Harold Rhode wading in waist-high water to inspect documents and books found in the Baghdad secret police HQ in 2003.
Point of No Return Exclusive
Harold Rhode believes in miracles.
An orthodox Jew, one of the Pentagon’s now-retired Islamic experts, Rhode is a self-confessed rationalist (like his Lithuanian-Jewish ancestors). However, he sees a divine hand in the discovery and recovery of thousands of Jewish books and documents from the putrid, water-logged basement of Saddam Hussein’s secret police headquarters in Baghdad 10 years ago.
The rest is history: the trove, a unique record of the life and times of a now-extinct Jewish community, airlifted to Israel in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah in the 1950s, was rescued, shipped out to the US for restoration, painstakingly preserved, catalogued and photographed in a second ‘Operation and Nehemiah’. Its highlights are now on display at the National Archivesbuilding in Washington DC.
Miracle One: When the US began its invasion of Iraq in 2003, a 2,000- pound bomb was dropped on the secret police headquarters. Miraculously, the bomb failed to explode, although the water system burst, causing the basement, which housed the Jewish and Israeli sections, to flood.
Miracle Two: As he began to sift through the trove, Rhode found a Torah scroll opened at Lekh Lekha, the passage in the Jewish Bible where God commands Abraham to leave Mesopotamia and journey to a land which He would show him. For Rhode, the symbolism was inescapable. (Minor miracle: the documents were laid out on the grass beside a row of beehives, but none of the rescuers was stung. )
Miracle Three: the trove was packed in aluminium crates, loaded onto a US airforce airplane bound for the National Archives conservation depot in Texas and frozen, to arrest the documents’ deterioration. On a refuelling stop in Cyprus, the electricity was routinely switched off for safety reasons. The archivist accompanying the trove requested that the plane be supplied with ground power to prevent the documents from thawing. Her request was refused.
She demanded to see the base commander. By another miracle, the commander appeared, wearing a kippa. What are the chances of a US airforce base being run by an observant Jew – one who would understand the importance of salvaging the Iraqi-Jewish archive? The commander gave orders to supply the power.
The greatest miracle of all – some would call it a coincidence – is that the documents would never have been retrieved from Baghdad had Harold Rhode himself, a fluent Hebrew and Arabic speaker, not recognised their importance. Their value lies not so much in the books, most of which are ‘two-a-penny’, as Rhode puts it, but in the handwritten notes in the margin. These cast light on the way an entire community thought.
The US is now committed by a signed agreement to send the archive back to Iraq instead of restituting it to its Jewish owners in Israel and the West.
Handwritten document from the Iraqi-Jewish archive, now on view at the National Archives in Washington DC
What happens next to the Iraqi-Jewish archive? A tug-of-war for ownership between the government of Iraq and exiled Jews is being played out. This article in the December issue of Ami magazine by Machla Abramovitch suggests a softening on both sides: the Iraqi government may finally concede a long-term loan arrangement. (With thanks: Carole)
The scene at New Montefiore Cemetery in
West Babylon, New York on the wet and chilly afternoon of December 15 was
nothing less than surrealistic. Mingling sociably with over 100 Iraqi Jews who
had come from far and wide was Lukman Faily, Iraq’s new ambassador to the
United States, as well as dignitaries from the Iraqi Ministries of the Inte-
rior, Foreign Affairs and National Security Council who had flown in from
Baghdad for the occasion. Also attending was US State Department Director of
Near East and African Affairs Anthony Godfrey and Doris Hamburg, Director of
the National Archives and Records Administration preservation program (NARA).
They had come to bury close to 50 fragments of damaged Torah scrolls and
Megillos Esther that were beyond repair and had been part of the collection
that has come to be known as the Iraqi Jewish Archives.
Dr. Stanley Urman, executive vice president
of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC), was at the cemetery. “In the
midst of continuing controversy over ownership of the Iraqi Jewish Archives,”
said Urman, “it was quite startling to see them handling these Jewish
artifacts with respect, symbolically laying to rest the heritage of a now-defunct
Jewish community as Tehillim were being recited.”
The burial of the fragments was negotiated
by Maurice Shohet, president of the World Organization of Iraqi Jews (WOJI).
The day had been long in coming. It had taken close to five years of
negotiations for the Iraqi government, which claims patrimony over these sacred
fragments, to agree to bury them. The burial of the fragments was negotiated by Maurice
Shohet, president of the World Organization of Iraqi Jews (WOJI).
These, together with thousands of priceless
Jewish artifacts res- cued in 2003 from the flooded basement of Saddam
Hussein’s intelligence headquarters, had been brought out of Iraq only after an
agreement between NARA and Iraq’s interim government was signed, legally
binding the US to return the materials to Iraq by June 2014.
