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Documentary: The Discovery and Rescue of Iraqi Jews’ Patrimony in Baghdad. Will It Now Be Lost?

Filed under: Iraq, World Jewry

Lenny Ben-David: Welcome to Jerusalem Center Online. I’m Lenny Ben David, the Director of Publications. Our guest today is Harold Rhode, a well-known and certainly knowledgeable expert on the Middle East, a student of Professor Bernard Lewis and a professor at Ariel University. I want to ask Harold about his particular niche in history; he’s an expert on documents that were discovered in Iraq that belonged to the Jewish community. When did you find them Harold and what is the significance of these?

Harold Rhode: In 2003, during the American liberation of Iraq, all of a sudden, the head of the Iraqi opposition, Ahmed Chalabi, a great man, calls me saying: “Harold, get over here. The man who ran the Israel and Jewish section of the Iraqi intelligence has just come to tell us all the things that he has done, and he is willing to show us the documents, where he had them in the Iraqi intelligence ministry.” Now, it’s logical that they’d have an Israel section, but it’s kind of illogical in Western terms that it has a Jewish section, which they did. So I ran over there; Judith Miller, New York Times then journalist, and a weapons of mass destruction team that she was at, we ran to the Iraqi intelligence.

Lenny Ben-David: Where was it located?

Harold Rhode: In Baghdad. It’s the combination of FBI, CIA, everything together. It’s the central office of Iraqi intelligence. So we go there and we find, the guy points down, who was in charge of the Jewish section, he points down to a window and says this is where it was and he promptly disappears. Now we had to go around the other side to get in and we looked down and there is water up to, I would say basically, above our waists. Now, how did that happen? Now, the American government bombed the building and there was, I think it was about a one-ton bomb – it should have destroyed about a square kilometer of territory, but it went through the building, destroyed the water system and came out, and lodged in the ground unexploded right next to where the Jewish archives were. Anyway, here we were; some of the people in the weapons of mass destruction team went in, they pull out first of all a picture of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem with Saddam with a gun holding it, and go down the hall and they pull out a “teek” which is the thing which holds a Torah scroll.

Lenny Ben-David: A “teek” – a cabinet.

Harold Rhode: A cabinet which holds a Torah scroll for Sephardic Jews, and the Iraqis are. And so, all of a sudden, they bring out this Torah. And then Chalabi looks at me and says: “Harold, what do you want to do?” Now, I’m a religious Jew, and the whole thing has to be saved. Right in a billionth of a second of course there’s no choice – I have to do this. Now, I was there under the auspices of the American government, I worked for the Pentagon for 28 years, I was an analyst on Islamic culture and that’s why I was in Baghdad. And I certainly had no permission from the Americans to get involved with this, but Chalabi and the Americans didn’t want to have anything to do with it at first. I went to the archivist who was a wonderful lady who was part of the American team that was there in the military, who really wasn’t allowed to do anything. So Chalabi procured Shiite workers to come and help get the books out, but he also got a truck to help suck the water out because, as a result of the water system being destroyed by the American bomb, water kept dripping down into the basement and we couldn’t go in and get anything. Do you know how much a waterlogged book, how much it weighs? So Chalabi paid for this truck which came and sucked out water. Two days later we came back, the water was then only up to below our knees. We went in and we started to take out the books.

Lenny Ben-David: What were the condition of the books?

Harold Rhode: Horrible! They were all waterlogged! We knew that they were holy books.

Now, you asked why would an intelligence service be interested in holy books? We’ll get back to that in a moment. Why would they want Torahs? And it’s important also, how did they get them in the first place? Well, what happened is, as in 1949, there were about one hundred and fifty thousand Jews in Iraq and they were thrown out by the Iraqi government, and almost all, by 1951, were transported to Israel. A few went to London, a few went to the United States. But the community itself, by and large, ended up here in Israel, penniless – all their things they had to leave behind. They had to leave their Torahs, their historical books, their wealth. Within five years, thank God, by 1956, they were doing quite well here in Israel, especially the Baghdadi Jews.

