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What Will Become of Iraqi Jewish Artifacts?

Operation Iraqi Freedom had many side stories, but one of the most important to historians and religious scholars was the discovery of a vast archive of Iraqi Jewish artifacts that had been seized and in some cases stolen from the Iraqi Jewish community by Saddam Hussein and kept off-limits in the basement of Iraq’s secret police headquarters. When U.S. forces bombed the mukhabarat building, the basement flooded, soaking and in some cases submerging centuries-old manuscripts and other objects. The New York Times adds some detail to the initial discovery.

The Washington Post also has described the treasure trove:

The material, found when U.S. troops invaded Iraq a decade ago, includes a 400-year-old Hebrew Bible and a 200-year-old Talmud from Vienna. There is a small, hand-inked 1902 Passover Haggada, a colorful 1930 prayer book in French and a beautifully printed collection of sermons by a rabbi made in Germany in 1692.

In 2003, the U.S. government transferred much of the material to the United States in order to restore and conserve it:

The Jewish cache was originally found by a group of U.S. troops from a “mobile exploitation team” assigned to search for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons… After the befouled water was removed from the Baghdad basement, Hamburg said, the items were placed outside to dry. They were then stored in 27 metal trunks for safekeeping. But “between the heat and humidity, everything became quite moldy,” Hamburg said. The trunks were turned over to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, which asked the National Archives for help. The Archives urged that the materials be frozen; they were placed in the freezer truck of a local businessman. In June 2003, Hamburg and her colleague Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, director of conservation for the Archives, flew to Baghdad to assess the situation. Hamburg said an arrangement was made with Iraqi representatives to bring the items to the United States for preservation and exhibition, after which they would be returned to Iraq.

The National Archives has posted before-and-after photos of some of the documents. After the exhibit closes on January 5, 2014, the material will be returned to Iraq. This has rightly caused some consternation and, indeed, outrage among Iraqi Jews, whom successive Iraqi regimes forced into exile, confiscating property and communal heritage. What for the Iraqi government may a question of sovereignty, Iraqi Jews see as a question of justice. The State Department, not surprisingly, sided with Baghdad. Perhaps had they tried harder, they could have threaded the needle and assuaged both parties. While Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government will honor its commitments to safeguard the trove, there is no guarantee once there is a transition of power. Shi’ite firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr would like nothing better than to build a bonfire to eradicate the last of Iraq’s Jewish heritage.

While a more progressive Iraqi government might require school children to tour the repository to gain a better understanding of Iraq’s true heritage, the chance of that happening in the coming years is miniscule. Iraq might see its possession of the Jewish archive as confirmation of its sovereignty, but it should also see it as an opportunity to rebrand Iraq abroad, perhaps by keeping the Jewish archive as a traveling exhibit into the next decade. It could attract thousands of people across Europe, Asia, and the United States who see Iraq only as a nation of conflict, and educate them about other faces of Iraq. Let us hope that Iraq’s victory will not be Pyrrhic, because if anything happens to this treasure trove, that will cap a legacy already hard to live down.



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