Op-Ed: Obama Plans to Return Looted Jewish Artifacts to Iraq
The National Archives has been showing an exhibit of Iraqi Jewish artifacts since October 11, 2013. Appallingly, the U.S. government has agreed to then return the Iraqi Jewish archives — including holy books — to Iraq, which systematically expelled its Jewish community, by June of 2014.
How did the Jewish Iraqi community — which dates to 721 B.C.E. when the Assyrians conquered Samaria and eventually deported the population to central Mesopotamia, and which was one of the two main sources of Mishnaic and Talmudic learning — lose, find, and lose again its patrimony?
The incredible story of how this unlikely turn of events came to pass has never been told in its entirety until now; I am one of the few who can tell it.
After American forces entered Baghdad in May 2003, the head of the Jewish and Israel section of Saddam Hussein's Mukhabarat (intelligence agency) came to the Iraqi National Congress (INC), offering information about Saddam's intelligence operations against Israel and Jews. He did this in order to curry favor. Former Iraqi officials frequently came to opposition groups to tell their stories, in return for which they would get "safe passage" documents stating that since they were cooperating with post-Saddam authorities, they should not be harmed.
The tipster visited the INC to talk about the rumored Jewish archives hidden in the basement of the Mukhabarat headquarters. After his visit, INC chairman Ahmed Chalabi called Judy Miller, the former New York Times reporter then embedded with a mobile unit looking for WMD, and me. I was an Arabic/Hebrew speaking policy analyst with the Office of Net Assessments in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, then assigned to the Coalition Provisional Authority, at the time.
We rushed over to talk with Chalabi, who told us that a former Mukhabarat employee reported that a huge treasure trove of Iraqi Jewish and Israeli material was amassed in the Mukhabarat building, and that he was prepared to show us where it was located. He also said there was an ancient copy of the Talmud written on leather or parchment.
Miller and I then went off to the Mukhabarat building with the former Saddam officer and an INC contingent.
The tipster indicated from outside the building where in the basement the Jewish and Israel sections were located. Then — he promptly disappeared. Despite the bombed-out structure's instability, looters were overrunning the building. Danger was everywhere.
We were, in fact, standing beside a large metal device which had lodged itself halfway into the ground. We later learned that this live, undetonated bomb had penetrated through three or four stories of the building and destroyed the building's water system. It had pierced the wall almost at ground level. We saw, through the hole it made, that the Jewish and Israel sections were flooded.
We went around to the building's main entrance and descended only halfway down a basement staircase, blocked by water which had risen about halfway up. Several WMD team members waded into the water and entered the Israel section. They found pictures of the Dome of the Rock, a Soviet map of Israel's Dimona nuclear reactor, and a sign in Arabic which read: "Who will be the one to send the 40th missile to Israel?" (This referred to the fact that during the Kuwait war, Iraq had sent 39 missiles toward Israel.)
The WMD team then proceeded down the hall, found the Jewish section, and carried out religious books and a tiq (the wooden/metal box which holds Torahs). These items proved to be only a tiny example of what we were to find later.
Many Iraqis with whom we spoke about the discovery told us to get the material out of the country as soon as possible before it became public knowledge. That way, Iraqi Jewry could have its patrimony, and no Iraqi politician could be held responsible for having let the Jews take the material.
But that was not so simple. Almost all of the material was under water, and whatever its long-term fate, it had to first be rescued and salvaged. We therefore needed drainage pumps so we could get to the items, and we needed manpower to take the material out, and we needed money to pay for both and had no access to either.
Chalabi volunteered to start the project. His people procured pumps and hired locals to save the books, documents, and holy articles. We started draining at night with the small pumps we had, and managed to get into the Jewish and Israel sections the next morning. But the water continued to drip down from the broken pipes in the building's upper levels, so by early afternoon the water had risen too high and we were unable to continue our operation. This situation continued daily for the next few weeks.
Such a large operation costs money, and Chalabi's personal generosity was stretched. We managed to secure a grant from philanthropist Harvey Krueger, an investment banker then of Lehman Brothers, who heard about the project from friends and managed to get us about $15,000 to continue the operation.
I tried to interest American officials in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) of which I was a member, but my pleas were not heard. The American bureaucracy back home was not helpful either, as it clearly saw this project as a nuisance. Worse, bureaucrats thought the rescue project could potentially cause them serious problems — such as the issue of provenance — with which they did not want to be bothered.
