Archive is remnant of extinct community

The state of ruin of the Iraqi Jewish archive is an uncanny representation of  Iraqi Jewry. It all that remains of a community viciously hounded to extinction, argues Yair Rosenberg in the Tablet (with thanks: Jonah)

Jewish organizations, working with Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, have protested
this move, and asked Congress to intervene. Legislation calling for
renegotiating the archive’s return now has 10 co-sponsors in the Senate.
That resolution
has begun to receive some press attention, but its cause deserves more
than media coverage: it deserves public outrage. Simply put, the Iraqi
government has no just claim on these Jewish artifacts, which were
stolen from its Jewish community as they were persecuted to extinction
during the 20th century.

To understand how morally obtuse it would be to return the archive to
Iraq, a brief history lesson about its treatment of its Jews is in
order. This past Monday marked the 45th
anniversary of the public hanging of nine Jews in Baghdad on trumped up
charges of espionage. The event was essentially the epitaph for Iraq’s
once-proud Jewish community. The oldest diaspora Jewish community in the
world, Iraq’s had numbered 150,000 strong. But after decades of
persecution, it would largely be wiped out, with only a token handful
remaining. As a recent post at the Israeli National Archives recounts
in painful detail, this death spiral began in the years leading up to
Israel’s establishment, when Iraqi Jews became scapegoats for the Jewish
state’s independence, and the Iraqi military’s failure to prevent it:

The Iraqi government started to implement discriminatory
measures against Jews in accordance with a law drafted by the political
department of the Arab League. Jewish civil servants were fired, …Jewish
banks were not allowed to change foreign currency, and new and heavier
taxes were imposed on the Jews. Jews were not allowed to leave Iraq for
more than a year and those that left had their property confiscated and
their citizenship nullified. In September 1948, a rich Jewish
businessman, Shafiq Ades, was hanged under false accusations. The
persecutions caused many Jews to secretly cross the border to Iran and
from there escape to Israel. In December 1949, Tawfiq al-Suwaidi
replaced Nuri el Said as Prime Minister, and conditions became easier
for the Jews. After a secret negotiation with El-Suwaidi, Jews were
allowed to leave Iraq without hindrance, and 120,000 of the Jews in Iraq
chose to come on Aliyah to Israel in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.

Matters did not improve for the remnant that stayed behind, and
reached their nadir after the Six Day War in 1967, in which Israel
humiliated the combined militaries of its Arab neighbors, including

The Iraqis vented their frustration from the results of
the war on the Jews of Iraq: Their telephones were disconnected, Jews
were fired from their jobs, shops under Jewish ownership were closed,
and Jews were barred from traveling from one city to another. Leaving
Iraq, banned already before the war, was now impossible. The small
Jewish community lived in constant fear.

The post-Six Day War feeding frenzy culminated in the arrest and
public execution of nine innocent Iraqi Jews in 1969. Thousands of
onlookers danced in Baghdad’s central square while the bodies dangled in
the wind. Witnessing this lurid spectacle, Israeli Prime Minister Levi
Eshkol said,
“The hangings have illuminated the fate of the remnants of the
Babylonian Jewry with nightmarish light. The land of Iraq has become one
great prison for its Jewish remnants. Our brethren are prey to terror
in the hands of villains.” By the time America invaded Iraq in 2003,
less than a hundred Jews remained.

The Iraqi Jewish archive, in other words, is all that remains of a
community that was viciously hounded to extinction. The holy books and
other documents were found in a government building not because Saddam
Hussein was a closet Talmudist, but because they were either stolen from
or abandoned by their rightful owners. As New York Times critic Edward Rothstein put it, “the collection’s state of ruin is an uncanny representation of what happened to the Iraqi Jewish population itself.”

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