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Monday, August 26, 2013

Outrage: US to return Iraqi Jewish artifacts to Iraq and not to Jews

The National Archives in Washington is opening an exhibit of Iraqi Jewish artifacts on October 11. The artifacts were rescued from the headquarters of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein's intelligence service, in 2003, during the Second Gulf War. Incredibly, the United States of Obama has agreed to return the artifacts to Iraq, rather than to their lawful owners, by June 2014.
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.
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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.
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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.
(Sign the petition to stop the transfer here.)
 Read the whole thing.

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