‘Jews did not relinquish archive willingly’

The large aluminium trunks for storing the archive were supplied by ‘tipster’ Ahmed Chalabi

Must-read in PJMedia by Harold Rhode, who was in Baghdad in 2003 when the Jewish archive was found under several feet of water in Saddam’s secret police HQ basement.  The Jews of Baghdad did not relinquish the archive willingly: Rhode tells how it came there from the ladies’ gallery of the Bataween synagogue. It was a matter of Arab honour that Saddam ordered it to be seized in 1984, and as a matter of honour Iraq is insisting it be returned. (With thanks: Eliyahu)

Click here to sign the petition to stop the archive being transferred back to Iraq 

The next problem we faced was what to do with the material once we
got it out of the Mukhabarat building. Chalabi gave us 27 large aluminum
trunks and gave us space to dry out the material in the Orfali Art
Gallery courtyard, which was part of his INC’s headquarters. Since the
American bureaucracy did not want to participate in the rescue of the
Jewish archive, we needed advice on how to do so ourselves. Through
friends, we were put in touch with Jerusalem’s Hebrew University
document and book restoration section, whose director tried to give us
instructions by phone on how to handle the material. She told us we
needed low humidity — dry, air-conditioned rooms to help dry the
material out and to prevent mold. There was only sporadic electricity in
Baghdad at that time, and therefore no possibility of following her

We let the material dry out for a few hours in Baghdad’s humid air and hot sunlight.

We were forced to roll out on the ground the Torah and other holy
scrolls we had rescued —  something which is normally absolutely
prohibited in Jewish law — so that we could dry them out however
slightly, and then roll them back up and place them in the aluminum
trunks. Had we not rolled them out, they would have dried and hardened,
and therefore been forever unusable and destroyed.

When the books and documents were still damp but not yet dry, we put
them in the large aluminum trunks Chalabi’s people had found for us.
Despite our best intentions, these temporary solutions could not salvage
the material for the long run. But day after day, we and the Iraqi
workers went down into the Mukhabarat building’s basement, rescued
books, papers, and other materials, brought our load to the Orfali
courtyard some two miles away, and dried out the daily stash. This
process went on for about four weeks.

Every day, friends from around the world called to see how we were
doing. Some deserve special mention because their intervention and
assistance is the reason this material exists today.

Natan Sharansky, the ex-Soviet dissident and Israeli government
minister, called to see how things were developing. After hearing about
our predicament, he called Vice President Dick Cheney and asked if he
could intervene with the American authorities in Iraq to save the
materials. Richard Perle, the former assistant secretary of defense
under Ronald Reagan, and  my former boss and longtime friend, also
called us. After hearing our story, he called then Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld.  Both Cheney and Rumsfeld then brought this matter up
with the Coalition Provisional Authorities (CPA), who, after previously
refusing any assistance, went into action and took over the project.

Sharansky, Cheney, Perle, Rumsfeld, Ahmed Chalabi, and the members of
the WMD team who originally waded into the water and discovered the
initial material are the real heroes of this operation. It is largely
due to their intervention that the Iraqi Jewish archive exists today. 
Without their help, it is unlikely that any of this archive would have

As a result of their intervention, on June 5, 2003 — the second day
of Shavu’ot, when Jewish tradition teaches that Moses received the Ten
Commandments on Mt. Sinai — the American authorities, now fully engaged
in the rescue operation, brought in large pumps which very quickly
drained the entire area. The next day, the large amount of material
still left in the archives was put in the rest of the aluminum trunks
and then placed in a large refrigerated truck which kept the material as
protected as possible until the American archival restorers arrived and
took possession of the archive in June 2003.

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

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.

Strange as it might sound to Western ears, Saddam also thereby
demonstrated to other Middle Eastern leaders that he was in the vanguard
of protecting and regaining Arab honor, and was therefore more worthy
of Arab/Muslim leadership than were the others.

As for today’s Iraqi leaders, they too do not want to be humiliated,
and therefore cannot say that they are prepared to let the Jews or
Americans have this material.

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