But what about their Torahs and things like that? Well, what happened is that the Jewish community, slowly but surely, took these books. Again, they were the holy books, Sifrei Kodesh, you would say Torahs and Jewish books, the oldest of which we found must have been somewhere about 1547 printed in Venice, and communal records, census lists of the Jews, and they put them on the upstairs of the only remaining functioning synagogue, in the women’s section upstairs. One day in the early 80s, two trucks pull up in the middle of the night from Saddam with guns and they take the entire archives. How do we know this? There was a woman who witnessed this, who when I was giving a lecture on this years later, about a year or two later after I found this, she was at one of my lectures and she said: “And I know exactly how they were stolen!” And that’s key to the question, the reason we’re doing this podcast. They were stolen by Saddam and they were taken to – we now know – the Intelligence Center. Why would they even have them at the intelligence? Why would they want them? In the Middle East, if you steal someone’s heritage, you’ve got their soul, it’s as if you’ve won. It’s a way of defeating the Jews.

Lenny Ben-David: Indeed, this goes back to Babylonian times; that is how you eradicate a people: you get rid of their traditions.

Harold Rhode: Yes.

Lenny Ben-David: So you have all these waterlogged books, the Americans did not authorize their rescue, Mr. Chalabi did. What do you do with them? And then what happened to them?

Harold Rhode: It’s really interesting. Chalabi gave us one of his areas surrounded by beehives to dry out the books and I don’t know, look, I’m a historian but I do not know the first thing about preservation, so I had a friend who was here in Jerusalem who knows the head of restoration at the National Library here, and this woman is giving me instructions. She said: “You’ve got to keep them all on cold things on the things which are in parchment like Torah scrolls or other types of scrolls. You can’t dry them out entirely but you can’t…” I said: “You want me to get them in cold? There’s no electricity here! And it’s 120 degrees, almost 50 degrees centigrade in the shade! There’s no such thing.” Finally, she says: “Do the best you can.” So we we did whatever, myself and a few other people, we dried them off a little and we put them in these aluminum trunks that Chalabi had procured for us and the American government looked at me as like: why are you doing this?

Meanwhile, thank God, two wonderful people: one, minister in the Israeli government by the name of Natan Sharansky at the time, used to call me every week to see if I was alive and I told him about this. He said what can I do to help? I said: “Call your friend Vice President Cheney.” And then Richard Pearl, my former boss at the Pentagon, would call every week the same and he was a good friend of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. I said: “Please call him.” I want to tell you that the moment that both Rumsfeld and Cheney brought this up at the the National Security Council meetings, it all of a sudden became a mission for the American government who took it over and I want to tell you if the American government really wants to do something, they can do anything. It was unbelievable. The American archives took it over; they threw me out. I want to say they know a hell of a lot better what they were doing than I knew.

And the material was eventually brought to the United States for restoration. But how can, you just can’t do that! The Geneva Conventions say that you cannot take the patrimony of another country if you capture it. That’s only from the 1949, but we in the West care about such things. In the Middle East, they don’t care about such things. They’ll use the law against you if they you know they can put you into the corner, to put you on the defensive. But for themselves, it doesn’t matter. Anyway, the Americans, since we took over Iraq, we had sovereignty, so we appointed representatives for the different ministries so that we had a closet Ministry of Culture representative. So the Americans signed an agreement with the American Culture Minister of Iraq, if you wish, that this material would be taken to the United States, it would be restored and then eventually brought back to Iraq, which has no Jewish community and nobody who can read these things nor cares.

Lenny Ben-David: Explain, what were some of the gems in this treasure of books and documents that you found?

