What happens next to the Iraqi-Jewish archive? A tug-of-war for ownership between the government of Iraq and exiled Jews is being played out. This article in the December issue of Ami magazine by Machla Abramovitch suggests a softening on both sides: the Iraqi government may finally concede a long-term loan arrangement. (With thanks: Carole)
The scene at New Montefiore Cemetery in West Babylon, New York on the wet and chilly afternoon of December 15 was nothing less than surrealistic. Mingling sociably with over 100 Iraqi Jews who had come from far and wide was Lukman Faily, Iraq’s new ambassador to the United States, as well as dignitaries from the Iraqi Ministries of the Inte- rior, Foreign Affairs and National Security Council who had flown in from Baghdad for the occasion. Also attending was US State Department Director of Near East and African Affairs Anthony Godfrey and Doris Hamburg, Director of the National Archives and Records Administration preservation program (NARA). They had come to bury close to 50 fragments of damaged Torah scrolls and Megillos Esther that were beyond repair and had been part of the collection that has come to be known as the Iraqi Jewish Archives.
Dr. Stanley Urman, executive vice president of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC), was at the cemetery. “In the midst of continuing controversy over ownership of the Iraqi Jewish Archives,” said Urman, “it was quite startling to see them handling these Jewish artifacts with respect, symbolically laying to rest the heritage of a now-defunct Jewish community as Tehillim were being recited.”
The burial of the fragments was negotiated by Maurice Shohet, president of the World Organization of Iraqi Jews (WOJI). The day had been long in coming. It had taken close to five years of negotiations for the Iraqi government, which claims patrimony over these sacred fragments, to agree to bury them. The burial of the fragments was negotiated by Maurice Shohet, president of the World Organization of Iraqi Jews (WOJI).
These, together with thousands of priceless Jewish artifacts res- cued in 2003 from the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters, had been brought out of Iraq only after an agreement between NARA and Iraq’s interim government was signed, legally binding the US to return the materials to Iraq by June 2014.
Once in the States, they were lovingly and meticulously cleaned, repaired, conserved and digitized by NARA under the care of Hamburg and Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, chief of the Document Conservation Laboratory, at a cost to the State Department of about $3 million. The archives are currently on exhibit in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, until January 5, 2014, when they are scheduled to be moved to New York.
This agreement, however, has ignited a battle. Many Iraqi Jews have galvanized into action to fight the return to Iraq of these priceless artifacts of their history. Citing security concerns that would prevent him and fellow Iraqi Jewish expatriates from accessing these materials should they return to Iraq, Edwin Shuker was just one of many who publicly voiced his opposition. But Iraq was not prepared to listen.
“The Iraqi government will not give up any part of these docu- ments. This is an Iraqi legacy owned by all the Iraqi people and it belongs to all the generations, regardless of religious, ethnic or sectarian affiliations,” declared Ali al-Moussawi on behalf of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
This position, though, wasn’t set in stone. Reports had been floating that a separate delegation would soon arrive to discuss a long-term loan of the archives to the US. Many hope this indicates a shift towards a new and more accommodating Iraq. “This is a statement by the government and people of Iraq that we are here to respect the heritage of the Jews,” Faily said following the burial.
Whatever the motivation, the change didn’t happen overnight. There had been indications for the past two weeks that both the Iraqi government and the State Department, the two major players, were beginning to soften their positions, and that the latter was prepared to facilitate a compromise between Iraq and WOJI, the representative body of world Iraqi Jewry. There is no question that Jewish advocacy played a key role in sensitizing these players and the public at large to what many saw as an injustice in returning Jewish property to the very country that had looted it.
Although the precise details of this extended loan are yet to be negotiated and the proposal might not address the matter of Jewish patrimony itself, activists like Urman see it as a small step towards a positive resolution to a story that began unexpectedly a decade ago under the strangest of circumstances.
Islamic affairs expert Dr. Harold Rhode vividly recalls standing in front of the bombed-out Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters, staring into a gaping hole with a 2,000- pound unexploded American bomb protruding from it. It was May 2003, and the temperature in Baghdad hovered at around 120 degrees. Through the hole he could see the basement of the building, which had flooded with dark, putrid water after its pipes were destroyed. What he was now looking at, he was told, was a room filled with Baghdadi Jewish artifacts and holy books immersed in slime
The day before, Ahmad Chalabi, head of the opposition Iraqi National Congress, had been visited by a former Saddam intelligence official currying favor who informed him of the existence of this cache, which included a seventh-century Hebrew scroll on parchment that he claimed to have hidden inside the build- ing himself. Intrigued, Chalabi notified Rhode and Judith Miller, a former New York Times journalist who was embedded with the Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, the American group searching for weapons of mass destruction. Gazing into the abyss, they, along with New York Sun reporter Adam Daifallah, members of the Iraqi National Congress and the 16-member MET Alpha team, solemnly considered the daunting task before them.
According to Miller, the water level had reached four feet, there were dead animals floating on the surface, the stairwell leading down to the basement was littered with shards of glass and fallen plaster, and a horrendous stench rose from the mess. How to find a seventh-century Hebrew scroll amidst all this debris?
Girding themselves, Chief Warrant Officer Richard “Monty” L. Gonzales and two of the MET Alpha soldiers plunged in. Even though their job was to search for WMDs and not to retrieve reli- gious artifacts, they had been asked to make an exception by their commander, Colonel Richard R. McPhee, who was unwilling to leave this historic scroll behind. “They went into the muck again and again to pull things out, with a bomb sitting right there. It was an impressive effort,” Miller told Ami.
What they found astounded them. There was an “Israel” room that included, among masses of other items, maps highlighting terrorist strikes against Israel, a detailed model of the Knesset and other Israeli government buildings, and satellite photos of Dimona, Israel’s nuclear facility. There was also a sign in Arabic that read, “Who will send off the 40th missile?” (During the Persian Gulf War, a total of 39 missiles fell on Israel.)
Equally disconcerting was the “Jew” room across the sodden corridor, filled with thousands of books and artifacts that, as would later be ascertained, had been indiscriminately looted by Saddam’s thugs from Baghdad synagogues, Jewish community centers and schools. These constituted what would come to be referred as the “Iraqi Jewish Archives.”
The collection consists of some 2,700 books that correlate, ironically, with the 2,700 years of Babylonian Jewish history. Among some of the rarest finds were a Chumash published in 1568 by Giovanni di Gara, Abraham Brudo’s Birkat Avraham, published in 1696, a Babylonian Talmud from 1793, and a Zohar from 1815, in addition to many fragments, standard prayer books, Chumashim and commentaries. A manuscript has just come to light that was identified as a missing piece of a Shabbos drashah given by the illustrious halachic authority and kabbalist Chacham Yosef Chaim, known as the Ben Ish Chai.
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