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Iraqi Jewish archive: from 2003 to now, what’s happened

In May 2003, coalition forces took control of Baghdad. Days later, 16 soldiers stormed Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters. They were searching for clues as to Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. What they did not expect to find was a flooded basement full of over 2700 books and tens of thousands of looted documents, written records of Jewish life in Iraq seized by Iraqi intelligence agents. These records include letters, personal documents, and religious materials such as prayer books and Torah scrolls. They even include school materials and report cards from the Jewish schools in Iraq.

The Jewish people have a long history in Iraq. The Iraqi-Jewish community is among the oldest in the Middle East, dating back over 2500 years, predating the rise and expansion of Islam by over a thousand years. Throughout this time the Jews have contributed to the culture of the region and left their mark under a multitude of host empires.

With the discovery of the archives, the question on everyone’s mind was who gets to keep them? The United States agreed to take them in and preserve, archive, and showcase the objects, before returning them to the Iraqi government. They are currently set to be given to Iraq next September, 2018. However, this exchange poses a massive moral dilemma. Given the historical context of Jewish life in Iraq, and considering the modern situation in the region, the archives must not be given to Iraqi government.

To fully understand the situation, one must look at the recent history of Iraqi Jews. As late as the early 20th century, there were over 130,000 Jews in Iraq. As the Nazis rose to power in Germany and life for Jews living in Europe changed, so too did the lives of the Jews of Iraq. Iraqi nationalists began to promote pan-Arabism and Nazi propaganda, which the Germans were happy to provide. The Iraqi government that took power through a coup d’état in 1941 was a pro-Nazi regime, and as such persecuted the Jews horribly. Often called Iraq’s Kristallnacht, the Farhud pogrom occurred during the Jewish holiday of Shavuot and led to the murder of hundreds of Jews and the destruction of property. The pogrom was celebrated throughout the Arab world and in Germany.

Conditions became worse following the Arab-Israeli war. The Iraqi government adopted anti-Jewish laws similar to the ones that had been passed in Germany during the 1930s. Like in Nazi Germany, Jewish businesses were boycotted, property was confiscated, Hebrew was banned as a language, Jews were fired from their jobs, and influential members of the community were arrested, tortured, put into prison, and fined huge sums of money. The prime minister of Iraq, Nuri al-Said, was determined to get rid of the Jews.  “The Jews have always been a source of evil and harm to Iraq,” he said. “They are spies. They have sold their property in Iraq, they have no land among us that they can cultivate. How therefore can they live? What will they do if they stay in Iraq? No, no my friend, it is better for us to be rid of them as long as we are able to do so.”

In 1950, the Iraqi government passed a law allowing Jews to leave, as long as they left all of their wealth and property behind. Israel launched Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, named for the Jewish prophets who led the Jews of Babylon out of exile and back to Israel, to airlift them to Israel. The Iraqi government threatened concentration camps and forcible expulsion if Israel didn’t take all of its Jews. Over 120,000 Jews made the journey from 1951-1952. Moshe Sharett, former Israeli foreign minister, said that he “considers this act of robbery by force of law to be the continuation of the evil oppression which Iraq has always practiced against defenceless minorities…” The few Jews who stayed in Iraq suffered further persecutions and later emigrated. Today, there are virtually no Jews in Iraq.

A country that persecuted and ethnically cleansed one of its indigenous minorities should not get to hold their heritage hostage. The Iraqi government claims that Jews lived in Iraq and are part of its cultural heritage, thus it is important that the archives be returned to Iraq. If the archives are so important, then they should be able to explain why they were found in a flooded basement. The Iraqi government should be able to explain why hundreds of Torah scrolls were found in the Iraq National Museum, with their parchment chewed upon by rats. The Iraqi government should be able to explain why they have been destroying Jewish sites such as the Tomb of Ezra, replacing Hebrew writing with Quranic verses, and building mosques on top of them. If the Iraqi government claims to value Iraq’s Jewish culture so much, they would not claim Jewish sites while omitting all references to Jews ever being in Iraq.

Furthermore, the majority of Iraqi Jews, living in Israel and holding Israeli passports, are not allowed to travel to Iraq. Their archives wouldn’t even be accessible. Gina Waldman, President of JIMENA, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, has said that “there is no justification for sending the Jewish archives back to Iraq, a country that has virtually no Jews and no accessibility to Jewish scholars or the descendants of Iraqi Jews.” Maurice Shohet, President of the World Organization of Jews From Iraq, has echoed that sentiment, saying “every part of our history, our culture, our self-identity is there, and they should be returned to us.”

It is clear that, because of the destruction of many historical sites in Iraq caused in part by ISIS and sectarian conflicts, Iraq doesn’t have the resources to take care of the archives and isn’t a safe place for them. It is also morally wrong to “return” property to those who stole it in the first place. It appears as if, despite protests by the worldwide Jewish community and by members of Congress, the archives may be transferred to Iraq. Thinking more optimistically, there is a historical opportunity to be seized from this situation. Public opinion towards Jews and Israel has been shifting in Iraq, with some politicians calling for open relations. Iraq can show remorse for its actions and return the archives to their owners in Israel. The repatriation of the documents and artifacts will not heal the wounds of the refugees and their descendants, but can be seen as a first step towards repentance and establishing goodwill between the Jewish and Iraqi people.

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