Washington — At the National Archives in Washington, the story of Iraq’s ancient Jewish community has just gone on display, presented via a priceless collection of artifacts and documents recovered during America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. But behind the scenes, a battle reaching to the highest levels of government is taking place over the future of those same documents and artifacts.
“Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage” is the subject of a vigorous campaign launched by Iraqi Jewish activists, Jewish communal leaders and members of Congress trying to convince the government of the United States to back out of an agreement it signed with the Iraqi government, promising to return these objects after the exhibit ends.
At issue is not just the fate of the religious artifacts and community documents, which were forcefully seized by the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein before American GIs ever arrived. With these items, surviving members of Iraq’s once thriving but now extinct Jewish community are also seeking to win recognition from the world for their story, a story they believe other Jews take for granted.
“I believe this is an opportunity to make people aware of how Iraqi Jews were forced to leave the country [and] under what circumstances that happened,” said Carole Basri, a lawyer, filmmaker and Iraqi community activist.
The documents now on display in Washington include papers from the Jewish school Basri’s grandfather founded in Baghdad following the 1941 farhoud, a pogrom against the city’s Jewish community. Basri faults the U.S. government, which rescued these documents and other papers and Jewish scriptures from the basement of the Iraqi secret police after Saddam’s ouster, for rushing to sign an agreement without consulting with members of the Iraqi Jewish Diaspora. Now this Diaspora wants its voice heard in the belated debate over the agreement.
The tale of the Iraqi Jewish archive dates back to 2003, weeks after Saddam’s fall.
As American troops and Pentagon civilians began searching palaces, military facilities and office buildings for weapons of mass destruction, a former regime official who had been in charge of Jewish affairs gave the searchers an unrelated tip: a cache of Jewish objects was stored in the bottom of Saddam’s intelligence headquarters building.
A search group from the United States entered the building through a huge hole created by a one-ton bomb still lodged in the basement. There, in the ruins, the team found, soaked in water, piles of documents, once part of Baghdad’s sprawling Jewish community.
“It was an enormously wonderful feeling that we are doing avodat kodesh [holy work], that we are part of a mission,” said Harold Rhode, then an expert on Islamic affairs at the Pentagon who led the team.