Torah scroll held captive by Iraqi secret police restored for use in Foreign Ministry

“The story of this Torah scroll embodies Jewish fate more than any story,” FM Liberman says.

Antique Iraqi Torah scroll  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Antique Iraqi Torah scroll
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A Torah scroll written some 150 to 200 years ago in Iraq but which fell captive to the Iraqi secret police has been restored to its former glory and was recently inaugurated in an official ceremony at the synagogue of the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.
Buffeted around Mesopotamia for the last few decades, the scroll found its way to Israel and is now being used for the first time in dozens of years in prayer services as was originally intended.
The exact story behind the Torah scroll and how it made its way to Israel remains, to some extent, shrouded in a diplomatic and political fog, but the basics of the account are now known.
The Torah scroll is believed to be originally from the region of Kurdistan, now in northern Iraq. It was most likely used in prayer services for many years until the Jewish community was subjected to persecution and discrimination following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
Following Israeli independence, harsh restrictions were imposed by the Iraqi government on Jewish employment and trade, which, along with violent anti-Jewish riots, led tens of thousands of Jews to flee the country, starting in earnest in 1949.
By 1951, some 121,000 had left, with just 15,000 remaining.
In addition to the restrictions and persecution, the Iraqi government also banned Jews from taking their property with them and seized assets from those who left.
Among these confiscated goods were dozens of Torah scrolls and other items from synagogues that eventually made their way to various museums and archives.
With the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, a period of anarchy took hold in the country and, before order could be restored to the conflict- torn nation, numerous museums were raided by looters and thousands of historical and archeological artifacts were plundered.
It is unclear how the Torah scroll obtained by the Foreign Ministry exited Iraq, but in around 2006 or 2007 it ended up in the hands of the Israeli Embassy in Jordan. There it remained for another five years until the outbreak of the spate of revolutions and civil wars in Arab countries that began at the end of 2010.
In September 2011, the Israeli Embassy in Cairo was attacked by a huge mob and the Foreign Ministry decided to remove all extraneous items from its embassy in Amman in case of similar incidents. Among those items was the Iraqi Torah scroll, which was brought to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem and left there until preliminary steps were taken to assess the state of the scroll and the possibility of restoring it.
Amnon Israel, the new manager of storage and supplies for the ministry, noticed the scroll in a storage room on his first day in his new job in November 2013.
He realized the scroll was in poor condition and sought to find out how much a restoration job would cost.
Israel eventually was put in contact with Akiva Garber, a Torah scribe whose company, The Jerusalem Scribe, specializes in restoring damaged Torah scrolls, and is among the leading experts on such work in Israel.
Garber and another of his scribes were invited to view the scroll in the ministry and upon seeing it immediately identified it as having come from Iraq by certain characteristics of the scroll and the way it was produced.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Garber said the Torah scroll had been in poor condition, with tears in parts of the vellum parchment that was used to make it; mold degrading the scroll; damaged letters; and other problems that invalidated it for use in formal prayer services.
In total, it took Garber and his team of two other scribes approximately six months and hundreds of hours to repair, restore and clean the scroll to make it fit for use.
During the restoration process, Garber also noticed a round stamp on the back of a section of the scroll, which later was identified as being the seal of the Iraqi secret police, testifying to its confiscation by Iraqi authorities.
“A Torah scroll which is ritually unusable is like someone who is sick, and it’s very satisfying and a great pleasure to take something like this, which had been for used for decades as a vehicle for prayer and learning, and restore it so it can be used once again for the purpose for which it was originally made,” Garber said.
“This scroll, in particular, suffered the vicissitudes of its journey, and was lying for decades in the vaults of the secret police most probably, but is now being read and used in a synagogue here in Israel,” he said.
Once the scroll itself was restored, a suitable case had to be found for it, and Israel was directed to several Torah cases that had made their way to the Prime Minister’s Office. Israel chose a case that originally had been in the possession of the Jewish community of Aleppo in Syria and was itself over 100 years old.
This, too, required restoration work and when that was completed, preparations were made to inaugurate the Torah scroll at the Foreign Ministry synagogue, which previously had not had a scroll.
The ceremony took place last Thursday in the presence of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and between 200 and 300 ministry employees.
“The story of this Torah scroll embodies Jewish fate more than any story,” Liberman said. “Over some 200 years it wandered from Kurdistan to the archives of the Iraqi secret police, and to Jordan, until it reached here. Like the Jewish people, it has taken root again once again in Israel through faith and strength.”
Israel, himself of Iraqi origin from a family that came from northern Iraq, said he was thrilled to have played a part in bringing about the restoration of the Torah scroll.
His paternal grandfather was a mayor of the town of Dohuk, close to the border with Turkey.
His family, including his father, seven siblings and two grandparents, left Iraq in 1951 and had to leave all their possessions and property behind.
Israel said his father, who was 22 when he left Iraq and is now 86, was moved to tears by the ceremony.
“Perhaps my own grandfather once touched and read from this Torah scroll,” Israel told the Post. “Somehow the merit to help bring about the restoration of the scroll fell to me. The story of Kurdish Jewry has not really been told, but here we have a tangible part of our history back in our hands and it is uplifting to have been part of this process.”