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Iraqi-American Jews oppose planned return of Jewish artifacts

The last remnants of Iraq’s once-vibrant, 2,500-year-old Jewish community left that country long ago. (Only five Jews remain, according to a recent New York Times op-ed.) But some Iraqi Jewish manuscripts, community records and holy books may soon be sent back from the United States, much to the chagrin of Jewish Iraqi expatriates.

When an American weapons inspection team entered the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s secret police headquarters in May 2003, shortly after the American-led coalition’s invasion of Iraq, they didn’t exactly find the weapons they were looking for.

Instead, languishing in four feet of murky, rancid water were texts dating back as far as the 16th century — including siddurim, commentaries, Torah scrolls and community records from hospitals, synagogues and elsewhere. Why the Iraqi government stored these items is unclear.  

Since the discovery, the materials have been in the United States’ hands, and much of the collection is being restored and digitized, at a cost of about $3 million. Some of the materials were placed on public display on Nov. 8 at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., as part of the exhibition “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi-Jewish Heritage.” The Archives has published a portion of the collection, available at ija.archives.gov.

Despite the collection’s recent unveiling, time is short for those hoping to see the items.

After the restoration and digitization of the collection is completed, which will likely be in 2014, the State Department will return the documents to the Iraqi government as it agreed to do when the U.S. government found them, even though no Jewish community remains in Iraq.

State Department spokesperson Pooja Jhunjhunwala wrote in an e-mail to the Journal that funding for the project “includes provisions for training Iraqi conservation professionals in preservation and the exhibition and handling of the material after the collection returns to Iraq.”

According to Jhunjhunwala, Saad Eskander, the director of the Iraq National Library and Archives (INLA), has said that INLA will display the collection when it is returned, and that INLA has the right storage facilities and well-equipped restoration lab to care for the material.

In late October, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles put out an action alert urging people to call their congressional representatives, asking them to sign a letter urging the State Department “to facilitate the return of these items to their rightful owners or their descendants, and not to the government of Iraq.”

Joseph Samuels, a Baghdad-born Jew who secretly crossed into Iran in 1949 with his younger brother, now lives in Santa Monica and is a member of Kahal Joseph Congregation, an Iraqi synagogue in Westwood. Samuels is troubled that the collection may be returned to people he says will have no concern for it.  “They couldn’t care less about the history of the Jews,” he said. “I think it’s a terrible idea.”

Joseph Dabby, who moved with his family from Baghdad to Los Angeles in 1972, agrees.  “To return them to where they will be treated as trash is incredible to me,” Dabby said. “I’m pretty sure they will be neglected.”

Dabby, 67, is chairman of the board of Kahal Joseph, and he recounted the challenges Jews faced in Iraq four decades ago.

“Jews in Iraq were persecuted continuously,” he said. “[They were] not allowed to practice their own businesses, not allowed to get higher education.” The two synagogues in Baghdad did not regularly hold services, except on holidays, Dabby said. “We were scared to convene.”

Dabby also expressed gratitude to the American government for restoring the documents, and even to the current Iraqi government “for letting these documents be restored.

“We recognize the effort, and we appreciate that,” Dabby said. “We are just not in favor of them going back.”

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