In 2003, a team of 16 American soldiers in Baghdad stumbled upon a lost treasure trove of thousands of documents belonging to Iraq’s Jewish community.
These rare materials, thought to have been stored originally in synagogues and private Jewish homes, were sitting in a moldy, flooded basement of the muhkabarat, Saddam Hussein’s feared secret police.
The collection, now referred to as the “Iraqi Jewish archive,” contains “2,700 Jewish books and tens of thousands of documents in Hebrew, Arabic, Judeo-Arabic and English, dating from 1540 to the 1970s,” including a 1568 Bible and several Torah scrolls, according to the National Archives in Washington.
After the initial 2003 discovery in Iraq, conservation teams from the National Archives determined that Baghdad did not have the appropriate facilities for preserving the documents, including temperature controls.
The Iraqi government thus permitted the Americans to take the collection to the US for conservation work, but only on condition of the archive’s eventual return to Baghdad.
The current scheduled date of departure to Iraq is June 2014, less than one year away.
The notion of permanently sending these thousands of Jewish items to Iraq is absurd. Violence still abounds in Iraq; there would be no proper accessibility to or preservation measures for the archive.
I wonder if there are even interested audiences in Iraq or proper frameworks for contextualization, considering that fewer than a dozen Jews live in Iraq today, and Iraqis visiting the collection almost surely have never met a Jewish person before.
The Iraqi Jewish archive’s discovery resonates personally; my grandfather was born and raised in a Jewish family in Baghdad. His family, along with the rest of Baghdad’s Jewish community, was allowed to emigrate in the early 1950s in an Israeli airlift only if they renounced their citizenships and their property assets.
Thankfully my grandfather was still able to complete his studies at the American University of Beirut’s medical school; he became a pediatrician.
But my grandfather’s passport, upon leaving Iraq, said that he was “stateless.” Meaning Iraq’s Jewish community of 100,000-plus was essentially robbed of its major possessions and its nationality. They left their country of origin belonging to nowhere.
This remarkable recovery of Baghdad’s Jewish archive is not the first time such a dramatic unearthing of Jewish materials in the Middle East and Central Asia has occurred. The most well known example is the Cairo Geniza, a collection of thousands of documentary fragments, many from the medieval period, found in that city’s Ben Ezra Synagogue.
The Cairo Geniza was removed to England en masse by scholar Solomon Schechter in the 1890s.
“Geniza” refers to a hidden repository where Jewish communities stored written materials, from religious texts to private commercial and social papers such as handwritten letters and legal contracts.
And just within the past few years, scholars were stunned by discoveries of Jewish documents in Afghanistan dating from 1,000 years ago. This Afghanistan Geniza, rumored to number about 200 documents, was already dispersed to antiquities dealers around the …read more