Once in the States, they were lovingly and
meticulously cleaned, repaired, conserved and digitized by NARA under the care
of Hamburg and Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, chief of the Document Conservation
Laboratory, at a cost to the State Department of about $3 million. The archives
are currently on exhibit in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC,
until January 5, 2014, when they are scheduled to be moved to New York.
This agreement, however, has ignited a
battle. Many Iraqi Jews have galvanized into action to fight the return to Iraq
of these priceless artifacts of their history. Citing security concerns that
would prevent him and fellow Iraqi Jewish expatriates from accessing these
materials should they return to Iraq, Edwin Shuker was just one of many who
publicly voiced his opposition. But Iraq was not prepared to listen.
“The Iraqi government will not give up any
part of these docu- ments. This is an Iraqi legacy owned by all the Iraqi
people and it belongs to all the generations, regardless of religious, ethnic
or sectarian affiliations,” declared Ali al-Moussawi on behalf of Iraqi Prime
Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
This position, though, wasn’t set in stone.
Reports had been floating that a separate delegation would soon arrive to
discuss a long-term loan of the archives to the US. Many hope this indicates
a shift towards a new and more accommodating Iraq. “This is a statement by the
government and people of Iraq that we are here to respect the heritage of the
Jews,” Faily said following the burial.
Whatever the motivation, the change didn’t
happen overnight. There had been indications for the past two weeks that both
the Iraqi government and the State Department, the two major players, were
beginning to soften their positions, and that the latter was prepared to
facilitate a compromise between Iraq and WOJI, the representative body of world
Iraqi Jewry. There is no question that Jewish advocacy played a key role in
sensitizing these players and the public at large to what many saw as an
injustice in returning Jewish property to the very country that had looted it.
Although the precise details of this
extended loan are yet to be negotiated and the proposal might not address the
matter of Jewish patrimony itself, activists like Urman see it as a small step
towards a positive resolution to a story that began unexpectedly a decade ago
under the strangest of circumstances.
Islamic affairs expert Dr. Harold Rhode
vividly recalls standing in front of the bombed-out Mukhabarat, Saddam
Hussein’s intelligence headquarters, staring into a gaping hole with a 2,000-
pound unexploded American bomb protruding from it. It was May 2003, and the
temperature in Baghdad hovered at around 120 degrees. Through the hole he could
see the basement of the building, which had flooded with dark, putrid water
after its pipes were destroyed. What he was now looking at, he was told, was a
room filled with Baghdadi Jewish artifacts and holy books immersed in slime
The day before, Ahmad Chalabi, head of the
opposition Iraqi National Congress, had been visited by a former Saddam
intelligence official currying favor who informed him of the existence of
this cache, which included a seventh-century Hebrew scroll on parchment that he
claimed to have hidden inside the build- ing himself. Intrigued, Chalabi
notified Rhode and Judith Miller, a former New York Times journalist who was
embedded with the Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, the American group searching
for weapons of mass destruction. Gazing into the abyss, they, along with New
York Sun reporter Adam Daifallah, members of the Iraqi National Congress and
the 16-member MET Alpha team, solemnly considered the daunting task before them.
According to Miller, the water level had
reached four feet, there were dead animals floating on the surface, the
stairwell leading down to the basement was littered with shards of glass and
fallen plaster, and a horrendous stench rose from the mess. How to find a
seventh-century Hebrew scroll amidst all this debris?
Girding themselves, Chief Warrant Officer
Richard “Monty” L. Gonzales and two of the MET Alpha soldiers plunged in. Even
though their job was to search for WMDs and not to retrieve reli- gious artifacts,
they had been asked to make an exception by their commander, Colonel Richard R.
McPhee, who was unwilling to leave this historic scroll behind. “They
went into the muck again and again to pull things out, with a bomb sitting
right there. It was an impressive effort,” Miller told Ami.
What they found astounded them. There was
an “Israel” room that included, among masses of other items, maps highlighting
terrorist strikes against Israel, a detailed model of the Knesset and other
Israeli government buildings, and satellite photos of Dimona, Israel’s nuclear
facility. There was also a sign in Arabic that read, “Who will send off the
40th missile?” (During the Persian Gulf War, a total of 39 missiles fell on
Equally disconcerting was the “Jew” room
across the sodden corridor, filled with thousands of books and artifacts that,
as would later be ascertained, had been indiscriminately looted by Saddam’s
thugs from Baghdad synagogues, Jewish community centers and schools. These
constituted what would come to be referred as the “Iraqi Jewish Archives.”
