Operation Artifact

This article was first published in The Jerusalem Report.

Harold Rhode helped retrieve tens of thousands of Jewish books, scrolls and documents from the flooded basement of Saddam's intelligence agency (courtesy of NARA)

Harold Rhode helped retrieve tens of thousands of Jewish books, scrolls and documents from the flooded basement of Saddam’s intelligence agency in Baghdad (courtesy of NARA)

ON A chilly mid-December day about 100 people gathered at New Montefiore Cemetery in the town of West Babylon, New York, to witness the burial of a box containing irreparably damaged fragments of holy scrolls that once belonged to the Jewish community in Iraq.

The fragments, mainly of Torah scrolls and a Scroll of Esther, were part of a collection of 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents that were saved in the spring and summer of 2003 from the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s Muhabarat (intelligence agency) offices in Baghdad.

Just days after coalition forces took control of Baghdad, a US Army team searching for weapons of mass destruction was informed of the submerged collection by Iraqi National Congress chairman Ahmed Chalabi, who was in turn tipped off by a former intelligence official trying to curry favor with the post- Saddam authorities.

The damaged items discovered ranged from the ephemera of daily life, like school report cards and financial records from the 1960s and 1970s, to a 400-year-old Torah scroll, a 200-year-old Talmud and a copy of the Ketuvim (Writings) part of the Bible, published in Venice in 1568.

The documents had been confiscated from Iraqi Jews and Jewish Iraqi institutions by Saddam’s Ba’athist regime. However, persecution of the two-millennia-old Iraqi Jewish community predates Saddam. Discrimination and violence against Jews in Iraq began with Nazi-influenced Arab nationalism in the 1930s, at which time one- third of Baghdad’s residents were Jewish.

Following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the criminalization in Iraq of Zionism, most of Iraq’s Jews fled the country. They were forced to give up their Iraqi citizenship and leave behind all money and personal property. Emigration was banned in 1952, and the several thousands of Jews who remained suffered arbitrary arrests and economic isolation. A final group made it out in the early 1970s, and today, there are virtually no Jews living in Iraq.

With the burial, the fragments had apparently come to their final resting place. Less clear, however,
is what will be the ultimate disposition of the remaining tens of thousands of artifacts, known collectively as the Iraqi Jewish Archive (IJA).

They are currently in the custody of the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which is restoring, cataloguing and digitizing them. (More than half of the items are already available for online viewing on a specially dedicated website, http://www.ija.archives. gov.)

Twenty-four of the artifacts were on view at a special exhibition at the National Archives in Washington that closed on January 5. The exhibition, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” will travel to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, where it will be shown between February 4 and May 18.

THE FACT that the Iraqi ambassador to the United States, along with a delegation of five other Iraqi government officials, attended the mid-December burial ceremony, together with US government representatives and members of the American-Iraqi Jewish community, should not be taken as a sign that all parties have come together in agreement on what should happen to the archive.

The Republic of Iraq expects the archive to be returned to it by mid-2014, after NARA has done its job. The Iraqi Embassy had no comment on why Iraq wants personal and religious documents from a population it persecuted and drove away.

It appears that the State Department is planning to abide by an agreement signed in August 2003 between the Iraqi Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and NARA, and stating that NARA will return the archive upon completion of its restoration, digitization and exhibition to the CPA.

According to leaders of the American Iraqi Jewish community, the documents are the property and patrimony of Iraqi Jews and should therefore be handed over to the community.

The rest of this article can be read in the January 27, 2014 issue of The Jerusalem Report. No online version of it is currently available.

© 2013 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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