Iraqi Jewish archives remain in limbo

The soaking Jewish books and scrolls found by the US army in Baghdad in spring 2003 drying out in the sun(Photo: US National Archive)

The battle rages on for the Jewish archives found in a flooded Baghdad basement in 2003. Should they go back to Baghdad? Should they go to the Babylonian Heritage Centre at Or Yehuda in Israel? ( 90 percent of Iraqi Jews are now in Israel). Report by Alice Fordham of the Los Angeles Times (With thanks: Lily, Veronique and Sami):

(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.

Read article in full

Article in French (JSS blog)

More articles here here here here and here


  • Look who is talking propaganda. You don't seem to realise that the Mukhabarat STOLE Jewish property from private homes when they raided them and arrested Jews ! I don't care how secure the secret police building was – the secret police had committed robbery by seizing Jewish property from its rightful owners! This is quite different from national treasures stored in bank vaults being looted.

  • Here we go again you said it, they were in the basement of the Mukabart building.

    Let get things in order from inside Iraqi not someone who live far and reading things through the western propaganda trying hard to make false cases for what his hatful mind tell him about Iraq or Arab /Muslims.

    Mukhabart building well know that the site was very secure and none of the Iraqis can pass certain lines.

    As the war was close Iraqis was apply same measured to save its treasures and priceless artefact in places that fare from original sites.

    Part of that was those books includes that Talmud book the Israelis looted from Iraq after 2003, they were in secure places no doubt of that, but the war brook and the bombarded was massive specially Mukabarat building, so of course the water pipes and fire alarm system all broken which of course water went to the basement and all sink under the water, same thing was with Iraqi central bank building were the Nimrud Golden Treasures here &here were hided underground valuate boxes but even central bank building not survive from ugly war US bombardment targeted that building and ruined it, one can ask why central bank targeted an bombed?

    After that your poppets Ahmed Galabi was the first to control Mukabart building and secure all the assets, as your say that the regime was confiscated those item from Iraqi Jews and other things there is no evidences for these false claims, if you have proven evidences please presented to our readers here not just put words here and there trying to convincing reader its full truth.

    So looks here we go again with deaf and blind post and comments by someone lived outside don’t know Iraq but making stories with his or her an imaginable conspiracy theorist mind

  • It's a tough issue and the tussle you mention between those organisations is still going on. The problem in Egypt is that the state has forbidden Jews access to their communal documents – ketubot and other certificates. It's one thing for these records and artefacts to remain in the country – it's another to prevent people getting hold of them.

  • It is ironic that you have this article and the one about Carmen Weinstein back to back. In the 1990s, this very same issue was being played out on the internet about Egyptian Jerwish documents and assets, between a New York based organization of Jews from Egypt on one side, the Egyptian authorities and Carmen Weinstein on the other. She and the Egyptians authorities were arguing that the items should remain in Egypt where they belong. And look now. She is in and out of court, the synagogues are being bombed, etc.

    The Egyptians also had an old Maimonides manuscript that they were repairing. What has become of it?

    This is a case where every side has a legitimate point to make. Like the Cairo Geniza, these documents could possibly contain information about Arab-Muslim social history throughout the ages as well (if they come from a Geniza). On the other hands, only in Israel do they have the experts capable of deciphering the language and understanding the references.

  • In fact the newspaper caption was wrong. The Jewish artefacts were found in the flooded basement of the Mukhabarat HQ – they did not come from a museum. Before they were seized by the Iraqi secret police they belonged to individual Jews and synagogues.
    The looting of the Iraqi museum was a tragic but separate issue. As usual, you like to mix your issues up, Anon.

  • In matter of fact the loses of those Iraqi national Library is a big and very sad matter there were millions of very priceless historical books and document went missing or stolen and others where burned down.

    I don’t think any Iraqi citizen will do such ugly this to his treasures or history, only the mad will do this catastrophic matter.

    Anyway reading the post and the article after more than 7 years when all faded down now the reality is first should be blamed what went wrong from a to z on the invaders and occupier forces as they demolished a state and its infrastructures completely on claims of freedom and liberation or more accurate regime change. What 20 millions of Iraqi suffering and humiliated by this fake and big lies done by propagandist are truly make no doubt the distraction cannot be blamed on the victims here is the Iraqis.

    In regards to tyrant uncle he was the most hatful and naïve person by mainstream Iraq’s, so if things went wrong then the regime and his most influential figures should hold that not Iraqi as citizens.

    Same matter can be said for the Iraqi Museum and its contents when US tank broke the main gate and they US forces standing in front watching the gangs of looter (the manager of the Iraqi museum in his own words said the looting job done by professional gangs not normal pupils)

    In the end Israel got the most precious gift the Talmud the historical one which they somehow said they got it?

  • Just to correct the title of the photos that you put it in in your post:

    The soaking Jewish books and scrolls found by the US army in Baghdad in spring 2003 drying out in the sun (Photo: US National Archive)

    The original post from Loss Angeles Time read like this:

    Papers from the museum dry in the sun in spring 2003. (National Archives and Record / October 31, 2010)

    So it’s clearly an intentional job here.


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