Iraqi Jewish Books Need Home

Controversy arises over Jewish collection found by US troops in Iraq.

Elad Benari, | updated: 05:12

Israeli Memorial to Jews Killed in Iraq
Israeli Memorial to Jews Killed in Iraq
WikiMedia Commons

A collection of rare Jewish books found in Iraq of all places is a cause for a stir-up between Iraqi Jews and non-Jews.

The LA Times reported on Sunday that when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, forces found a collection of confiscated antique Torahs, rabbinical Bibles and other Jewish documents in Baghdad. It was found soaking in dirty water in the basement of an abandoned Iraqi intelligence building. US troops fished out the books and papers and shipped the collection to Washington, where it remains to this day, despite a deal between Iraqi authorities and the State Department that the collection would be shipped back in two years. As violence in Iraq escalated the deadline was extended for another two years, then allowed to lapse.

The once thriving Jewish community in Iraq experienced a decline during the reign of Saddam Hussein’s anti-Semitic Ba’ath Party. The party, which took power after a coup in 1968, confiscated Jewish property and imprisoned and attacked Jews. A 1969 public hanging of 14 Iraqis, nine of them Jews, who were falsely accused of spying for Israel, led to the departure of most of the remaining Jews. Most of them had been gone by 1970, mostly to Israel and the United States. By 2004, fewer than 100 Jews remained in the country. Fewer than ten Jews remain in Iraq today, and they keep a low profile.

The Jewish collection which was sent to the US is causing controversy since there are some Iraqis who want to claim Judaism as part of Iraq's history and would like to see the collection returned to Iraq. On the other hand members of the Iraqi Diaspora are not pleased at the idea of entrusting their heritage to a country where hostility to Jews remains widespread.

"Jews are Iraq's oldest community. They are a significant part of the history of establishing Iraq," said Saad Eskander, the director of Iraq's National Library and Archive, in a conversation with the LA Times. Eskander said the collection belongs in Iraq and added that he was negotiating with the US Embassy in Baghdad in order to return the collection to Iraq. He said that if these negotiations fail he would probably work with international organizations to take the case to US courts.

At the same time, Jewish groups in both the US and Israel have raised concerns regarding the safety of the collection if it were returned to Iraq. Speaking to the LA Times, Eric Fusfield of the B'nai B'rith international Jewish organization, said: "The Iraqi government should be commended for trying to preserve the Jewish legacy … but these are Jewish communal properties first and foremost."

He added that B’nai Brith had written to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton this year calling her to bar the return of the documents to Iraq.

Shmuel Moreh, a professor of Arabic literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who left Iraq in 1951 said that he believes that all Jewish documents from Iraq should be taken to Israel.

"We need the documents to learn about history," said Moreh. "We couldn't take any documents from Iraq when we left."

"We at the National Library raised the alarm and demanded their return to Iraq. They are Iraqi cultural property," said Eskander, who said that he would digitize the collection, make it available online and add other important Iraqi Jewish works to it.