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Iraqi Jewish Artifacts – Ownership?

After a presence of over 2,500 years, the ancient Jewish community of Iraq was destroyed in the early 1950’s. A community of less than 6,000 Jews remained until 1967 when it became intolerable and terrifying to stay put.

When American forces invaded Iraq in 2003, twenty old Jews were found still living in the country. Their families and community were long gone, settled for the most part, in Israel.

The U.S forces also found a trove of 2,700 pieces of Jewish communal artifacts, dating back to 1568. The Babylonian Jews were scholars of the Kaballah and Talmud. It is no surprise that precious documents were found in the flooded basement of Sadaam Hussein’s secret police headquarters in Baghdad.

2,700 pieces of material, including a Zohar from 1815, a fragment from a Hebrew bible from 1566, fragments from 48 torah scrolls, and even papers and records of children who went to Jewish schools in Baghdad, were recovered and flown for safekeeping to Washington D.C.

In October of this year 24 items will be put on display in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery at the National Archives Building in Washington D.C. According to an agreement between the United States and Iraq, the 2,700 items will be returned to Iraq when the exhibit is over.

Jason Harris, a Times of Israel blogger asserted on August 13, 2013, that he wants to see the artifacts returned to Iraq. He imagines seeing them housed in a museum dedicated to the history of Iraqi Jews. It would be “A Reason to Visit Iraq”.

I too have always wanted to see where my mother and her family, the Sharbanis, lived for millennia. And I don’t want to see stolen possessions of the Jewish community “returned” to the country that so brutally expelled its Jews.

My mother and her large extended family were Bagdadian Jews, “probably since the destruction of the First Temple” she answered when I asked how long the family were in Baghdad. At the time I had hoped we were Sephardic, from Spain, and not from an Arab country. I had more than my fair share of internalized self-hatred back then. By the time I found out I was ¼ Sephardic on my father’s side (his mother’s family were from Spain, his father’s family, the Wahbas, were indigenous Egyptians), it didn’t matter. I was a proud Mizrahi in America flaunting her “tan” and Arabic-ness.

The truth is, Iraqi Jews were never fully “Iraqis” anymore than German Jews were fully “German”. That misconception as we know, ended with Holocaust for the German Jews.

For the Jews of Baghdad the Farhud was a defining moment. Iraqi Jews were shattered by the Rashid Ali Rebellion, known as the Farhud in 1941. Eclipsed by the magnitude of the Holocaust, and inspired by the same anti-Semitic Nazi mentality of the era, the anti-Jewish pogrom, “massacre”, in Baghdad, was driven by the fall of Iraq’s pro-Nazi government on the eve of Shavuot, on June 1st 1941.

Nothing would ever be the same for the Jews of Baghdad after the Farhud.

My mother remembered “the screams, the screams…” and the devastation of the Jewish Quarter. “Like locusts they came and took everything, not even a grain of rice remained”, she recalled. The looting was unbelievable, the horror unspeakable for many Iraqi Jews for years to come, if ever. “. and the rapes, the rapes …the beatings”, she said.

The Farhud was a defining moment for the Jews of Iraq. The attack was sudden, murderous, and went on unchecked for 48 hours before the British intervened. The Jews were powerless in the face of such hatred.

Even for those who were ready to leave Iraq after the Farhud, getting out was not possible. Like the artifacts, Jews were considered Iraqi property. Jews were Dhimmis, or second-class citizens, ruled by humiliating and discriminatory laws that subjected them to multiple social inequalities.

My mother, like other Jews of Iraq was proud of her heritage, of being Iraqi, with its long and insular history and place in Judaism. She also knew once Israel was formed in 1948 as a Jewish country, the writing was on the wall. “There was no future really after the Farhud, but with Israel, it was impossible. We were not longer under their whim.”

What eludes most rational people is how Israel is an insult to Islamic hegemony. Israel should not exist anymore than an Iraqi Jew should have had equal rights. To survive the wars Iraq and the other Arab states waged on Israel in 1948 and 1967 was unacceptable.

For the Jews of Iraq, after the state of Israel was formed, more oppressive anti-Jewish laws were enacted. When given the chance, most Iraqi Jews opted to leave for Israel in 1951. They lived in fear until they got out stateless and penniless, with one suitcase of clothing. Everything else, including photo albums was confiscated.

All of my mother’s extended family still living in Baghdad after the Farhud ended up in transit camps, the maabarot, in Israel. Eventually, after several years of living in tents and tin shacks in the dirt poor new state of Israel, most Iraqi Jews settled in apartment complexes in Ramat Gan a suburb outside of Tel Aviv.

Life became intolerable for the remaining 6,000 Jews still living in Iraq in 1967.Even the ones protected by their money and connections were targeted. With the survival of Israel the hatred became more universal. Israel was an enemy of Islam and Iraqi Jews were at risk of being persecuted as Zionist spies.

Nine Jewish men were falsely accused of being spies for Israel and hung in Baghdad’s “Liberation Square” in 1969. A huge celebration in the public park was organized. Thousands celebrated while the dead Jews with their broken necks hung in their midst.

So Iraq is demanding the artifacts to be returned. Perhaps first they need to “return” the homes, the businesses, the personal possessions they stole from every single Jew they forced out. To this day no Iraqi Jew is allowed to safely and freely “return” to Iraq. But they want our torah scrolls? Our history?

The Jewish archive that is being held in Washington D.C. belongs to Iraqi Jews. Find the owners. Find the Babylonian Heritage Center in Or Yehuda, Israel.

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