The discoverer of the Iraqi Jewish archive weighs in: Scholar fights to keep Jewish artifacts from returning to Iraq. Harold Rhode's elation at finding the trove during the Iraq war has since turned to outrage that the salvaged texts might go back. (David S. Cloud, L.A. Times).
WASHINGTON — Harold Rhode still recalls the euphoria he felt a decade ago after finding thousands of dripping, moldy artifacts of Iraq's once-vibrant Jewish community in the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein's intelligence service headquarters in Baghdad.Ouch.
"How do you describe it? An enormous elation, a deep connection, but also shock: Why would this be here?" says the 64-year-old former Pentagon official, an Orthodox Jew who discovered the purloined archive in the bombed-out building days after he arrived in the Iraqi capital with the U.S. invasion force in the spring of 2003.
People who saw him at the time recall that Rhode, a disheveled, rotund scholar of Islamic history, was nearly overcome with emotion as he rescued the waterlogged books, personal papers and sacred texts, including a 400-year-old Hebrew Bible, all of which seemed to be a link to the ancient — and mostly dispersed — Jewish population of Mesopotamia.
But like the arc of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Rhode's involvement with the Iraqi Jewish archives has progressed from exhilaration to disillusionment and recrimination.
Since he arranged 10 years ago for the collection to be brought to the United States in metal shipping containers, on which he had scrawled "RHODE" and "TORAHS" in big letters, the books and documents have been carefully cleaned of mold and grime, preserved and digitally photographed by experts at the U.S. National Archives.
When summer comes, however, they are to be returned to the Iraqi government, an ending that Rhode likens to giving the personal effects of Jews killed in the Holocaust back to Germany.
At a hearing last month before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, lawmakers grilled Brett H. McGurk, deputy assistant secretary of State.I hope they do.
He affirmed that the U.S. was committed to the "safe and rightful return of these artifacts" but also acknowledged that "we have heard loudly and clearly the concerns" of the Jewish community. "We'll see what we can do."
I mentioned Harold Rhode in connection with the archive here back in 2004.
Jews expelled from Iraq are also having their say: Tug-of-war erupts over planned return of Jewish archives to Iraq (Sylvia Westall and Jonathan Saul, Reuters). Excerpt:
Edwin Shuker, 58, who escaped to Britain with his family from Baghdad in 1971, said he had discovered his long-abandoned school certificate on display as part of the National Archives exhibition.Likewise in this article in the National Post: ‘Like sending back art Nazis looted’: Iraqi Jews who fled persecution fight to stop U.S. from returning stolen artifacts to Baghdad (Joe O'Connor). Excerpt:
"This is more than a school certificate - it is the identity we were forced to leave behind," he told Reuters, likening the document's journey and survival to his own.
"I would like to be reassured that my children and future generations will have unrestricted access to this collection."
Cynthia Kaplan Shamash, from the New York-based World Organisation of Jews from Iraq, said Iraqi Jews were grateful for the restoration but did not want the archive to go back. "Returning the collection to a Jewish-free Iraq in the current conditions is incomprehensible and unacceptable," she said.
Finding her old report card in an archive that houses the Declaration of Independence was “kind of cool” for Dr. Bassoon-Zaltzman. But mostly it wasn’t cool. Mostly it made her angry, and sad, and brought back a tide of bad memories from her childhood, from the Iraq of the 1960s where a once vital Iraqi Jewish community lived in fear, never knowing who would be arrested next.Background here with endless links
“I really felt violated seeing my report card because I knew the Iraqi secret police had no way of getting it unless they took it from our house,” Dr. Bassoon-Zaltzman says. “All I could think about was somebody being in the house I grew up in and stealing this document and storing it in the basement of the Mukhabarat — the secret police of Saddam Hussein.
“Sending these items back to Iraq now would be like sending art that the Nazis looted from Europe’s Jews back to Germany. But it’s even worse, because I am nobody. I am not famous, and I am still alive, and there is no inherent value to these items. Nobody in Iraq is going to care about looking at documents and photos of Iraqi Jews that they don’t even know and that have no value to them, or the Iraqi government, or anyone — except the people they were stolen from.
“It is my report card.”