Jewish Immigrants from Iraq leaving Lod Airport in 1951
When we interviewed Dr. Harold Rhode, the savior of the Iraqi Jewish archives, he told the story of how he had found them in the water-logged basement of the late Saddam Hussein Mukhabarat in Baghdad in 2003 and arranged for recovery and restoration by the National Archives and Records Agency (NARA) in Washington, DC. In July 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority reached an agreement under international law with the Iraq interim government for return of the restored Jewish archives. We noted:
An agreement that is controversial as Rhode and others contend that the Hussein’s Mukhabarat stole the property from the Jewish community and that it rightfully should be returned to the Babylonian Jewish Heritage Center in Israel. The Iraqi government contends that the archives may contain important historical information of the origins of the country.
A report by JNS,org today brought a reprieve by the government of Iraq for exhibit of these Iraqi Jewish archives, “Iraqi Jewish Archive’s U.S. exhibition extended”.
The JNS.org article cited an exchange of letters by the Iraq Ambassador in Washington saying:
Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S. Lukman Faily said in a statement Wednesday that Iraq “has authorized me to extend the period which the exhibit may remain in the United States.” The exhibit “has led to an increase of understanding between Iraq and United States and a greater recognition of the diverse heritage of Iraq,” he said.
“We look forward to completing the technical aspects of this extension with the Government of the United States within the coming days. Items which were among the material brought to the United States that are not part of the exhibit will return to Iraq in the very near future, as originally agreed,” said Faily.
Following the close of the exhibit in early January 2014, of the archives at the NARA Lawrence F. O’Brien gallery in Washington, DC, it was sent to New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage for an exhibit.
The JNS.org report noted the comments of representatives of both the Orthodox Union and the American Jewish Committee regarding the ultimate status of the Iraqi Jewish Archives:
The Orthodox Union (OU) welcomed Faily’s announcement of the exhibit’s extension, but said its work on the issue of the archive’s final destination isn’t done.
“The historical and religious value of the Iraqi Jewish Archive materials compel us to ensure that the archive should remain in the United States where it will be easily accessible to all, particularly the Iraqi Jewish community now living in diaspora around the world,” said Nathan Diament, OU’s executive director for public policy. “We will continue to advocate for an appropriate long-term solution for these materials.”
Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s director of international Jewish affairs, said, “Extending the exhibit’s schedule and making it available to other American communities will benefit all who have interest in the history of Iraq’s Jews.”
Dr. Rhode in our NER interview expressed his views as to the ultimate disposition of these restored archives:
The American government considered the archives as property which belonged to Iraq and therefore the International law it has to be returned. However, this was really property stolen by the previous Iraqi governments from the Jews who fled the country, mostly in 1950-51.
The problem is most of this is private property. These were holy books that belonged to individuals. They never belonged to the Iraqi government. When, for example, Iraqi Jews had a Torah made, if you moved to another synagogue, the Torah moved with you. In 1950/51 when most of the Jews left they were not allowed to take this material with them. They were only allowed to take basically a suitcase of clothes, if that, and so the Jews were forced against their wishes to leave the material behind.
If this is private property it belongs to the Jews. If it can’t be identified then it becomes the property of the exiled Iraqi Jewish community. 85% of the exiled Iraqi Jews and their descendants live in Israel. As exiled Jews from the Muslim world they property was expropriated. They have no access to their material.
We had suggested that the Iraqi Jewish Archives should instead be transferred to the Babylonian Jewish Heritage Museum in Israel to be placed on permanent exhibit there. A significant portion of Iraqi Jews had settled in Israel after their expulsion from Iran in the early 1950’s.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.