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Iraqi Jewish Treasures Displayed in D.C. Before Being Shipped Back to … Iraq

In the chaos of the 2003 war, remnants of a once-thriving Jewish past were saved (or stolen?) by America. Where do they belong?

Lisa Leff
October 07, 2013
Left to right: Harold Rhode in the Mukhabarat basement; Torah scroll drying in a courtyard; 1918 letter from the British Military Governor’s Office in Baghdad to the Chief Rabbi regarding the allotment of 500 sheep for Rosh Hashanah.(National Archives)
Left to right: Harold Rhode in the Mukhabarat basement; Torah scroll drying in a courtyard; 1918 letter from the British Military Governor’s Office in Baghdad to the Chief Rabbi regarding the allotment of 500 sheep for Rosh Hashanah.(National Archives)

On Oct. 11, provided the government shutdown doesn’t interfere, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D.C., will open an exhibit titled “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage.” On display will be some of the rarest of the materials that were salvaged from the flooded basement of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s dreaded intelligence service. All told, the collection contains an estimated 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents that once belonged to the Jews of Baghdad, who, until they began to flee for Israel in the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, constituted one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, dating back more than 2,500 years.

The story of how these treasures of the Iraqi Jews were recovered from the basement of Saddam’s torturers is amazing enough to warrant space of its own within the exhibit. According to Harold Rhode, the Hebrew- and Arabic-speaking policy analyst then working with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, in May 2003, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress received a tip from a former intelligence officer that he passed on to a U.S. Army unit on the hunt for weapons of mass destruction. The soldiers took a detour to the basement and found the unexpected trove, submerged amidst the debris of the damaged building.

It was quickly apparent to Rhode, who had been brought along on the mission, that the items—many of which were badly damaged—included some very old sacred texts. Rhode, from the Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment, was in Baghdad working with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA); he is also an Orthodox Jew. Understanding the value of what he was seeing, he immediately deemed the collection worthy of a rescue effort. With Chalabi’s help, he had water pumped from the basement, acquired hard-to-find generators and metal lockers, and had the materials carefully carried from the basement.

Once the documents were removed from the Mukhabarat, Rhode began the process of stabilizing them, hoping to prevent further degradation, but the work was expensive. Initially, Chalabi personally loaned Rhode the necessary funds. When Rhode requested money to repay Chalabi, the CPA was unresponsive, so he found a private donor in New York. But he knew private efforts would not be enough to save the damaged documents. Through Natan Sharansky and Richard Perle, Rhode was able to get Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Richard Cheney involved; soon enough, Doris Hamburg, NARA’s director of Preservation Programs, and Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, NARA’s conservation chief, were brought in from Washington. They surmised that it would be all but impossible to restore the materials in Baghdad, with its hot, humid air, the limited access to electrical power, and of course, the questions of security. This was, after all, only a few short weeks after President George W. Bush had issued his famous “Mission Accomplished” speech, and the security situation remained extremely tenuous. With the agreement of the Iraqis, the collection was flown to the United States for restoration and eventual exhibition, on the condition that afterward, the Iraqi Jewish archive would be returned to Iraq.

Why did Chalabi, Cheney, and Rumsfeld act so immediately on behalf of the archive? In an interview, Rhode said that these political leaders just “did the right thing.” This is certainly true. It didn’t hurt, though, that saving the archive provided them with a bit of good press at a difficult moment. In mid-April 2003, just weeks before the Jewish archive was found, thousands of priceless ancient artifacts had been looted from the Iraq museum, and war planners were being castigated for their failure to protect Iraq’s cultural treasures from damage and loss. Former director of the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago Lawrence Rothfield has shown how deep this failure went in his 2009 book, The Rape of Mesopotamia. Unlike in World War II, where American Monuments Men were sent in with the troops to protect and recover Europe’s greatest works of art, in Iraq, home to some of civilization’s most ancient treasures, there was no plan at all for cultural protection or reconstruction. Given that Rhode was already well on the way to rescuing the collection on his own, why not “do the right thing,” especially if it might turn around public opinion?


In 2011, NARA finally received the $3 million it needed for the restoration and digitization of the archive. The staff, including three fellows from the Iraqi National Library, was busily getting ready for the exhibition’s Oct. 11 opening date. The materials to be included offer an amazing window into the Iraqi Jewish past. They included some very rare Jewish books: a 16th-century Hebrew Bible with commentaries; an 18th-century Babylonian Talmud; 48 Torah scroll fragments; a Zohar from 1815; a 1928 edition of Pirkei Avot with commentary in the Judeo-Arabic of Baghdad, published in Livorno; and a 5732 (1972-73) Hebrew- and Arabic-language Jewish calendar, one of the last produced in Baghdad. They also included all sorts of papers documenting Jewish life in 20th-century Baghdad: communal records, Jewish school records, applications for university admissions, business records, and even family photographs.