Harold Rhode: Communal registers, as I said before I think, a census of male Jews (because you wouldn’t have census of females). There were simply unbelievable things: there were Torahs, there were Talmuds. What we now know is that, and our job was just getting them out; I didn’t have time to look through these things. There ended up being about 2,700 items. But what we learned, and this is thanks to the American archives (the restoration people), they had a woman who knew Hebrew, Aramaic and she was able to look at this, and we knew names of famous rabbis in the 1800s and the early 1900s in Iraq but we didn’t know much about them. In the Talmuds, we found notes from them in their own handwriting and then we could see the notes in the Talmud of their own explanations, of how they understood passages there. It was unbelievable! And in the only Museum of Iraqi Jewish history and culture in the world, which is right outside of Tel Aviv, in a place called Or Yehuda, the American archives put very good scanned copies of everything they found. And the museum outside of Tel Aviv was able to find and study these things and learn unbelievable things about the history of Iraq.

Lenny Ben-David: Fabulous! What’s the status of these documents today?

Harold Rhode: Well, here’s the problem. According to international law, you cannot steal the patrimony of another country that you take over. So the Americans, the State Department decided you can’t allow this material, it has to go back to Iraq. But the question really is, and periodically it comes up. Now, the Iraqi government – because it is still basically anti-Israeli – the Iraqi government cannot be seen to allow this to be coming to a place like Israel, because then all their Arab brothers are going to get upset with them and they will be shamed and Middle East shame is more important than anything. Shame is what other people say about you and they lose honor, so they can’t agree to us. So how do you solve this problem? Well about five years or so ago, the Iraqi government graciously agreed to let the material stay in the United States for about five years, if I’m correct, and they had exhibits all over the place in the United States. And the material in the meantime remained in the American archives. Now we’re getting to the end of that five-year period…what do we do? Well, the American government wants to return it to the rightful owners by international law which they have decided, since they signed an agreement with an American, that it belongs to Iraq. Well no, it didn’t belong to Iraq! It is the heritage patrimony of the Jewish community; it is their materials, their documents. Who and where are these people? About ninety percent of them today are here in Israel. That’s who it belongs to!

Lenny Ben-David: So it’s going to go to the Iraqis and they’re going to put it in another basement? Can that move be stopped?

Harold Rhode: Well, here are some possibilities. First of all, from a legal point of view, the American government took from Iraq millions and millions of documents about the Baathist leadership in Iraq. Now that is the patrimony and heritage of the Iraqi people. America has no intention of giving this material back, but the Jewish material, well who cares about the Jews? And they want to give this back, why don’t they want to, since they took the all of this material, shouldn’t they be responsible for giving it all back? Well, no one wants to handle that issue. That could create an international problem, and God forbid that should happen. Now, here are the solutions that we could come up with. The Iraqi government could, if it wanted and if the State Department wanted, keep the material in the United States under the guise of going through additional exhibitions, here, there, or God knows where.

Lenny Ben-David: And I assume there are Jewish communities in the United States that would be happy to host such exhibit.

Harold Rhode: Not a question of a doubt. It’s been all over the United States so far, since there were twenty-seven hundred items, they chose 27 items. That’s one possibility. If it has to go back to Iraq, the Kurds in northern Iraq who, on September 25th, which is a few days from now, are going to have a referendum for independence. The Kurds in northern Iraq love Israel; they would be very happy, I’m sure, to have this material. If it has to go back to Iraq, send it Kurdistan.

Lenny Ben-David: I would also add that they have got very good relations with the Jews who still live in Kurdistan.

Harold Rhode: Yes, there are not that many, but there are. This is the patrimony of the Jews who lived in Iraq – that’s who it belongs to. We know that Saddam stole it. We have a witness of someone who saw it being stolen from the last functioning Jewish synagogue. That’s who it belongs to. That’s where it should be returned to. And hopefully, in the future, it possibly could end up in the only museum in the world which is dedicated to the history of the Jews of Iraq or the Jews of Babylonia – the ancient title of what is Iraq – and that is in Or Yehuda, that museum being outside of Tel Aviv.

Lenny Ben-David: For Jerusalem Center online, Harold Rhodes thank you very much for joining us.

Harold Rhode: It’s a pleasure, thank you very much.