A tug-of-war is developing over the Iraq-Jewish archives, found in a sewage-filled basement in Baghdad and now being restored in the US. Iraq wants the archives back, but will not admit it stole them from their rightful owners. That, to Michelle Huberman in her Jerusalem Post blog ‘Clash of cultures’, is chutzpah:
Is there an Arabic translation for chutzpah? Because that’s the only word to describe the Iraqi government officials who have started a campaign to demand back the damaged Jewish books and other artifacts that were rescued from a sewage-filled Baghdad basement during the 2003 invasion. The items are currently in the National Archives and Records administration in Maryland, USA where $3 million has been allocated for their restoration. Full story here.
Deputy culture minister, Taher Naser al-Hmood is skeptical about their return, saying “We cannot trust the Americans. They have not fulfilled their previous promises.”
It is not enough that Iraq started its anti-Jewish legislation in 1933 and along the way murdered hundreds of Jews, injured masses more, stripped them of their citizenship and possessions and confiscated in excess of $20 billion dollars of assets from its Jewish citizens that were forced to flee. Now that it’s managed to drive out all but seven of their Jews (a community that numbered 150,000 pre-1948), it wants to pillage what remains of their heritage – documents, priceless Hebrew prayer books – some exceedingly rare – personal memorabilia and Torah scrolls.
These items were stolen by the Iraqi secret police when they raided Jewish homes and synagogues for ‘incriminating evidence,’ seeking to accuse Jews of being Zionists on the slightest pretext. The documents were seized and stored in the secret police headquarters: shortly afterwards, the community was forced to flee with only a single suitcase. They are testimony to a once vibrant Jewish community dating back to the 6th century BC, one of the largest in the Middle East and the oldest in the world. They range from a medieval Torah scroll to children’s Haggadot written in Arabic and Hebrew, and family photo albums.
Iraqi officials believe they should keep the Jewish archive because it is vital that Iraqis know their history and that they be made aware that Jews were once part of this country. Do they envisage opening a Jewish Museum where they can recount their shameful treatment of their Jews? Will they tell their people about The Farhud in 1941 when 137 Jews were murdered by riotous mobs and hundreds more injured? Or the episode in January 1969 when nine Jews were hanged in the center of Baghdad on trumped-up spying charges, while hundreds of thousands of Iraqis danced under the gallows? Or how Iraqi Jews were only permitted to leave Iraq provided they renounced their citizenship, not knowing they were also to sign away their properties and businesses?
Part One of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center’s TV production on the 1941 Farhud
Do they really imagine that the descendants of this dispersed community are going to come on vacation to Iraq to see the stolen inheritances of their families? If the Jewish archive returns to Iraq, will Jewish scholars be allowed access in a country both hostile and unsafe for Jews? Iraq has a shameful modern history towards its Jews, and has never offered any apology or compensation to its ex-citizens. It has a lot of soul searching to do before it grabs the last remnants of their Jewish heritage.
In my opinion, there really is only one place for these treasures, and that’s in Israel where 90 percent of Iraqi Jews and their descendants now live. The Iraqi government should be humbly offering them to the Jewish State that struggled in its infancy to absorb these and other refugees. Their descendants should know more about their rich heritage that has been so sadly overlooked in the Israeli education system. Whether they should be displayed at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Centre in Or-Yehuda or Beth Hatefutsot in Ramat Aviv is the only debate that should be happening around these important artifacts.