Raiders of the lost archive

Don’t return the rescued written treasures of Iraqi Jews to Baghdad.

Carbombing attack in Iraq 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Carbombing attack in Iraq 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 community.
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.
The 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.
After 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.
The Iraqi 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 Baghdad.
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 archive.
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.
Thankfully my 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 nowhere.
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.
“Geniza” 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.
Discoveries of these magnitudes typically lead to questions regarding possession.
Who 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.
The American 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 catalogued.”
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 grandfather.
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 them.
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).