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Iraqi Jewish documents remain in limbo

Damaged during the U.S. invasion and shipped from Baghdad to Washington for preservation, a collection of antique Torahs and other material faces an uncertain future. Back to Iraq? Or to Israel?

October 31, 2010|By Alice Fordham, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Baghdad — A propaganda pamphlet written by Saddam Hussein's uncle and published in 1981 summed up the dictator's attitude toward Jews: It's titled "Three Whom God Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews and Flies."

Under Hussein, the anti-Semitic Iraqi regime confiscated property and imprisoned and attacked Jews, all but eliminating the remains of what was once a thriving community.

Thousands fled, mostly to Israel and the United States, leaving Baghdad's Jewish quarter nearly empty, its masonry crumbling and its Stars of David dimmed by dust and time. Today, fewer than 10 Jews remain, and they keep a low profile, refusing to meet with outsiders.

But now a trove of rare Jewish books has ignited a battle between Iraqis who want to claim Judaism as part of Iraq's history and members of the Iraqi Diaspora who balk at entrusting their heritage to a country still more at war than at peace and where hostility to Jews remains widespread.

In the wake of the 2003 invasion, U.S. forces found a collection of confiscated antique Torahs, rabbinical Bibles and other documents in Baghdad. American authorities shipped them to Washington, where they remain.

Saad Eskander, the director of Iraq's National Library and Archive, says the collection belongs in Iraq. He said he was negotiating with the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, but if those talks failed, he would probably work with international organizations to take the case to U.S. courts.

"Jews are Iraq's oldest community. They are a significant part of the history of establishing Iraq," said Eskander, who helped rebuild the National Library after it was reduced to rubble by fighting and looting.

Jewish groups in America and Israel, however, have raised concerns about the safety of the collection if it were returned to Iraq.

"We fear the documents might be lost forever to Iraqi Jews," said Eric Fusfield of the B'nai B'rith international Jewish organization, which wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton this year calling for an immediate bar on the return of the documents.

"The Iraqi government should be commended for trying to preserve the Jewish legacy … but these are Jewish communal properties first and foremost."

State Department officials in Baghdad declined to comment beyond saying that negotiations were ongoing and that they hoped for resolution soon.

The collection was found soaking in dirty water in the basement of an abandoned Iraqi intelligence building shortly after U.S.-led forces blazed into Baghdad and toppled Hussein.

With logistical help from Iraqi exiles and then-ally Ahmad Chalabi, U.S. troops fished out the books and papers. Photos taken at the time show handwritten Hebrew texts spread out on the lawn outside the office, drying in the Baghdad heat.

A team from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration was dispatched to Baghdad, and the papers were put in 27 metal trunks in a refrigerated truck to stop the spread of mold. The military flew them to the U.S., where the fragile papers were freeze-dried at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A deal was struck between Iraqi authorities and the State Department that the collection would be shipped back in two years. In 2005, as sectarian violence escalated, that deadline was extended for another two years, then allowed to lapse.

"We at the National Library raised the alarm and demanded their return to Iraq. They are Iraqi cultural property," said Eskander, who traveled to Washington this year to negotiate with the State Department and meet with representatives of the large Iraqi Jewish Diaspora.

Although he insists that he would digitize the collection, make it available online and add other important Iraqi Jewish works to it, some in the Diaspora remain skeptical of the books' long-term safety.

Shmuel Moreh, a professor of Arabic literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, left Iraq in 1951, along with hundreds of thousands of Jews who were victimized in the wake of the creation of Israel. He believes that all Jewish documents from Iraq are vital, and would like to see them in Israel.

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

Although he felt that the Iraqi government had every right to claim the documents as their own and said he would be happy to work with good copies of the documents, he expressed doubt that Iraq had the skills to read the rare Judeo-Arabic scripts or the facilities to conserve the archive.

The collection, now kept in cold storage, would be subject to Iraq's flickering electricity supplies and to the still-considerable risk of bombs, thieves and institutional disarray.

A trip to the Babylonian section of a museum in Berlin, filled with archaeological treasures taken in the 19th century from what is now Iraq, had made Moreh believe the documents would be safer elsewhere.

He was accompanied by a group of Iraqi academics who admired the magnificent winged bull sculptures of the early Assyrian civilization displayed in the museum. Had they remained in Iraq, they would probably have been pocked with bullets or stolen, he said.

Moreh said: "Even these educated people said, 'What luck that the Germans took all this and kept it in such a way. They saved my civilization.'"

Fordham is a special correspondent.

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