Who owns the Jewish treasures that were hidden in Saddam Hussein’s basement?
In 2013, Maurice Shohet, an Iraqi Jew who now lives in Washington, D.C., received a surprising email from the National Archives. A librarian had recovered his elementary school record that was left behind nearly 40 years ago when he and his family fled Iraq. The record is part of a cache of thousands of personal documents and religious texts that were found at the start of the Iraq War, drowning in the cellar of a building run by one of the world’s most wanted men.
The Jews of Iraq are one of the oldest civilizations in the world. For more than 2,500 years, they called the land in the heart of the Fertile Crescent their home. It’s where they celebrated births and where they mourned deaths. It’s where they worked, studied and prayed. It’s where some of their most important holy writings originated.
By the time the Iraq War began in 2003, their numbers had dwindled to less than 50 people. Most had fled to escape anti-Semitic violence and persecution. They were forced to leave behind centuries worth of sacred and secular texts and artifacts. But a month into the start of the Iraq War, thousands of those materials, stewing in a massive clutter under four feet of water, were found in an unexpected place — the basement of Saddam Hussein’s secret police headquarters.
It was May 6, 2003, and a former member of Hussein’s secret police had received an extraordinary tip. Something quite surprising was concealed in the Baghdad headquarters of Hussein’s intelligence service, or Mukhabarat, he informed Iraqi opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi.
Chalabi passed the tip on to Dr. Harold Rhode, a Pentagon advisor on Islamic Affairs, and New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who was embedded in an elite U.S. Military Unit assigned to looking for weapons of mass destruction. When they arrived at the Mukhabarat, the tipster, who was head of the secret police’s “Jewish unit,” pointed to a side of the building and then fled. The Army unit went in first, because getting there was no easy feat. Not long before, a 2,000-pound unexploded bomb had slammed through the building destroying the water system and flooding the basement.
“They were more than up to their stomachs in the water,” said Rhode.
But there, just as the tipster had said, they found tens of thousands of holy and secular Jewish books, documents and objects, submerged.
Rhode, an observant Jew, knew there was something special about the find. “Oh my God,” he thought. “What do we do to save this?”
Rhode said he was warned by Iraqi political leaders at the time to get the items out of Iraq before news of the findings became public. And, he said, the Americans were not interested in the find in the beginning. “They saw it as nothing more than a nuisance,” he said.
Rhode was determined to save the waterlogged archives.
“If I had decided not to do anything it would have been the end,” he said. “It would have disintegrated under water.”
What would have been lost was more than 2,700 sacred and secular manuscripts and books; tens of thousands of communal records; and relics dating from the 1540s through the 1970s. The items were written in Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, Arabic and English. This cache of material is now known as the “Iraqi Jewish Archives,” and its ownership has become a source of dispute between Iraqi Jewish exiles and the Iraqi and United States governments.
One of the items that had caught Rhode’s eye that day was a Torah scroll, the most holy object in Judaism. It contains the first five books of the Bible written on parchment and is treated with reverence; it is usually forbidden from touching the ground. But on this day — that Rhode remembers as approaching 110 degrees — he decided to make an exception. Jewish law also says that saving a Torah is almost like saving a soul. So Rhode opened up the scroll and laid it on the ground to give it a chance to dry.
The Torah was saved.
But how it got there in the first place remains a mystery.
Maurice Shohet, who fled Iraq in 1970 with his family, said that the secret police seized the material from the Jewish community to break its spirit. Shohet, who is now the president of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq, said that by the time of the confiscations, the Iraqi Jewish community had been decimated. Some were victims of executions and kidnappings; a number of them had just disappeared.
Violence can be traced back to June 1941. In what became known as the Farhud Pogrom, 180 Jews were slaughtered in just two days. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 brought on even more anti-Jewish sentiment. The majority fled the country in droves between 1949 and 1952. They were forced to leave behind many of their assets.
The 1967 Arab-Israeli War made conditions even more precarious for the 2,500-3,000 Jews who were left in Iraq. In 1969, nine Jews were executed in Baghdad based on fabricated charges of spying. Shohet, now 64, was not allowed to attend university because he was Jewish. He recalled that members of the intelligence were on constant watch from street corners. “We were (living) out of fear all the time.”
This 1970 certificate belongs to Olivia Joseph Jacob Basrawi, just graduated from 6th grade at Frank Iny Jewish School in Baghdad. Photo by U.S. National Archive.
So when the police came for the materials, the remaining Jewish community didn’t protest. Members of the intelligence took the material with no explanation. “It was just an act of anti-Jewish sentiment,” Shohet said.
Rhode added that culturally in the Middle East, humiliation must be avoided at all costs. He thinks that Hussein believed he was shaming the Jews by hiding their material in the lowly basement where they couldn’t get to it.
Rhode made it his mission to get them out of there.
In August 2003, The National Archives was granted temporary custody of the Iraqi Jewish Archive. This was based on an agreement they signed with the Coalition Provisional Authority, the temporary government set up in Iraq in the aftermath of Hussein’s downfall. The CPA later transferred
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