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Jews worldwide are mobilizing to fight a plan by the U.S. National Archives under the Obama administration to hand over to the Muslim government in Iraq thousands of mostly priceless treasures, including ancient Torahs, that had been stolen by Saddam Hussein.
The historical items, labeled the Iraqi Jewish Archives, were taken from the soggy basements of dictator Saddam Hussein’s secret police headquarters when U.S. troops arrived there in 2003.
The Jews argue the items – including books, school records and rare editions of the Talmud – are their heritage, and there are no Jews left in Iraq.
The U.S. took custody, promising to return the items later.
The JWeekly, a newspaper serving the Jewish community in Northern California since 1896, reports that the Iraqi government at that time only had the Jewish artifacts because, “over several decades, successive regimes in Iraq systematically destroyed the country’s 2,500-year-old Jewish community and expropriated its property – right down to the last ancient prayerbook and Torah scroll.”
Iraq is the land where it is believed Abraham of Ur wandered, Jonah prophesied to Nineveh and Nebuchadnezzar ruled with an iron fist. But the New York Times reported only a few years ago that while 50 years ago Iraq’s Jewish population numbered 130,000, today there are virtually none.
“They cannot muster even a minyan, the 10 Jewish men required to perform some of the most important rituals of their faith. They are scared even to publicize their exact number, which was recently estimated at seven by the Jewish Agency for Israel and at eight by one Christian cleric.”
The Gatestone Institute reported not even a year ago on a conference for minority religions in Iraq. The institute expressed surprise “that there was not a single representative of Iraqi Jews to relate their glorious history, so full of great accomplishments for the glory of Iraq and its Constitution.”
The report, by Nabil Al-Hadairi, continued: “In their absence, they could not tell of the calamity that befell them when their citizenship was withdrawn, their money and property confiscated, their rights denied, and when they were subjected to being imprisoned or murdered while ethnic cleansing was committed by forcing the best of my Jewish friends to emigrate.”
He said Iraqi Jews “had been genuine citizens for thousands of years – even before Muslims and Christians.”
Jews made up a huge part of Baghdad’s population, he said, and by the 1920s they were 40 percent of the city’s people.
At IraqiJewishArchives.org, a report explains it was on May 6, 2003, just days after coalition forces took over Baghdad, “16 American soldiers entered Saddam Hussein’s flooded intelligence building. In the basement, under four feet of water, they found 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents, in Hebrew, Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, and English relating to the Jewish community of Iraq – materials that had belonged to synagogues and Jewish organizations in Baghdad. The Iraqi Jewish Archive was shipped to the United States for preservation and exhibition, under the agreement that the U.S. State Department would ship the trove back to Iraq after an exhibition.”
The report said the U.S. spent $3 million restoring selected documents, including a 1568 Hebrew Bible with Commentaries, a Babylonian Talmud from 1793, a Torah scroll fragment from Genesis (one of 48 Torah scroll fragments found), and a Zohar from 1815. Those and others were scheduled to be displayed starting Oct. 11 in Washington.
The actual display was delayed by the partial government shutdown, but Jewish leaders are alarmed that after the exhibit, the items are scheduled to be handed over to the Islamic government in Iraq, even though “there is no Jewish community remaining in Iraq.”
The archive does not belong to Iraq, but was stolen from private homes, schools and synagogues in the 1970s. It is the cultural property of the Iraqi-Jewish community. According to Jewish law, sacred objects such as Torah scrolls must be entrusted to a living Jewish community. The Jewish community in Iraq is virtually extinct. Jews of Iraqi origin and their descendants now live outside Iraq – in Israel and the West.
When there were Jews in Iraq, the modern Iraqi state showed only contempt for them and their heritage. It did its utmost to persecute and destroy its ancient, pre-Islamic Jewish community. From 140,000, the community has dwindled to five people. To return the archive to Iraq will be to compound a crime: returning stolen property to those who stole it. Iraq itself does not have the resources to conserve and store the archive safely. Iraq’s Jews and their descendants, 90 percent of whom are in Israel, will be debarred from access to original documents and history if the archive returns to Iraq. The memorandum drawn up between the US CPA interim government and Iraq in 2003 was signed on a flawed premise: that the archive is part of Iraq’s national heritage.
JWeekly reports Justice for Jews from Arab Countries and Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and Africa are running a campaign to regain control of the historical treasures.
Gina Waldman, executive director of JIMENA, told the weekly: “We hope the U.S. government will bar the return of the archives to Iraq, and do everything possible to [reach] a mutually agreeable, fair and just agreement so that the Iraqis are encouraged to hand the archives to the rightful Jewish owners.”
The weekly cited the sentiments of Stanley Urman, executive vice president of JJAC.
“[The artifacts] were seized from Jewish institutions, schools and the community. There is no justification or logic in sending these Jewish archives back to Iraq, a place that has virtually no Jews, no interest in Jewish heritage and no accessibility to Jewish scholars,” he said.
JIMENA board member Joseph Dabby told the weekly he believes he could be among the rightful owners. He was born in Baghdad in 1946 and suggested his school records may be among the archive’s documents.