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Toomey: Jewish artifacts from Iraq should remain in US

August 12, 2018
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Pictured is the oldest publication discovered in the Iraqi Jewish Archive, a collection of Bible books published in Venice in 1568.

Thousands of irreplaceable books and records documenting Judaism’s history in Iraq survived destruction at least three times before they reached the United States in two dozen refrigerated trunks 15 years ago.

The collection avoided obliteration when an American bomb failed to explode after landing near it in the basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters in May 2003.

The bomb burst pipes, covering the collection in several feet of water, but an Iraqi man alerted Americans to its presence before the papers dissolved.

Then Harold Rhode, a Pentagon policy analyst, kept mold from consuming the papers by drying them in a nearby courtyard and coordinating their shipment to Texas, where they were freeze-dried before a years-long restoration.

The collection, known as the Iraqi Jewish Archive, is scheduled to be returned to Iraqi next month. If that happens, experts fear neglect could pose a new threat to the sensitive materials.

“I really don’t think they’ll be safe in Iraq,” said Carole Basri, an attorney and documentary filmmaker who has deeply researched the archive and Iraq’s Jewish history.

Heading an effort to postpone the archive’s return is U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, the prime sponsor of a resolution urging the U.S. State Department to renegotiate the return.

“My concern is Iraq is really no longer a good place to store this Jewish historical treasure since there are no Jews to safeguard it, to see it, to care for this treasure,” Toomey told the Tribune-Review.

Included in the archive is a 400-year-old Hebrew Bible, a German rabbi’s sermons from 1692, a 200-year-old Talmud and thousands of other books printed in Italy, Jerusalem, Turkey and Lithuania. Among the books are the writings of the famous late 19th-century Baghdadi interpreter of Jewish law Rabbi Yosef Hayyim, who is often referred to by the name of his most famous work, the Ben Ish Hai.

New publications of the Ben Ish Hai’s work stand to influence how Jews interpret law today, said Rabbi Raymond Sultan, director of Sephardic Heritage Museum, which is about to publish a third book of the Ben Ish Hai’s work from the archive.

“There is a lot of stuff people will definitely use to formulate law,” Sultan said.

Also included are school and financial records, lists of residents, university applications and other community records that document Jewish life in Iraq from the 1920s through 1953.

Toomey’s resolution, cosponsored by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, cites the Iraq government’s anti-Semitic policies from the 1930s onward -- including making Zionism punishable by death and confiscating Jewish artifacts -- to make a case against returning the archive.

Before 1950, more than 125,000 Jews lived in Iraq, mostly around the cities of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul, according to a peer-reviewed article Basri published in 2003 in Fordham International Law Journal. Jews had lived in the region since 586 B.C., according to Basri’s research.

Nazi propaganda began to infiltrate the country in the 1930s, provoking scattered murders, executions and imprisonment for Jews through the 1940s. The Iraqi government created a program in 1950 for Jews to leave the countryvoluntarily and passed a law the next year depriving the emigrants of their property, according to the article.

About 120,000 Jews left, with most going to Israel. When they left, the government allowed them to take “three summer outfits; three winter outfits; one pair of shoes; one blanket; six pairs of underwear, socks and sheets; one wedding ring; one wristwatch; one thin bracelet” and a little money, according to Basri’s article.

They were not allowed to take religious or cultural artifacts, which stayed with the small Jewish community that remained in the country.

Much of the Iraqi Jewish Archive likely was stored in a synagogue in Baghdad until the early 1980s, when Hussein sent two trucks to carry away the materials, said Rhode, who cited people who said they had seen the trucks arrive.

Anti-semitism continued in the country. Now, according to Basri and Rhode, four known Jews remain in the Arab portion of Iraq (not counting Kurdistan).

At a cost of about $3 million, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration restored and digitized the archive, which has been displayed in a traveling exhibit around the country. It is on display in Dallas through Sept. 3.

An Iraq embassy spokesman declined to comment. Fareed Yasseen, Iraq’s ambassador to the U.S., told Jewish publication Forward last month that Iraq “cannot and will not relinquish ownership of the archive.”

The U.S. government drafted an agreement in 2003 with the Coalition Provisional Authority, a temporary government in Iraq, that outlined a process for restoring, exhibiting and returning the archive. It was signed by U.S. representatives but no one from Iraq.

Broader international law forbids countries from seizing cultural and patrimonial artifacts during war, but those in favor of keeping the archive out of Iraq say the law shouldn’t apply since the Iraqi government expropriated the materials from the Jews. As precedent, they cite the massive effort to return art to Jewish families that the Nazi German government stole from them.

“The government of Iraq, under Saddam, stole this stuff,” said Rhode, the former Pentagon analyst who helped save the archive. “So are we going to give the documents back to the thieves?”

Yasseen told Forward that his father and uncle helped defend a Jewish neighbor’s house during a 1941 pogrom in which about 180 Jews were killed. He said the archive could help Iraqis honor that part of their history.

Basri, Rhode and others have raised practical concerns about the archive’s return to Iraq, saying the country is keeping a collection of Torahs in poor condition in a damp basement.

The Senate resolution calls for the archive to be stored some place where Iraqi Jews and their descendants can view it. Rhode has suggested the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center outside Tel Aviv.

Toomey said he became interested in the archive after one of his staffers mentioned reading an article about it in 2014.

“I thought it would be a terrible, tragic loss if they were destroyed or damaged or lost, so it just struck me as a no-brainer that we should do something to preserve these important documents,” he said.

He introduced a resolution that year advocating for keeping the archive in the United States until now. That resolution passed unanimously.

The new resolution doesn’t advocate for a specific length of time for the archive to be kept. Toomey said he doesn’t have a position on how long it should be kept or whether it should be placed somewhere outside Iraq permanently.

“At a minimum, I think there should be another extension,” he said.

A State Department spokesperson confirmed the Department is negotiating an extension with the government of Iraq and other stakeholders.

Toomey’s resolution has been referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“If we passed it with a big vote in the Senate, it would send a message to the State Department that this is important to the Senate,” he said. “That we take this seriously, that safeguarding it matters.”

This story has been updated with the correct date of the article published in the Fordham International Law Journal.

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