Archive discoverer goes from elation to outrage

 “Like giving the personal effects of Jews back to Nazi Germany” – that’s how the man who discovered the cache of thousands of artefacts and documents in the basement of the Iraqi secret police HQ describes his outrage at the prospect of the archive being sent back. Profile of Harold Rhode in the Los Angeles Times, and link below to an interview this specialist in Turkish and Islamic history gave to the New English Review. (With thanks Tom and Eliyahu)

WASHINGTON — Harold Rhode
still recalls the euphoria he felt a decade ago after finding thousands
of dripping, moldy artifacts of Iraq’s once-vibrant Jewish community in
the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service
headquarters in Baghdad.

A copy of the Zohar found in the Iraqi-Jewish archive

Harold Rhode …outraged

Saddam Hussein had the trove seized from the Bataween synagogue. This 2013 photo shows that the synagogue has undergone renovation. (Photo: Maurice S)

  Recent photo of the Jewish cemetery in Baghdad, which seems reasonably well-maintained (Photo: Maurice S)

“How do you describe it?
An enormous elation, a deep connection, but also shock: Why would this
be here?” says the 64-year-old former Pentagon official, an Orthodox Jew
who discovered the purloined archive in the bombed-out building days
after he arrived in the Iraqi capital with the U.S. invasion force in
the spring of 2003.

People who saw him at the time recall that Rhode, a disheveled,
rotund scholar of Islamic history, was nearly overcome with emotion as
he rescued the waterlogged books, personal papers and sacred texts,
including a 400-year-old Hebrew Bible, all of which seemed to be a link
to the ancient — and mostly dispersed — Jewish population of
Mesopotamia.

But like the arc of the
U.S.-led war in Iraq, Rhode’s involvement with the Iraqi Jewish archives
has progressed from exhilaration to disillusionment and recrimination.

Since he arranged 10 years ago for the collection to be brought to
the United States in metal shipping containers, on which he had scrawled
“RHODE” and “TORAHS” in big letters, the books and documents have been
carefully cleaned of mold and grime, preserved and digitally
photographed by experts at the U.S. National Archives.

When summer comes, however, they are to be returned to the Iraqi
government, an ending that Rhode likens to giving the personal effects
of Jews killed in the Holocaust back to Germany.

Rhode has launched a campaign to halt the transfer, joined by a
growing number of American Jewish groups and members of Congress, who
argue that the materials belong to the Iraqi Jews they were taken from
and their descendants, not to Iraq’s government.

For years, intelligence operatives working for Hussein and his
predecessors apparently seized papers from synagogues and Jewish
families, in periodic crackdowns or before the families would be allowed
to emigrate.

Why the materials, most of which document relatively mundane
activities of Iraq’s Jewish communities, were kept for decades in the
security service headquarters is a mystery. Rhode attributes it partly
to Hussein’s mania for getting back at Israel.

“By Saddam taking this material, it was like he was personally
humiliating the Jews of the world and Israel,” Rhode says. “So now are
we going to return it to them?”

Iraqi officials say the current government has no connection to
abuses Jews suffered under Hussein. They say they want the materials
returned, as U.S. officials promised to do when they were taken out of
the country for preservation, in order to document the country’s rich
Jewish history. Several Iraqis are being trained by the National
Archives in proper handling of the materials, and U.S. officials say
Iraq has promised to carefully protect the archive and make it publicly
available.

But opposition in the U.S. to that effort has grown, due in no small part to Rhode’s efforts.

Although unfamiliar to most of the public, Rhode was an architect of
the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq from his desk at the Pentagon, where he
spent 27 years as an in-house expert on the Middle East. He became a
sounding board for top George W. Bush
administration officials and neoconservatives who argued that toppling
Hussein would transform the region in a manner that meshed with American
interests.

Assigned to work for the U.S. occupation authority, Rhode made his
way to Baghdad in the days after Hussein’s fall, in April 2003.
According to a lengthy written account he has posted online, Rhode
learned about the Jewish archive in the intelligence agency from Ahmad
Chalabi, the controversial Iraqi exile whom some in the Bush
administration wanted to install as Iraq’s new leader. He, in turn, had
heard about it from an Iraqi defector.

After enlisting a team of U.S. soldiers who were supposed to be
looking for weapons of mass destruction, Rhode went to the intelligence
headquarters to search.

“We went around to the building’s main entrance and descended only
halfway down a basement staircase, blocked by water which had risen
about halfway up,” he writes. “The WMD team then proceeded down the
hall, found the Jewish section, and carried out religious books and a tiq,” a box made of wood or metal that Jews in the Middle East and North Africa use to hold Torah scrolls.

With looters everywhere, Rhode said, he persuaded Chalabi to provide
small pumps to drain the water from the basement and hurriedly got money
from a Wall Street executive to pay Iraqis to carefully remove the
papers and lay them in the sunlight to dry.

Rhode’s efforts to get the Pentagon and the State Department
to help salvage the documents were ignored until he or intermediaries
reached out for help to top Bush administration officials, he says. At
his urging, Richard Perle, one of his former Pentagon bosses, called
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Rhode says. Rhode also asked Natan
Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and Israeli government minister,
to ask Vice President Dick Cheney to help the project.

A document released by Rumsfeld as part of his memoirs supports Rhode’s account.

“I am told somebody found a cache of documents in the headquarters of
the Iraqi Intelligence Secret Police in Baghdad … and that some portion
of them relate to the history of the Jewish community in Iraq,”
Rumsfeld wrote in a May 31, 2003, memo that went to all the top U.S. military and civilian officials in Iraq.

Read article in full

Harold Rhode interviewed in the English National Review (with thanks Eliyahu)

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