One day in 1984, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein sent his henchmen to a Baghdad synagogue to seize what became known as “the Jewish archive”. The trove, retrieved from Jewish homes, schools and libraries, had been deposited for safe-keeping in the ladies’ gallery.
The few remaining Jews were aghast to see trucks full of documents and books driven away from under their noses.
In 2003, the US military discovered the archive under three feet of water on the floor of Saddam’s secret-police headquarters. They decided to ship the Jewish archive out to the US for restoration.
The Americans signed an agreement with the Iraqi authorities, promising that the archive would be returned as soon as the work was complete.
The archive was taken to Texas and vacuum-freeze-dried. The US State Department has since spent over $3 million stabilising, digitising, and packing it.
Among the key items are a 400-year-old Hebrew Bible; a 200-year-old Talmud from Vienna; the Book of Numbers in Hebrew published in Jerusalem in 1972; a megillat Esther; a Haggadah edited by the chief rabbi of Baghdad; Ketuvim and Chronicles published in Venice in 1568; Pirkei Avot, published in Livorno, Italy in 1928; thousands of books printed in Vienna, Livorno, Jerusalem, Izmir, and Vilna; communal records; lists of male Jewish residents; school and financial records; university applications. This archive does not have great rarity value, but is a unique record of Jewish history.
The World Organisation of Jews from Iraq has gained permission from the Iraqis to bury unusable or possul fragments of Torah scrolls in the US.
Although the federal government shut-down has postponed the opening, the National Archives in Washington DC was due to put the Jewish archive’s highlights on display today. In January, the exhibition will travel to New York.
In June 2014, when the digitising process is complete, the archive will go back to Iraq, which considers the archive “part of its history and identity.”
But resistance is building to the transfer. It is a bitter irony that Iraq, which has persecuted, abused and driven its pre-Islamic Jewish community to extinction, should demand the archive’s return. To send the archive to Iraq would be to return stolen property to those who stole it.
Executive director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, Stan Urman, argues that the US agreement to return the archive to Iraq was signed “on a false premise.”
The archive is the cultural property of the 2,500-year old Iraqi Jewish community, and save for five Jews still in Baghdad, that community no longer lives in Iraq, but in Israel and the West.
If the archive were such a precious part of the national heritage, it would have been on display in the National Archives Museum in Baghdad, and not found on the floor of the secret police headquarters. One cynic has suggested that, once in Iraqi hands, items from the archive would be sold off to the highest bidder.
There are practical objections to return, too. Iraq does not have the resources to conserve the archive safely. Its treasures in the National Museum of Baghdad were looted in 2003. Moreover, the country can scarcely safeguard life, let alone property. Hardly a day goes by without factional murder being carried out and bombs going off.
Furthermore, Iraq’s Jews and their descendants, 90 per cent of whom are in Israel, say that they will be debarred from access to the original documents, even if these are digitised.
Private property should be restored to its owners, some of whom are still alive. Communal property should go to the Babylonian Heritage Centre in Israel.
The issue of the archive not only draws attention to the mass spoliation of nearly a million Jews driven from the Arab world, but is a unique opportunity to restore Jewish property to its rightful owners.
The petition asking the US government to stop the archive returning to Iraq is at