Heritage in the Right Hands

Detail of a students' school records as conservation of a trove of Iraqi Jewish artifacts discovered in a basement during the war is almost completed on July, 23, 2013 in College Park, MD. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Detail of a students' school records as conservation of a trove of Iraqi Jewish artifacts discovered in a basement during the war is almost completed on July, 23, 2013 in College Park, MD. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

When US forces captured Saddam Hussein’s intelligence building in 2003, they accidentally uncovered a great treasure: a collection of centuries-old copies of the Torah and the Haggadah, as well as university applications and financial documents and personal photographs, all constituting one of the most comprehensive records of Iraq’s indigenous Jewish community. The documents had been seized from the homes of Jewish families as they fled persecution in the country in the 1970s. Having been drowned in five feet of water, the documents were stained, disintegrating and molding when US troops recovered them. The archive has now been conserved and digitized under the direction of the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.

An agreement between US and Iraqi officials was reached during the spring of 2003, saying that the US would take custody of the documents in order to conserve them. But the agreement also stipulated that the documents were to be returned to Iraq, a repatriation now scheduled for June this year. This has led to a conflict between Iraqis, who claim that Judaism is part of their history and thus so are these artifacts, and the Iraqi Jewish diaspora, who are reluctant to entrust this part of their history to the war-torn country. Several Jewish organizations want the 2003 deal renegotiated—and they have growing support in both houses. The Senate unanimously confirmed Resolution 333 on February 6, urging the US State Department to renegotiate the deal so that the archive can be “housed in a location that is accessible to scholars and to Iraqi Jews and their descendants.” Now a joint resolution with the same wording is making its way through the House of Representatives.

Janet Levin, the editor of Jewish Renaissance magazine, told The Majalla: “I think it is most important that the documents are kept where they will be looked after and available to be looked at to those that will appreciate them. I think these are most likely to be Jews of Iraqi heritage, of which there are obviously more in the US and in Israel than there are in Iraq . . . This obviously raises strong feelings in the expatriate community, as they or their forebears lost their homes and possessions.”

In the 1970s, Iraqi archaeologist Emily Porter was among the first experts to see the hoard when it arrived at the Iraqi Museum, before it disappeared. She described that moment to The Majalla: “To our astonishment we saw golden, silver and ordinary wooden scrolls, many biblical manuscripts, and other treasures. Most of the scrolls’ texts were in three different languages: old and new Hebrew and Aramaic.” She supports the return of these treasures to Iraq—but “maybe in fifty years’ time, when the Iraqis will know how to take care of their heritage.” In the interim, she says, they “should be kept in a place or a country for safekeeping, protected by a United Nations resolution.”

Until recently, Iraq was home to one of the oldest Jewish populations in the world, with a history stretching back 2,600 years. Today, however, its Jewish community is all but extinct, with most estimates saying fewer than ten Jews remain. Those who are left keep a low profile, which stands in contrast to the vibrant Jewish life that used to exist.

On July 1, 1941, a Nazi-inspired pogrom known as the Farhud marked the beginning of the end of Iraq’s Jewish community. On that day, rioters stormed through Baghdad slaughtering Jews and looting their homes and businesses. One eyewitness, Suhalia Kader, told The Majalla:“I still remember that day. My uncle and a few other men had to protect my Jewish neighbors from intruders. It was horrible and frightening.” Life changed dramatically for Jews in Iraq after that massacre, and the situation worsened as suspicion of and discrimination against the Jewish community grew in response to Israel’s creation in 1948. Many Jews were placed under house arrest, their bank accounts were frozen, and those Jews working in the government were dismissed.

The situation worsened again following the Arab defeat at the hands of Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967. January 27, 1969, was another day marked by the torment of Iraqi Jews, when Iraqi authorities hanged nine alleged Jewish spies in a public execution in Baghdad only a short distance from the museum were the archive would be kept once it is repatriated to Iraq. Porter, the archaeologist, said: “The public execution of Iraqi Jews was only a few yards from the Iraqi Museum, so almost all of us [Porter and her colleagues] were quite apprehensive.”

Many Iraqi Jews in the diaspora feel they cannot trust the current government of Iraq to care for this historic collection; others say the archive will become inaccessible to the Jewish community if it is sent back to a country that is still fraught with violence. Salha Daniel, an Iraqi Jew who is a researcher at New York’s Columbia University, summed up these concerns in comments to The Majalla. “In my view, the Iraqi Jewish Archive is part of Iraqi history and belongs to Iraq, but it should be available to Iraqi Jews,” she said. “Perhaps it could be made available to Iraqi Jews by having the [archive] in a neutral country for part of the time.”

Levin suggests that “the collection could be split so that it is represented in Iraq as well as in the US,” and that it should be entrusted with the Iraqi Jewish diaspora in the US, the UK and Israel. Moreover, Daniel tells The Majalla, “There is a Jewish Law that states that sacred or religious items such as prayer books must be entrusted with a living Jewish community.”

The fate of the heritage of a community that was once respected within Iraqi society hangs in limbo. What happened to Iraqi Jews is a catastrophe that is reflected in the ongoing violence in the country today. Returning the documents to Iraq would, in a sense, add to the Iraqi Jewish tragedy. One always hopes that Iraq reaches a stage of harmony, so that the Jews can one day return. Only then would it make sense to return these precious documents to their homeland.

The archive is being exhibited in New York City from February 2, 2014 till May 18, 2014.

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