The collection consists of some 2,700 books
that correlate, ironically, with the 2,700 years of Babylonian Jewish
history. Among some of the rarest finds were a Chumash published in 1568 by
Giovanni di Gara, Abraham Brudo’s Birkat Avraham, published in 1696, a Babylonian
Talmud from 1793, and a Zohar from 1815, in addition to many fragments,
standard prayer books, Chumashim and commentaries. A manuscript has just come
to light that was identified as a missing piece of a Shabbos drashah given by
the illustrious halachic authority and kabbalist Chacham Yosef Chaim, known as
the Ben Ish Chai.
Jews from Arab lands are marginal to the debate about Israel, but there are several good reasons why they should be central – Lyn Julius argues at Limmud, the highlight of the UK Jewish cultural calendar. Op-Ed in Israel National News:
Limmud conference, one of the highlights of the UK Jewish cultural calendar,
is something between School and an academic Club Med. A cross-section
of British Jewry hurries past you on its way to lecture theaters and seminar
rooms offering ‘food for thought’ to suit every interest, age and
taste. Lunch in an improvised canteen is a democratic baked potato
dispensed by staff wearing surgical gloves, or a DIY sandwich and a
banana. One does not go to Limmud for the gastronomy.
On the day I
arrived, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis was about to make his much
hyped-appearance with a lecture on the weekly Parasha – Shemot.
with 24 other presenters scheduled alongside the Rabbi – addressing
such eclectic topics as ‘Are monks and nuns human?’ and ‘Lying beggars,
magical wives and other rabbinic stories’ – we were vying for the
attention of 2,500 Limmudniks.
While people queued up an hour in advance for a seat at the Mirvis talk, I wondered if I would be talking to myself.
Thankfully some 30 people did me the courtesy of turning up.
Rabbi Mirvis was drawing lessons of the Exodus from Egypt, my talk
addressed a modern-day Exodus – Jews from Arab lands. More
specifically, my topic was ‘How Jews from Arab lands can reframe the
The 870,000 Jewish refugees dispossessed and
driven out from Arab lands in a single generation have for too long been
marginal to a debate fixated with settlements and security guarantees.
Yet, I argued, the Jewish refugees are key – not just because they are
an unresolved human rights issue, but because they are central to a fair and just peace settlement.
real stumbling block to peace is not to do with territorial compromise –
but the Right of Return, a right that Palestinians cling to like a
baby to its mother. A peace agreement would recognize that there was a
permanent exchange of populations. The Jewish refugees were successfully
absorbed in Israeli society and constitute a model for the resettlement
of Palestinian refugees in a state of Palestine or Arab states. Time
for UNWRA, an exclusive agency dedicated to the care of Palestinian
refugees, to be wound up.
Next I argued that Israel was a
response, not the cause of anti-Semitism in the Arab world. Proof
positive was a plan by the Arab League drafted in 1947 to persecute
their Jewish citizens.
One young man was skeptical. Was this plan not a response to Zionism in general?
told him that many other examples of anti-Semitism predated the
creation of Israel, inspired by the growing influence of Nazism in the
1930s and 40s – the Iraqi Farhud, for instance, which claimed the lives
of 180 Iraqi Jews. Rising religious fundamentalism and pan-Arab
nationalism impacted not just on Jews, but on Copts, Kurds and
My final point was that the myth that Israel was a
‘white European colonial interloper’ needed to be turned on its head.
Like Kurds, Berbers and Copts, Jews were an indigenous people of the
Middle East – and themselves the victims of Arab colonization after the
7th century conquest. Along with Christians, they were forced to submit
as ‘dhimmis’. In order to escape their inferior and humiliated status,
Jews collaborated with European colonialism. The creation of Israel
marked the final deliverance of Jews in Arab lands from ‘dhimmi’ status.
audience was curious to find out why the Israeli government had for so
long ignored the Jews from Arab lands issue. This question often comes
up. The Israeli government was waking up from its long slumber with an
awareness-raising campaign at the UN. But it was not enough, as long as
chief negotiator Tzipi Livni refused to believe that Jewish refugees had
anything to do with Palestinian refugees. Did she know that the Arab
League had designated Jews in Arab states as ’the Jewish minority of
Palestine’; that the Mufti of Jerusalem had gone from state to state
whipping up anti-Jewish hatred?
I had been bracing myself for a
question on the discrimination experienced by Mizrahi Jews at the hands
of the Ashkenazim. Sure enough it came. Social discrimination
was diminishing, with intermarriage rates running at 25 percent, I
replied. A more serious form of discrimination is the attitude of many
Israeli liberals who privilege Arab rights over those of the 52 percent
of Israeli Jews who descend from Arab lands.
One of them is even conducting peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
A new Memorial Day in the Israeli calendar is about to be officially announced – the 17 th February – to Remember Jewish Refugees from Arab countries. Just as it has Holocaust Memorial Day and Independence Day, the Israeli calendar will have a Day to Remember Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Michelle Huberman writes in Jewish News (no link yet):
A bill is going through the Knesset to make the Day law. This date has been chosen because it is the day when the Arab League drafted a plan to strip their Jews of their citizenship, freeze their bank accounts and confiscate their assets.
