Wednesday, December 11, 2013

How Saddam seized the Jewish archive

 Pasul (unfit for use) torah fragments such as this one will be buried in the US on 15 December

How did Saddam Hussein seize the Jewish archive, now in the US for restoration? The confiscation of books and documents from the Meir Toeg synagogue in Bataween is only part of the story. In the Times of Israel Lyn Julius tells how a Jewish collaborator helped the secret police seize more documents in the 1970s, before disappearing without trace.

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.

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Richard Chesnoff has left this very interesting comment:

When as senior correspondent of US News & World Report. I visited Baghdad in 1989, I made it a point to seek out the remnant of the local Jewish Community. Baghdad's Jews had one synagogue still active - the Toeg Synagogue. The gabbai, Avram Sofer and the community president, David Reuven received me warmly - though cautiously. Indeed when I wanted to join the community for shabbat prayers, I had to bring my official govt minder along with me.

President Reuven told me there were still some 400 Jews left in Baghdad (out of the hundreds of thousands who had lived there before 1950. There was another handful in Basra, they told me. They said the community received income from the rental of abandoned community properties (income they said that was "shared" with the Saddam government and other "partners").

They also told me that some years earlier Saddam's forces had entered the Toeg Synagogue and forcefully confiscated all but a handful of sifrei torah and prayer books . They had taken hundreds of year of records, valuable antique books and manuscripts - and even the last Hebrew press left in Iraq. From that point on, new documents and prayer books had to be written by hand and mimeographed.

The documents and books discovered in the basement of Saddam's HQ and restored in Washington are clearly part of these stolen goods. To even consider returning them to Baghdad - where there no Jews left but perhaps less then half a dozen very old ones - would be more than shameful ! Keep the documents in an American Jewish museum or in the Iraqi-Jewish museum near Tel Aviv!

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