By the rivers of Babylon

By the rivers of Babylon

Exhibit in Manhattan sheds revealing light on Iraqi-Jewish history

A tik, or Torah scroll case, from Baghdad, 19th-20th century. 
A tik, or Torah scroll case, from Baghdad, 19th-20th century. 

On May 6, 2003, 16 American soldiers who were part of a team assigned to search for nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons entered Saddam Hussein’s flooded intelligence headquarters and made an unlikely discovery. 

They found over 2,700 books and thousands of documents belonging to members of Iraq’s Jewish community.

Dating from the mid-16th century to the 1970s, the irreplaceable documents were wet, and mold was beginning to set in. 

But thanks to the restoration efforts of the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC, the items not only were preserved but are now on display at an exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan. 

“Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage” offers a glimpse of the life of a community whose history dates back to the Babylonian era; the exhibit, which opened Feb. 4, will be on display through May 18.

The recovery and exhibit have also sparked top-level diplomatic negotiations over ownership of the material and whether the items belong back in Iraq or with guardians of the Iraqi-Jewish diaspora.

“Our position is there is no justification or any logic to sending these archives back to Iraq, a place that has virtually no Jews left,” said Stanley Urman of West Orange, executive vice president of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, which advocates for former Jewish residents of those countries. “Every avenue is being explored to ensure that the archives are being returned to their rightful Jewish owners,” in this case the World Organization of Jews from Iraq. 

The exhibit features 24 recovered items of Iraqi-Jewish history as well as photos and a video describing their preservation. Because the materials were waterlogged and moldy, the Coalition Provisional Authority — the transitional government that was established following the invasion of Iraq by the United States and its allies — contacted conservation experts at the National Archives, who arrived in Baghdad to assess the damage. With the agreement of Iraqi representatives, the materials, which had originally come from synagogues and local Jewish organizations, were shipped to the United States for preservation and digitization by the Archives, whose curators created the exhibit with support from the State Department.

The full collection includes more than 2,700 books and thousands of documents in Hebrew, Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, and English dating from 1540 to the 1970s.

The more recent story of the Iraqi-Jewish community, which itself dates back 2,600 years to the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE, is told in part through items on display at the exhibit. They include a Hebrew Bible from 1568, a fragment of a Torah scroll from the Book of Genesis, a Babylonian Talmud from 1793, and an official letter from 1918 from the British military governor to the chief rabbi concerning the community’s allotment of sheep for Rosh Hashana.

Other items include Hebrew primers, a Haggada from 1902 decorated by a Jewish student, and a lunar calendar in both Hebrew and Arabic from the Jewish year 5732. Student transcripts from Jewish schools in Baghdad include individual photos and a letter to the College Entrance Examination Board in Princeton regarding a prospective student’s SAT scores.

Many Iraqi Jews fled the country in the 1950s following the creation of the State of Israel and the stripping of their citizenship and assets; only a handful are left in Iraq today.

Whose archive is it?

While a full record of the exhibit is available on-line, the materials themselves are slated to return to Iraq sometime this year, according to an original agreement in 2003 between NARA and the Coalition Provisional Authority. 

Lukman Faily, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, made the case for their return during the Feb. 3 opening of the New York museum exhibit. “Jews have lived in Iraq for thousands of years,” Faily said. “As with every other community in Iraq, they played a crucial role in building our country and contributing to our culture. For us as Iraqis, it is important to recover this precious piece of our cultural heritage that documents an era of our country’s history.” Faily himself participated in a burial ceremony of 49 damaged Torah scroll fragments in a Long Island cemetery last December and also attended the exhibit’s opening ceremony in October at the National Archives.

But the organized American-Jewish community has its own take on the issue.

A Nov. 13 letter from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations signed by 42 Jewish organizations, including JJAC, was sent to Secretary of State John Kerry, calling it “inappropriate to return the Iraqi Jewish Archives to Iraq next year.” The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), also unanimously passed Resolution #333, which recommends a renegotiation of terms of the archives’ return and calls for them to be “housed in a location that is accessible to scholars and to Iraqi Jews and their descendants who have a personal interest in it.” 

And on March 6, 18 members of Congress introduced House Resolution 505, strongly recommending the United States renegotiate the return of the Iraqi-Jewish archive to Iraq. 

“The United States remains committed to returning the collection to Iraq in accordance with the 2003 agreement, but we also understand the sensitivities surrounding these items,” Michael Lavallee, a State Department spokesperson, told NJ Jewish News. “We are in discussions with the government of Iraq to find a creative approach for continued access and sharing of these documents and materials between the Government of Iraq and the Iraqi Jewish community.”

“Everyone’s trying to avoid a confrontation,” said Urman. “I think there is a willingness on all sides to explore ways in which a satisfactory resolution to the current solution may be found.”

But complicating any progress in the negotiations is the fact that Iraq will hold parliamentary elections April 30, and the position any new government may have regarding the archives’ ultimate fate is of course unknown.

For those like Urman, the status of the Iraqi archives symbolizes a larger issue; they serve, he said, as a “precedent for the issue of displaced Jewish property” in other countries. “We’re exploring all options to make sure the archives are returned to their rightful Jewish owners.”

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