Nearly one million Jews were expelled from Arab countries. Most went to Israel where until the large Russian Aliyah in the 90’s, they made up 75% of the Jewish population. The rest went mostly to France, Italy, the Americas and the UK.
Although there are no official statistics here, the UK community is believed to be around 25,000 and growing.
Despite the lack of money and resources in the early years, Israel made great efforts to absorb these immigrants, and despite the many problems of poverty and discrimination that they faced, the country was able to successfully absorb most of them. The assets they left behind have been estimated at around $4.4 billion.
There has been an enormous gap in the Jewish education system and as Moroccan born MK Shimon Ohayon (a former schoolmaster), states “Every Israeli child learns about the Kishinev pogrom, but has anyone heard about the Farhud in Iraq? Everyone remembers the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but hardly anyone knows about the Zionist underground activity in Arab states. The education system teaches about the first exodus from Europe, while the second exodus – the one from Islamic countries – is missing from textbooks.
“Whilst the predominantly Ashkenazi community in this country may have embraced Sephardi and Mizrahi cuisine, most are unaware of the persecution most of these Jews fled from, and know little about why they came to settle in Britain.
Most are curious to know why I, as an Ashkenazi, am busy promoting Sephardi history, but I strongly believe that what happened to Jews in Arab countries is as much our history as is the Holocaust. One cannot begin to understand the complexities of Israel and the Middle East without knowing how the Jews were treated by their Arab brethren.
There is a belief that everything was wonderful between Jews and Arabs until the State of Israel was born in 1948. However listening to the testimonies from these communities one soon grasps that this is a complete myth.
In Iraq Jews were being executed for being ‘Zionists’. They could be arrested for having Hebrew books in their homes. Jews could not work, travel and pursue higher education. Above all, they feared a repeat of the 1941 Farhud pogrom, in which 180 Jews were murdered. In 1950, the Iraqi government finally consented to allow Jews to leave. Ninety percent did, but within a year their assets were seized.
Aden, a British protectorate at the tip of the Arabian peninsula, was ravaged by a pogrom in 1947 in which 82 Jews were killed and homes and businesses destroyed. British passport–holders sought sanctuary in this country. In 1956 they were joined by Egyptian Jews who were given 24 hours to leave their homes. For many, their first taste of Britain was a refugee camp in the north of England.
Other Jews arrived later from North Africa, Iraq, Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iran.
Until very recently, successive Israeli governments have been criticised by the Sephardim and their descendants for their near silence on the issue – but now thanks to groups like JJAC in America and Harif in the UK, things are about to change.
London based organisation Harif is dedicated to promoting the history, culture and heritage of the Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. We have a range of educational tools and hold regular events with guest speakers from here and abroad.
We will also be commemorating with a Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries Week.
It will be kicked off on the new Memorial Day – the 17th February – with a plush Soirée Orientale (kosher Sephardi party) in a central London hotel with guest stars from Israel Yossi Alfi and acclaimed singer Sari Alfi. The evening is not just to commemorate, but also to celebrate. It will be followed the next day with a Briefing forpoliticiansandjournalists and other events during the week. More details on the Harif website.
Michelle Huberman is the Creative Director of Harif and can be contacted at [email protected]
Woman at a Catholic church in Basra, Iraq (Photo: AP)
At least 38 people have died in bomb attacks in Christian areas of Baghdad, the Sydney Morning Herald reports. Soon there may not be any Christians left. The parallel with the plight of Iraq’s Jews is not lost on Monsignor Pios Cacha of St Joseph’s church, where 14 were killed. (With thanks: Maier)
A car bomb targeted a church in the Iraqi capital on Wednesday as
worshippers left after Christmas Mass, killing at least 14 people, most
of them Christians, security officials said.
The blast in the Dura area of south Baghdad also wounded more than 30 people, the sources said.
“The attack targeted the church, and most of the martyrs are
Christians,” a police colonel. “The attack happened when worshippers
were leaving the church” after a service.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.
“Attacks distort the image of Islam and religion, if they are
carrying them out in the name of religion,” Monsignor Pios Cacha of
Baghdad’s St. Joseph church said.
“The church is a place of love and peace, and not for wars,” Cacha said.
Earlier in the year, Cacha had said that “maybe we will
follow in the steps of our Jewish brothers,” referring to a
once-thriving community that is now practically non-existent.
Iraq has seen its Christian population sharply decline in the years since 2003.
This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.
Point of No Return
Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries
One-stop blog on the Middle East's forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.