else around could tell anything about this. What happened here was as follows. This guy was head of the Israel or the Jewish section of the Muhabarat, and what went on was that if you were part of the previous administration under Saddam, people who had blood on their hands especially would come to opposition leaders and say, ‘I have information in exchange for a certificate of cleanliness. I’ll talk to you.’ This guy did that.”
"The opposition leader in question was Ahmed Chalabi, a current Iraqi political heavyweight once championed by the Americans and now considered an ally of Teheran.
“Anyway, Chalabi and Miller called me and off I went with them. Judith Miller was embedded in a Weapons of Mass Destruction team and the building in which they were housed was the combination FBI, CIA building. The place where the Jewish records were kept was in the basement. We are led down there and it’s all filled with water.
“What had happened was that as the headquarters of the Muhabarat, we apparently had bombed the building, the bomb went through the building, came out the side and was still alive and had lodged into the ground. It didn’t break the building but it broke the water system. All the water dripped down into the basement. Through Chalabi at first, we hired these small pumps to try to suck the water out and we find that there is a Jewish room and there is an Israel room.
“We got a few things out, a few Torahs and things like that. It was absolutely awful, no one was interested. I eventually got a grant from somebody in New York. I couldn’t get anybody to be interested; the Americans weren’t interested. And then very simply [Natan] Sharansky, who phoned me from time to time when I was there to make sure I was still alive – I’ve known him for many years – called [Dick] Cheney. The American government all of a sudden got very interested. They brought in huge pumps and got the rest of it out.
“Now it’s in awful shape. Chalabi got us bins to put it in. I was trying to catalog whatever I could. Now one waterlogged book is very heavy. We found Torah scrolls; we found a Megilat Esther, a lot of things, all under water. The question is what do you do with it? You need to freeze it [to get the mold out] and there’s no electricity.
“Eventually the American government took it all over to Texas where they have national archives that do restoration. What they do is first suck out all the water to stop the damage, and then it was sent to Archives 2 in Maryland. And there’s a lot of fight about what’s going to happen to this [still going on]. It’s in terrible shape, it’ll cost millions of dollars to restore and you have to do triage: What do you bury as geniza and what do you try to restore?
“The problem here is who owns it. By international law you may not take the treasures of one country and take them to another country. But this case is outside of the norm because it belonged to the Jewish community. But the Jewish community of Iraq is no more. When I was there there were no more than 23 Jews. It’s over. So no one can use these things and it’s going to cost millions to restore. The Iraqi government has other things to do with its money.
“I don’t see any reason for it to go back to Iraq, because if it is the patrimony of the Jewish community of Iraq then wherever they are it’s theirs. When they left, they would have taken it with them had they been able to take it with them. You don’t abandon Torahs.”
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Iraq demands return of Baghdad Jewish archive