Outrage: U.S. Returning Artifacts Looted from Iraqi Jews to Iraq, Instead of Lawful Owners

The next problem we faced was what to do with the material once we got it out of the Mukhabarat building. Chalabi gave us 27 large aluminum trunks and gave us space to dry out the material in the Orfali Art Gallery courtyard, which was part of his INC’s headquarters. Since the American bureaucracy did not want to participate in the rescue of the Jewish archive, we needed advice on how to do so ourselves. Through friends, we were put in touch with Jerusalem’s Hebrew University document and book restoration section, whose director tried to give us instructions by phone on how to handle the material. She told us we needed low humidity -- dry, air-conditioned rooms to help dry the material out and to prevent mold. There was only sporadic electricity in Baghdad at that time, and therefore no possibility of following her instructions.

We let the material dry out for a few hours in Baghdad’s humid air and hot sunlight.

We were forced to roll out on the ground the Torah and other holy scrolls we had rescued --  something which is normally absolutely prohibited in Jewish law -- so that we could dry them out however slightly, and then roll them back up and place them in the aluminum trunks. Had we not rolled them out, they would have dried and hardened, and therefore been forever unusable and destroyed.

When the books and documents were still damp but not yet dry, we put them in the large aluminum trunks Chalabi’s people had found for us. Despite our best intentions, these temporary solutions could not salvage the material for the long run. But day after day, we and the Iraqi workers went down into the Mukhabarat building’s basement, rescued books, papers, and other materials, brought our load to the Orfali courtyard some two miles away, and dried out the daily stash. This process went on for about four weeks.

Every day, friends from around the world called to see how we were doing. Some deserve special mention because their intervention and assistance is the reason this material exists today.

Natan Sharansky, the ex-Soviet dissident and Israeli government minister, called to see how things were developing. After hearing about our predicament, he called Vice President Dick Cheney and asked if he could intervene with the American authorities in Iraq to save the materials. Richard Perle, the former assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan, and  my former boss and longtime friend, also called us. After hearing our story, he called then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.  Both Cheney and Rumsfeld then brought this matter up with the Coalition Provisional Authorities (CPA), who, after previously refusing any assistance, went into action and took over the project.

Sharansky, Cheney, Perle, Rumsfeld, Ahmed Chalabi, and the members of the WMD team who originally waded into the water and discovered the initial material are the real heroes of this operation. It is largely due to their intervention that the Iraqi Jewish archive exists today.  Without their help, it is unlikely that any of this archive would have survived.

As a result of their intervention, on June 5, 2003 -- the second day of Shavu’ot, when Jewish tradition teaches that Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai -- the American authorities, now fully engaged in the rescue operation, brought in large pumps which very quickly drained the entire area. The next day, the large amount of material still left in the archives was put in the rest of the aluminum trunks and then placed in a large refrigerated truck which kept the material as protected as possible until the American archival restorers arrived and took possession of the archive in June 2003.

The materials were then flown to Texas where they were vacuum-freeze-dried, and in Fall 2003 they were brought to the National Archives. In 2011, the State Department kicked in over $3 million for stabilizing, digitizing, and packing the material. Again, none of that would have been possible without the interventions of the people I have referenced.

Among the items we found in the intelligence headquarters basement: a 400-year-old Hebrew Bible; a 200-year-old Talmud from Vienna; a copy of the book of Numbers in Hebrew published in Jerusalem in 1972; a Megillat Esther of uncertain date; a Haggadah published in Baghdad and edited by the chief rabbi of Baghdad; the Writings of Ketuvim containing books like Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Lamentations, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles published in Venice in 1568; a copy of Pirkei Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers, published in Livorno, Italy in 1928 with commentary written with Hebrew letters but in Baghdadi-Judeo Arabic; a luach (a calendar with lists of duties and prayers for each holy day printed in Baghdad in 1972); a printed collection of sermons by a rabbi made in Germany in 1692; thousands of books printed in Vienna, Livorno, Jerusalem, Izmir, and Vilna; miscellaneous communal records from 1920-1953;  lists of male Jewish residents, school records, financial records, applications for university admissions.

All of this illustrated the history of Baghdadi Jewish community life, a community which is no more.

After Israel became a state in 1948, martial law was declared in Iraq and many Jews left in the mass exodus in 1950-51. Almost all of those who remained behind left by the 1970s. They were not allowed to take much with them.

In 1950-51, they were allowed one suitcase with clothing -- sometimes not even their personal documents -- and nothing more. They were forced to leave everything else behind, including their communal property. For many years, Jews were not permitted to leave Iraq at all and were persecuted. With time, the few Jews who remained in Baghdad transferred what communal holy books and religious articles they had to the one remaining synagogue which functioned. This was in Batawin, a section of Baghdad which in the late 1940s was the neighborhood to which upwardly mobile Jews moved. The remaining Jews stored this property in the synagogue’s balcony, where the women sat during prayer.

The Jews did not freely relinquish this material. They did it under duress, having no other option.