In 2003, a team of 16 American soldiers in Baghdad stumbled upon a lost treasure
trove of thousands of documents belonging to Iraq’s Jewish
These rare materials, thought to have been stored originally
in synagogues and private Jewish homes, were sitting in a moldy, flooded
basement of the muhkabarat, Saddam Hussein’s feared secret police.
collection, now referred to as the “Iraqi Jewish archive,” contains “2,700
Jewish books and tens of thousands of documents in Hebrew, Arabic, Judeo-Arabic
and English, dating from 1540 to the 1970s,” including a 1568 Bible and several
Torah scrolls, according to the National Archives in Washington.
the initial 2003 discovery in Iraq, conservation teams from the National
Archives determined that Baghdad did not have the appropriate facilities for
preserving the documents, including temperature controls.
government thus permitted the Americans to take the collection to the US for
conservation work, but only on condition of the archive’s eventual return to
The current scheduled date of departure to Iraq is June 2014,
less than one year away.
The notion of permanently sending these
thousands of Jewish items to Iraq is absurd. Violence still abounds in Iraq;
there would be no proper accessibility to or preservation measures for the
I wonder if there are even interested audiences in Iraq or
proper frameworks for contextualization, considering that fewer than a dozen
Jews live in Iraq today, and Iraqis visiting the collection almost surely have
never met a Jewish person before.
The Iraqi Jewish archive’s discovery
resonates personally; my grandfather was born and raised in a Jewish family in
Baghdad. His family, along with the rest of Baghdad’s Jewish community, was
allowed to emigrate in the early 1950s in an Israeli airlift only if they
renounced their citizenships and their property assets.
grandfather was still able to complete his studies at the American University of
Beirut’s medical school; he became a pediatrician.
But my grandfather’s
passport, upon leaving Iraq, said that he was “stateless.” Meaning Iraq’s Jewish
community of 100,000-plus was essentially robbed of its major possessions and
its nationality. They left their country of origin belonging to
This remarkable recovery of Baghdad’s Jewish archive is not the
first time such a dramatic unearthing of Jewish materials in the Middle East and
Central Asia has occurred. The most wellknown example is the Cairo Geniza, a
collection of thousands of documentary fragments, many from the medieval period,
found in that city’s Ben Ezra Synagogue.
The Cairo Geniza was removed to
England en masse by scholar Solomon Schechter in the 1890s.
refers to a hidden repository where Jewish communities stored written materials,
from religious texts to private commercial and social papers such as handwritten
letters and legal contracts.
And just within the past few years, scholars
were stunned by discoveries of Jewish documents in Afghanistan dating from 1,000
years ago. This Afghanistan Geniza, rumored to number about 200 documents, was
already dispersed to antiquities dealers around the world by the time the press
heard about the trove.
The Israel Museum in Jerusalem is trying to
acquire the Afghan Geniza items, and as of this past January, it had
successfully purchased 29 documents from antiquities dealers.
of these magnitudes typically lead to questions regarding possession.
rightfully owns a cultural heritage? Baghdad argues that the Jewish archive
belongs to Iraq as a collection stored in the country. From that perspective,
the Americans, if they keep the collection, are the raiders, rather than the
saviors, of this lost archive.
However, for Iraqi Jews – the owners of
the archive’s materials, as well as the descendants of its original owners – the
Iraqi government is the true raider, the party that stole their citizenship,
their property assets and their written treasures.
government should not set a precedent where Jewish artifacts recovered from the
Middle East and Central Asia are sent back to war-torn countries, particularly
with the current turmoil following the Arab Spring. If we suddenly heard about
centuries- old Jewish documents found in Aleppo, and they were brought to
America for conservation, would the US seriously entertain the idea of returning
those precious materials to Syria? The Iraqi Jewish archive’s manuscripts,
documents and holy books, some from five centuries ago and some from just 50
years ago, belonged to real people. Jewish people.
They and their
relatives may still be alive to claim them.
The National Archives is now
displaying 24 of the Iraqi Jewish artifacts in its new exhibit, “Discovery and
Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” which opened earlier this month and
runs through January 5, 2014.
For those who cannot visit, the National
Archives explains that “a special website to launch this fall will make these
historic materials freely available to all online as they are digitized and
Ostensibly the digitization project is also supposed to
offer consolation to those angry and upset about the Jewish archive’s planned
removal to Iraq.
I’m deeply grateful to and wholeheartedly thank the
National Archives for saving the Iraqi Jewish archive.
It’s not enough,
however, to digitize the collection. A noble and essential goal, to be sure, but
frankly it’s insufficient when these hundredsof- years-old documents already
reside safely in the US.
What if this archive holds my
great-grandfather’s journal? What if those are my great-great-grandmother’s
letters that were rescued from ruin? Why won’t I ever be able to feel and touch
their own works? The entire collection must remain permanently in the United
States or Israel. A Jewish institution would be the most fitting, but not
strictly necessary. If the Iraqi Jewish materials can stay together in the
National Archives, for instance, I’d be thrilled.
I write this op-ed as a
concerned American woman with Ashkenazi and Sephardic heritage from Jewish
communities around the world. Our family escaped the pogroms in Russia-Poland at
the turn of the century, and they survived the 1941 pogrom in Baghdad, called
the Farhud, against its Jews.
I write this op-ed for my
I write this op-ed as a researcher of modern Jewish history
who understands firsthand the extreme difficulties of finding new primarysource
materials from the Middle East and Central Asia, let alone translating
The crucial goal is not to send this Jewish archive to live in
Iraq, where there’s no security or open access for all scholars, researchers and
global citizens. I write this oped as a descendant of a oncevibrant community
effectively expelled from Iraq, the country that still wants to keep Jewish
belongings, if not Jewish citizens.
The writer is the author of From
Kabul to Queens: The Jews of Afghanistan and Their Move to the United States
(Decalogue Books and the American Sephardi Federation).