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.
Rhode believes that the Jewish cultural and religious documents were not there by chance. “It all has to do with humiliation,” he said in an interview with the Forward. In the mid-1980s, Saddam raided Baghdad’s last standing synagogue and looted the documents and religious artifacts. He did so, Rhode said, to degrade the Jewish community. That is also the way Saddam stored the archives in the building’s basement: “It simply mentalizes that you put it below. It is done to humiliate, to embarrass; this is the key.”
The archives found by the U.S. search team were drenched in water and growing mold. And the road to restoring them has proved arduous.
Initially, the controversial Iraqi opposition leader Ahmad Chalabi provided funds for rescuing the archives. Then, after a persuasion process that even included a call from Natan Sharansky, then an Israeli cabinet member, to Vice President Dick Cheney, the U.S. government took on the project. Experts at the National Archives phoned in instructions on emergency restoration, and the military provided help in getting the papers dried, frozen and flown to Texas for further work.
On August 5, 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority, which was in charge of Iraq after the war, signed an agreement with the National Archives allowing the transfer of the archives to the United States for preservation and exhibition. The agreement stated that the archives would be returned to the custody of the Iraqis once the process was completed. An August 17, 2003 letter to Ambassador Paul Bremer, head of the CPA, from Jaber Khalil Ibrahim, chair of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, approved the removal of the archives “under the condition that following the restoration the documents are returned to Iraq.”
It is this contract that activists now seek to overturn.
“Agreements can be amended, agreements can be renegotiated, agreements can be scratched and discussed again,” said Michael Salberg, international affairs director of the Anti-Defamation League. The group has joined with Sephardic Jewish advocacy groups and organizations of Iraqi Jews in calling for the artifacts not to be sent to Iraq when the exhibit closes next year. “This is the second chapter of this great rescue operation,” Salberg said of the campaign to keep the archives in the United States. “The concept that the things that are most sacred to us as a people are considered just a relic of the museum is heartbreaking.”
Several lawmakers joined the call to keep the archives here shortly after the exhibition opened on October 11. “These sacred artifacts were taken from the Iraqi Jewish community and thus do not belong to the Iraqi government,” New York Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat, told the New York Daily News. In the House, Democrat Steve Israel and Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen began collecting signatures on a letter urging the State Department to reconsider its decision to return the objects.
But the administration isn’t budging. “This agreement expressly states that, upon completion of the preservation project and exhibition in the United States, the collection will be returned to the custody of the Government of Iraq,” a State Department official said.
The administration learned of the Jewish community’s objection to the return of the material early on in the process. In 2006, when the first stages of restoration were completed, the State Department reached out to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and to the Center for Jewish History and the American Sephardi Federation, asking for help not only with the restoration, but also with raising an estimated $1 million to fund the program. The Jewish groups said they were willing to provide expert knowledge but would not raise funds for documents that would be returned to Iraq, an activist involved in the talks said.
Jewish organizations have long been concerned about artifacts belonging to extinct communities. Members of the Iraqi Diaspora look at looted Jewish property and art from the Nazi era as an example of goods taken unlawfully that have been returned to their owners. Other cases are more complex. They include the Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s bid for ownership of 40,000 books and manuscripts collected by Rabbi Joseph Schneerson, the Hasidic group’s sixth grand rabbi, that are now held by Russia, and the claim by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research for a historic Yiddish book library in Lithuania.
Winning a legal battle for keeping the Iraqi Jewish archives in America won’t be easy, international lawyer Allan Gerson said. He explained that a U.S. court will not agree to judge the legality of actions taken by the Iraqi regime that seized the archives. The fact that the U.S. government signed an agreement promising to return them makes things even harder, he said. But he added that these obstacles “are not insurmountable.”
Still, given their daunting legal odds, activists pushing to keep the artifacts here are trying to avoid taking the case to court. Rhode suggested making the digital images of the artifacts available online and open to the Iraqi government, while leaving the objects in the United States. Basri said she supports setting up a commission to locate owners of the objects while signing a long-term loan agreement with the Iraqis.
The State Department, on the other hand, believes it can satisfy all sides by adhering to the agreement and ensuring that the collection is treated with care when returned to Iraq. To this end, the department is bringing Iraqi conservation specialists to learn from National Archives experts.
The battle over the archives’ fate could lead to a broader examination of Iraqi Jewish property. Activists and Jewish groups have pointed to a locked storage room in the Iraqi historical museum that contains, according to estimates, some 500 Torah scrolls. In Iraqi Jewish tradition, individuals in the community whose names are written inside the tik, the hard Torah case, owned the scrolls. This, members of the community believe, could make locating the owners possible, if and when access to the scrolls is allowed.
This article was amended on November 4 to indicate that Iraqi scrolls are covered by a tik not an embroidered cloth.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.