Iraq urges return of Jewish documents

By Jessica Elgot, April 30, 2010
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An area in central Baghdad, formerly with a high proportion of Jewish inhabitants.

An area in central Baghdad, formerly with a high proportion of Jewish inhabitants.

Iraq has demanded the return of thousands of Jewish documents, sifrei Torah and Haggadot belonging to the Jewish community in Iraq, which were “rescued” to be restored in the US during the invasion in May 2003.

An Iraqi delegation, led by the country’s deputy minister for culture has now met senior State Department officials in the US to arrange for the documents’ return to Iraq.

But there is also a feeling that the materials should actually be returned to their Jewish owners, most of whom now live in Israel.

Thousands of documents were found floating in sewage water in the basement of the Mukhabarat building, the Iraqi intelligence agency, whose agents had seized the documents after Jews fled Iraq in fear of persecution.

The basement flooded after the US military bombed the building.

The then American vice-president, Dick Cheney, arranged for the 3,500 documents to be restored or at least “stabilised” in the US.

The restoration has been handled by the National Archive and Records Administration, at a cost of approximately $1m. Many of the sheets and the books remain stuck together in clumps, and many have been freeze-dried to preserve them from further deterioration.

Samir Sumaidaie, Iraq’s ambassador to the US, told the Washington Post that he believes any further restoration work should be handled in Iraq, and insisted that the documents were now stable enough to transport.

He said: “They represent part of our history and part of our identity. There was a Jewish community in Iraq for 2,500 years.

"We had a huge amount of plunder of our historical artefacts as a result of the American intervention."

But Harold Rhode, a US defence official who was there when the documents were discovered takes a dimmer view.

He said: "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."

Mr Rhode also claimed that it was his friendship with the former Soviet prisoner and Israeli politician Natan Sharansky which allowed the documents to be saved in the first place.

"It was absolutely awful. No-one was interested. And then 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 Cheney. The American government, all of a sudden, got very interested."

    Last updated: 3:08pm, April 30 2010