The next problem we faced was what to do with the material once we got it out of the Mukhabarat building. Chalabi gave us 27 large aluminum trunks and gave us space to dry out the material in the Orfali Art Gallery courtyard, which was part of his INC's headquarters. Since the American bureaucracy did not want to participate in the rescue of the Jewish archive, we needed advice on how to do so ourselves.
Through friends, we were put in touch with Jerusalem's Hebrew University document and book restoration section, whose director tried to give us instructions by phone on how to handle the material. She told us we needed low humidity — dry, air-conditioned rooms to help dry the material out and to prevent mold. There was only sporadic electricity in Baghdad at that time, and therefore no possibility of following her instructions.
We let the material dry out for a few hours in Baghdad's humid air and hot sunlight.
We were forced to roll out on the ground the Torah and other holy scrolls we had rescued — something which is normally absolutely prohibited in Jewish law — so that we could dry them out however slightly, and then roll them back up and place them in the aluminum trunks. Had we not rolled them out, they would have dried and hardened, and therefore been forever unusable and destroyed.
When the books and documents were still damp but not yet dry, we put them in the large aluminum trunks Chalabi's people had found for us. Despite our best intentions, these temporary solutions could not salvage the material for the long run. But day after day, we and the Iraqi workers went down into the Mukhabarat building's basement, rescued books, papers, and other materials, brought our load to the Orfali courtyard some two miles away, and dried out the daily stash. This process went on for about four weeks.
Every day, friends from around the world called to see how we were doing. Some deserve special mention because their intervention and assistance is the reason this material exists today.
Natan Sharansky, the ex-Soviet dissident and Israeli government minister, called to see how things were developing. After hearing about our predicament, he called Vice President Dick Cheney and asked if he could intervene with the American authorities in Iraq to save the materials. Richard Perle, the former assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan, and my former boss and longtime friend, also called us. After hearing our story, he called then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Both Cheney and Rumsfeld then brought this matter up with the Coalition Provisional Authorities (CPA), who, after previously refusing any assistance, went into action and took over the project.
Sharansky, Cheney, Perle, Rumsfeld, Ahmed Chalabi, and the members of the WMD team who originally waded into the water and discovered the initial material are the real heroes of this operation. It is largely due to their intervention that the Iraqi Jewish archive exists today. Without their help, it is unlikely that any of this archive would have survived.
As a result of their intervention, on June 5, 2003 — the second day of Shavu'ot, when Jewish tradition teaches that Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai — the American authorities, now fully engaged in the rescue operation, brought in large pumps which very quickly drained the entire area. The next day, the large amount of material still left in the archives was put in the rest of the aluminum trunks and then placed in a large refrigerated truck which kept the material as protected as possible until the American archival restorers arrived and took possession of the archive in June 2003.
The materials were then flown to Texas where they were vacuum-freeze-dried, and in Fall 2003 they were brought to the National Archives. In 2011, the State Department kicked in over $3 million for stabilizing, digitizing, and packing the material. Again, none of that would have been possible without the interventions of the people I have referenced.
Among the items we found in the intelligence headquarters basement: a 400-year-old Hebrew Bible; a 200-year-old Talmud from Vienna; a copy of the book of Numbers in Hebrew published in Jerusalem in 1972; a Megillat Esther of uncertain date; a Haggadah published in Baghdad and edited by the chief rabbi of Baghdad; the Writings of Ketuvim containing books like Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Lamentations, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles published in Venice in 1568; a copy of Pirkei Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers, published in Livorno, Italy in 1928 with commentary written with Hebrew letters but in Baghdadi-Judeo Arabic; a luach (a calendar with lists of duties and prayers for each holy day printed in Baghdad in 1972); a printed collection of sermons by a rabbi made in Germany in 1692; thousands of books printed in Vienna, Livorno, Jerusalem, Izmir, and Vilna; miscellaneous communal records from 1920-1953; lists of male Jewish residents, school records, financial records, applications for university admissions.
All of this illustrated the history of Baghdadi Jewish community life, a community which is no more.
After Israel became a state in 1948, martial law was declared in Iraq and many Jews left in the mass exodus in 1950-51. Almost all of those who remained behind left by the 1970s. They were not allowed to take much with them.
In 1950-51, they were allowed one suitcase with clothing — sometimes not even their personal documents — and nothing more. They were forced to leave everything else behind, including their communal property. For many years, Jews were not permitted to leave Iraq at all and were persecuted.
