A librarian holds the Kol Bo book from the 1540s that was one of the Iraqi Jewish documents being conserved at the National Archives in College Park, Md. (Alex Brandon / AP)
The tattered Torah scroll fragments, Bibles and other religious texts found in a flooded Baghdad basement 10 years ago testify to a once-thriving Jewish population that’s all but disappeared from Iraq.
Recovered from the Iraqi intelligence headquarters and shipped to the United States for years of painstaking conservation was a literary trove of more than 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents that are being digitized and put online. A sample of that treasure is being displayed for the first time this fall at the National Archives in Washington.
“One thing that is particularly touching about them, or particularly interesting about them, is that they connect to a community that no longer lives in Iraq,” said Doris Hamburg, the National Archives’ director of preservation programs.
The exhibit of two dozen items offers a rare glimpse into a Jewish population that dates to antiquity but dispersed after Israel was created in 1948. But the decision to return the collection to Iraq after its display here has raised bitter feelings among Iraqi Jews in the United States and stirred debate about whom the materials belong to: the country where they were found or the people who once owned them?
Iraqi Jews consider the artifacts part of their heritage and say a nation that decades ago drove out its Jewish citizens doesn’t deserve to recover sacred objects of an exiled population. Some also fear there’s no constituency of Jews remaining in Iraq to ensure the books are maintained, especially in a country still riven by violent conflict.
A petition circulating among Iraqi Jews seeks to prevent the materials from being returned and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., made a similar public statement to the State Department last week. Some have written newspaper opinion pieces urging the items to be shared with the exiled Jewish community and have discussed burying torn Torah scroll pieces, as is customary for holy texts that are no longer usable.
“The fact is these were archives that belonged to the Jewish community in Iraq,” said Gina Waldman, president of Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa and a Libyan Jew. “They need to be returned to their rightful owners. They were looted from the Jewish community and they rightfully should be returned.”
State Department officials have expressed confidence that the Iraqi government will make the materials accessible in an educational exhibit. The materials will be housed in Iraq’s national library and archives, with the goal of helping future generations understand the contributions Iraqi Jews made and the repression that they endured, said Saad Eskander, director of the Iraqi institution.
The artifacts were found in May 2003 after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime as American troops searched for weapons of mass destruction. They found the material in the flooded basement of the Iraqi intelligence building, its water system damaged by an unexploded bomb.
An intelligence official tipped authorities to the collection’s existence, and though rumors of an ancient Talmud proved false, the discovery was remarkable: a 16th century Bible printed in Venice, centuries-old Torah scroll fragments, Hebrew year calendars and reams of school records of Jewish students in Baghdad. There’s also a colorful 1930 Haggadah, or Passover narrative, depicting a family dining; a flood-damaged Torah case originally covered with velvet and metal; and school primers missing pages professing loyalty to an Iraqi king murdered in a 1958 military coup.
The exhibit will open Nov. 8 and will run through Jan. 5.