These materials have been called the “Iraqi Jewish archive,” but the name is somewhat misleading. An “archive” usually refers to a collection of papers that were saved, organized and made available for future use because of their historical importance. The Iraqi Jewish archive is more like what you might find in a Geniza, a repository in a synagogue or Jewish cemetery for Hebrew books that are no longer usable but cannot be thrown away because of their sacred character. These papers and books were left behind, probably in a Baghdad synagogue, by Jews as they fled Iraq; the majority—120,000—departed in 1950-51, in the mass migration called “Operation Ezra and Nehemiah,” which was facilitated by an Israeli airlift. The Iraqi state forbade Jewish emigrants to take much in the way of personal effects, let alone communal property. Rather than destroy the books and documents, emigrating Jews left them in the synagogue where they remained until they were seized by the Iraqi secret police in the 1980s. Two sets of hands thus put this collection together: Jews unable to bring them along on their journey from Iraq but unwilling to destroy them; and the regime that persecuted them, drove them out and, once they had gone, confiscated their property. (Why the regime didn’t destroy the papers is anybody’s guess. Of course, Saddam Hussein would not be the first dictator to seize the treasured books and papers of the Jews he persecuted, hoarding them away in a secret location long after their owners had fled.) Neither the Jews themselves nor the state that seized their books and papers ever expected they’d become an archive in the sense that scholars use the term.

And yet since its recovery, this unlikely archive has generated a great deal of excitement among those thirsty to use it like a traditional archive, that is, to learn more about the history of Iraqi Jews. The exhibit’s title captures the scholarly excitement that the archivists and other specialists feel about this “Discovery and Recovery.” What’s not in the title but will be visible everywhere in the exhibit is the loss and destruction that these things represent: the destruction of a thriving and ancient community due to anti-Jewish persecution; the loss of its cultural artifacts, seized by a dictatorship after most of its members had been forced to flee; the damage those books and papers suffered because of the flooding cause by an unexploded bomb dropped into the Mukhabarat by coalition forces in the 2003 war.

Yet in the eyes of the many Jews who have raised their voices in the press in Israel and the United States, another loss is soon to take place once the exhibition closes in 2014, when, in fulfillment of the 2003 agreement, the Iraqi Jewish archive will return to an Iraq that is no longer home to a Jewish community.


In this sense, the exhibit sidesteps the question that has made the Iraqi Jewish archive such a hot topic in the Jewish press for the last 10 years: Should the United States honor its agreement to return these things to Iraq, or should they instead be sent to Israel, where most Iraqi Jews fled and many of their descendants still live? While international law may be clear—belligerent troops may not cart away the cultural treasures of a conquered nation—for many Jews, the law doesn’t seem to serve justice in this particular case.

On one level, this is a question of access. If these materials return to Iraq, it’s hard to imagine that Israeli scholars will be able to travel to Iraq to consult them. But this is a practical problem, to which American authorities are offering a technical solution. As part of the restoration process, NARA’s staff will be carefully digitizing every book and every document in the collection that cannot be found elsewhere. NARA’s Doris Hamburg promises that the rare materials will be made available for free on NARA’s website, and they will be word-searchable, with annotations by experts. Ironically, the massive digitization project that is intended to accompany the return of Jewish cultural treasures to Iraq will make the archive more widely and easily available to Jewish scholars from around the world than it would have been if NARA had kept the collection in Washington. Astoundingly, much of the Iraqi Jewish archive—once-secret trove hidden away by a police state, unknown and far from the public’s reach—is about to become one of the most easily accessible collections of Jewish materials in the world.

But such technical solutions do little to address the sense among many Israelis and American Jews that to comply with the 2003 agreement and return the Iraqi Jewish archive to Iraq is just plain wrong. It is a curious aspect of modern life that archives, the ordinary bits of paper produced in the course of daily life, are often treasured as deeply as great works of art and religious objects. It was surely for their symbolic meaning more than any practical use that they were confiscated in the first place by Saddam’s secret police, which was determined to exercise its power over a terrorized population. It was also because of this powerful symbolism that Rhode, who helped discover the waterlogged books and papers in the Mukhabarat basement, went to such incredible lengths to salvage them and have them restored. As a religious Jew, Rhode has a view of the archive itself as being sacred because of the ritual sacredness of the Torah scrolls and other holy texts it contained.

Ten years after they were found, the symbolism of the collection is still strong. In Israel, Iraqi Jews and their descendants have built and maintain the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda, near Tel Aviv. In Israel, heritage centers such as this one help sub-ethnic groups remember their past and continue their distinctive identities as their descendants become more and more Israeli. Sending the collection there, as Rhode and others have called for, would certainly be a meaningful act—symbolically restoring a past to a community that has lost so much.

But the symbolism is no less meaningful for Saad Eskander, the head of the Iraqi National Library and Archives, who, since taking charge of the institution in the fall of 2003, has managed to get its damaged structure rebuilt and mobilize his staff to put its collections back in order. In 2010, when funding delays made it seem as though the Iraqi Jewish archive might be stuck in a kind of limbo, never to be fully restored, he met with U.S. officials to let them know how important the return of the collection was for the future of Iraq. Himself of Kurdish background, Eskander believes it essential for the Iraqi public to know that Jews are not a people foreign to Iraq. For Iraq to re-imagine itself as a place where people of different backgrounds can live together in peace, knowledge of the past is an essential tool.

In the face of loss, the desire to repair what is broken and to see justice done is a natural human desire. Jews feel it particularly strongly when it comes to the suffering of other Jews, even those who live far away, and especially when those Jews suffered merely on account of their Jewishness. It’s a solidarity borne of the knowledge that it could have happened to us. It’s out of that sense of solidarity that some Jews are going to continue to demand the “restitution” of these archives to Jewish hands. But it’s a different kind of solidarity, and a hope for a different kind of justice, that motivates those who seek its return to Iraq.


The archive will be on display in Washington, D.C., through January 2014.

Lisa Leff is Associate Professor of History at American University.

Lisa Leff is Associate Professor of History at American University.