With time, the few Jews who remained in Baghdad transferred what communal holy books and religious articles they had to the one remaining synagogue which functioned. This was in Batawin, a section of Baghdad which in the late 1940s was the neighborhood to which upwardly mobile Jews moved. The remaining Jews stored this property in the synagogue's balcony, where the women sat during prayer.
The Jews did not freely relinquish this material. They did it under duress, having no other option.
In 1984, Saddam sent henchmen with trucks to that synagogue. Those scrolls, records, and books were carted off to a place unknown. Local Jews who were at the synagogue at that time witnessed this thievery, and described to me personally how the material was carted off against their will.
Why did Saddam even care about this material, and why did he keep it in his intelligence headquarters? Did he think he might gain some insights into the Jewish mind by doing so? Did he think doing so would help him defeat the Israelis?
From a Middle Eastern cultural perspective, capturing the archive makes perfect sense. Humiliation — i.e., shaming another's personal reputation — is more important and more powerful than physical cruelty. From this cultural perspective, by capturing the Jewish archives, Saddam was humiliating the Jewish people. He was showing how powerless the Jews were to stop him.
By keeping that archive and the Israel section in the basement of his intelligence headquarters, Saddam further humiliated the Jews and Israel. And by doing so, Saddam – again, in Middle Eastern eyes — was also regaining a portion of the honor the Arabs lost through their constant military defeats at the hands of the (Jewish) Israelis.
Strange as it might sound to Western ears, Saddam also thereby demonstrated to other Middle Eastern leaders that he was in the vanguard of protecting and regaining Arab honor, and was therefore more worthy of Arab/Muslim leadership than were the others.
As for today's Iraqi leaders, they too do not want to be humiliated, and therefore cannot say that they are prepared to let the Jews or Americans have this material.
Any Iraqi Arab leader who publicly surrenders the Jewish archive will be humiliated in the eyes of his fellow Arabs. That is most likely why so many of them privately said that they wanted to me get this archive out of Iraq quickly and as quietly as possible before anyone would know. That way, they would not be blamed for the archive's removal.
Of course, according to international law, no country may remove or steal the patrimony or art effects of another country, even when captured in war. The U.S. therefore could not lawfully remove the Jewish material without the consent of the local Iraqi authorities. Accordingly, the Americans asked the Iraqis for permission to remove this material in order to restore it. The Iraqi cultural ministry authorities agreed to this, on condition that it eventually return to Iraq.
But did the Iraqi authorities have the right to demand the archives back?
The Iraqi government "acquired" this material by stealing it from the Jewish community and by persecuting a minority religious population.
The Iraqi Jews, under duress, had no choice but to relinquish control of their communal archives to the government. It was the Jewish community's property, not the Iraqi government's.
After our effort to retrieve the Jewish archives became publicly known, many former Iraqi Jews started exerting public pressure in an effort to take possession of the post-restoration archives. But the American bureaucracy — which did not want to get involved in the archive's rescue in the first place — did its best to ensure that once the material was restored it would return to Iraq. The bureaucracy said that it is illegal for a conquering power to remove property from the country which was conquered, and the bureaucracy did not want to become embroiled in questions of provenance.
But the property was stolen property in the first place, meaning that the Iraqi government did not own it. It is the Iraqi government which has no provenance. The stolen property must be returned to its original owners — according to international law.
Where are these Iraqi Jews, and since this robbery took place between 40 and 60 years ago, where are their descendants, who clearly are the rightful owners? Iraqi Jewry is scattered throughout the world. Today, about 85% of them and their descendants live in Israel. The rest live mostly in the UK and in the U.S. Only 20 remain in Iraq.
These people are the rightful owners of the Iraqi Jewish archives now housed temporarily at the U.S. National Archives in suburban Washington D.C., not the Iraqi government, which has never taken responsibility for Iraq's role in destroying the more than 2,500-year-old Jewish community.
It would be as if Germany demanded material looted from German Jewish communities under the Nazis in German government hands. But even in this case, the Germans today admit their Nazi crimes against the Jews, and they have done much to compensate the Jews for German actions.
Moreover, can Iraq even care for this archive?
Iraq now — today — has a basement room of its archives filled with Torahs. The conditions in which they are kept are deplorable. Moreover, no one is allowed access to this material. To be sure, the Iraqis have great difficulty taking care of their own historical and archival material, so this does not mean that the current Iraqi government discriminates particularly against the Jewish material in its possession. The point is they have shown no capability for preserving such material.
The most logical final resting place for the material is the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center outside of Tel Aviv. It is the only museum in the world dedicated to the history of Iraqi Jewry.