WASHINGTON (RNS) Acting on a tip, 16 U.S. troops stormed the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein's Baghdad intelligence headquarters in 2003 and found a stash of Torah scrolls, prayer books and Hebrew calendars.
The trove was moldy and ripped, some of it of little value, much of it priceless -- 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents, all stolen from the Jews of Iraq.
Ten years later, 24 of the artifacts form a rare exhibit at the National Archives on the Mall, just steps away from rooms where tourists stand in line to see the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The exhibit has raised thorny questions about the ultimate disposition of the artifacts.
"Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage," on view through Jan. 5, includes a 16th-century Hebrew Bible, a hand-lettered Haggadah or Passover guidebook from 1902, and a 1967 school transcript for a boy who attended the last Jewish school in Iraq. (It closed in 1973.) To better preserve them, the artifacts were frozen and painstakingly dried, cleaned and repaired by the National Archives and Records Administration.
Estimates put the number of Jews in Iraq today at five. But at the turn of the 20th century, Jews comprised a quarter of Baghdad's population. The archive forms much of the tangible remains of their history.
As the exhibit teaches, Jews first settled by the waters of Babylon 2,600 years ago, after they were exiled from ancient Israel. During the course of the millennia, they thrived there, establishing towns, schools, businesses and synagogues. For a thousand years, Babylonia was the center of Jewish learning.
But Jewish life in Iraq became precarious starting in the 1930s, as the country fell prey to Nazi propaganda, and after the 1948 founding of Israel, as anti-Jewish Arab nationalism flourished. Iraqi Jews lost their livelihoods, their property and their lives in pogroms and public hangings. When the U.S. invaded in 2003, only a handful of Jews remained, nearly all of them elderly.
No wonder a middle-aged tourist could be heard exclaiming "What? Jews in Iraq?" as he entered the exhibit earlier this month.
"Not so much anymore," answered Jodi Sukonick, a young Jewish Washingtonian unknown to the man, visiting the exhibit on her day off.
But Sukonick had a question of her own as she walked through the exhibit of still-tattered Jewish artifacts: "Is this all really going back to Iraq?"
It's a question many Jews have been asking with increasing urgency as the time draws near -- summer 2014 -- when the documents, per an agreement between the American and Iraqi governments, are slated to return to Baghdad.
Global organizations of Jews of Middle Eastern heritage, as well as scores of American Jewish leaders and key members of the House and Senate, have questioned the plan and tried to derail it, arguing that the U.S. never had the right to promise the archive's return in the first place.
"The argument was flawed, flawed on the premise that this archive is the cultural heritage of all Iraqis when it is in fact the patrimony of Iraqi Jews; and there is no Jewish community left in Iraq," said Sarah Levin, executive director of San Francisco-based JIMENA, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa.
"I can’t fathom that under any circumstances that material that was taken should be returned to the people who took it," Levin said.
Of course, the government of Iraq today is not the government that looted the archive from Iraq's Jews. But Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs at the American Jewish Committee, argues that the archive's future should be determined in consultation with Jewish organizations and particularly the representatives of Jewish Iraqis -- many of whom now live in Israel and the U.S.
Despite negotiations among the State Department, members of Congress and Jewish community leaders, the latest information is that the archive will return to Iraq this summer, though it is first slated to spend some weeks at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.
Asked about the future of the artifacts, a State Department spokesman referred Monday (Nov. 9) to a statement made by Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran, at a November House hearing on U.S.-Iraq policy.
"We have a commitment under an agreement from 2003 to return the archives to Iraq next summer," McGurk told Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who has written to Secretary of State John Kerry urging him to turn over the archive to Jewish caretakers.
McGurk assured her that the U.S. is training Iraqi archivists to care for the Jewish archive, but he left open the possibility that its fate might not yet be sealed.
"We have until the end of next summer. So we do have some time to discuss this," McGurk added. "We have heard very loudly and clearly the concerns from the community. We've listened to those. We've taken them to heart. And we'll see what we can do."
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Video courtesy US National Archives via YouTube