WASHINGTON – NEW York Times – 11.11.2013 – These are not the weapons of mass destruction that the American Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha was seeking in Iraq during the spring of 2003. But the books and manuscripts that the team found in a flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s secret police headquarters — now on display for the first time at the National Archives here — look like victims of some form of ordnance.
They are ragged, warped, torn, stained. And that is after extensive restoration. This new exhibition, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” presents just 24 artifacts (and some reproductions) selected from 2,700 volumes and tens of thousands of documents the American military found submerged in four feet of fetid water in the Mukhabarat, Iraq’s intelligence building. Those items, which had been collected by the Iraqi office investigating Israel and the Jews, span five centuries of Jewish life in Iraq. It took weeks for the American team to gather them, set them out to dry and ship them — in disarray and black with mold — to the National Archives. Much still awaits being restored and digitized at the archives’ laboratories in College Park, Md.
Their condition, though, may be the least complicated thing about them. The flooding was caused by an unexploded coalition bomb — an accident of war. The mold was partly the result of the military rescuers’ inability to freeze the waterlogged material immediately, which would have halted decay. The costs of the restoration, overseen by the archives’ director of preservation, Doris Hamburg, have been mainly paid with $3 million from the State Department, which will return the materials to Iraq next year — as was agreed.
But that plan has touched a quivering nerve. Protests have been registered by Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, a Democrat, and other members of Congress; Iraqi Jews, now in other countries, have also been pressing for alternatives to the collection’s return. Passions are high, too, because the collection’s state of ruin is an uncanny representation of what happened to the Iraqi Jewish population itself. It had been the oldest Jewish diaspora in the world, arriving before the sixth century B.C. In 1940, Jews accounted for a quarter of Baghdad’s population; there were more than 130,000 Jews in Iraq. Now there is scarcely a handful.
So these documents, which are gradually being made available online, offer a wide-ranging requiem. On display is a 16th-century Hebrew Bible and a student’s 1967 transcript from a Jewish school in Baghdad. There is a 1793 volume of the Babylonian Talmud and an 1815 copy of the Zohar, a mystical text.
But this cache really should not be called the Iraqi Jewish Archive, as the National Archives refers to it. That title implies a systematic collection. Actually, as is clear online, it is a miscellaneous assemblage of treasures and trivia, incorporating legal documents and prayer books, office correspondence and Hebrew calendars. What, then, was it doing in the intelligence services’ basement? And what will be its fate?
Historians have yet to explore these materials fully, but the impression from the exhibition and from surveying the 2,000 documents online, is that very little intelligence was involved in this gathering of intelligence. It seems as if items were indiscriminately taken from every variety of Jewish institution. Dissertations, newspapers, textbooks, rabbinical literature and telephone books were pulled from hospitals, schools, community rganizations, libraries. We may be seeing a classic anti-Semitic doctrine at work: the belief that the very transmission of Hebrew texts is evidence of a dangerous cabal.
Items in the collection may have also been seized for psychological effect, as suggested by Harold Rhode, a Pentagon analyst and an adviser on Islamic affairs for the secretary of defense from 1995 to 2010, who was present at the cache’s discovery and instrumental in its rescue. In an online account, Mr. Rhode argues that part of this collection moved with the shrinking Jewish population, until it was stored at the last synagogue in Baghdad. In 1984, Mr. Hussein carted away the cache; the purpose, Mr. Rhode suggests, was to humiliate the city’s remaining Jews.
This exhibition illustrates how far they had already fallen. The rare, centuries-old volumes on view testify to a Jewish community that was once worldly enough to afford such texts, yet keen to study them, feeding on a spiritual tradition of fervor and seriousness. As this show reminds us, the Iraq region is where the tombs of Daniel, Ezekiel, Ezra and Jonah are found, where the Babylonian Talmud was compiled, and where great Jewish academies were established in the first millennium.
We see, too, that Iraqi Jews were often prosperous, despite their secondary status under Islamic rule. In the 20th century, some Iraqi Jewish businesses became international. (There is a 1920 letter from David Sassoon & Company in Bombay.)
It is tantalizing to learn that the military team was initially told that a seventh-century Babylonian Talmud was in the cache; it was never found, but important items were looted.
The salvation of the rest was as unpredictable as its presence in that basement. The extraordinary efforts required (supported by Donald H. Rumsfeld, then defense secretary) may have salved the consciences of those in the United States administration who failed to stop the torching of the great Central Library in Baghdad a few weeks earlier.
As for the Jewish population’s decline, perhaps the collection will eventually shed light on the massacres, hangings, expulsions and degradations that befell its members beginning in the 1930s. But the exhibition’s text provides a broad portrait. Nazis and their Islamic allies began making inroads, culminating in the Farhud pogrom in 1941; the exhibition says 180 Jews were killed and hundreds more injured; other estimates are higher. Later that decade, Iraq’s entry in the war against Israel led to edicts removing Jews from public life and imposing restrictions on their commerce and travel. Mass migrations followed, requiring forfeiture of property.
Some sense of the delicate maneuvering required by the remaining Jews in Iraqi is clear here in a 1949 Hebrew primer. Two pages with a poem declaring loyalty to King Faisal II were ripped out after he was killed in a military coup in July 1958. It is as if mixed feelings of loyalty and vulnerability first required including the pledge and then required destroying it.
Difficulties mounted again with the 1963 rise of the Baath Party. And Islamist attacks in recent years have not inspired confidence about returning this collection. What evidence is there that Iraq will now treasure artifacts of Jews and other cultures? How would this archive be freely studied? Since these documents were forcefully aken from the Jews of Iraq, was the 2003 State Department agreement even valid? But if they belonged to that population, who are its rightful heirs? Iraqi Jews now living in other countries?
The one thing that is clear is that this textual trace of a community’s life is not a backwater chronicle. The exhibition reminds us that while the West’s influence on Judaism has been profound, it is by the waters of Babylon that many texts and practices of exilic Judaism were codified, beginning a long evolutionary journey — even if this strand came to a grievous end in the muck of Iraq’s Mukhabarat.
“Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage” runs through Jan. 5 at the National Archives, Constitution Avenue at Ninth Street NW, Washington; archives.gov.
A version of this review appears in print on November 11, 2013, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: The Remnants Of a Culture’s Heart and Soul.