Baltimore, United States – A group of men and women celebrate a young man’s bar mitzvah, the Jewish rite of passage when boys turn 13, as a rabbi wraps “tefillin” – black leather straps used during prayer – around the boy’s arm.
The crowd of revellers is both Jewish and Iraqi and the celebration was not uncommon: this was Baghdad in 1963.
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The black-and-white photograph is part of a treasure trove of ancient pieces of Judaica retrieved from the headquarters of Saddam Hussein’s General Intelligence Service during the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The heirlooms include documents dating from the mid-16th century to the 1970s and more than 2,700 books in Hebrew, Arabic and Judeo-Arabic, a version of Arabic written in Hebrew letters and spoken by Iraqi Jews.
They cast invaluable insight on Iraq’s ancient Jewish community, which dwindled from an estimated 130,000 people to fewer than five today.
But the rich collection is not without its share of controversy as Iraqis have criticised the delay in repatriating the archives to Baghdad and accused the US of benefitting from the spoils of the occupation of their country.
“The general sentiment is that the Americans took documents that belong to the Iraqis,” said Orit Bashkin, a University of Chicago historian and author of Impossible Exodus: Iraqi Jews in Israel.
“And that’s also connected in the Iraqi memory of the destruction of libraries and ancient collections that occurred during the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.”
Found in 2003
The collection – crate loads of rabbis’ sermons, school textbooks, and university applications that were waterlogged, muddied or stained – was discovered in a basement that had flooded when the Americans bombed a building in Baghdad 15 years ago.
However, some items were spared because the missile failed to explode.
Following an agreement with the provisional Iraqi government, the US’ post-war viceroy, the rare collection was sent to the National Archives and Records Administration in the state of Maryland to be restored.
For a decade, the artefacts underwent an arduous $3m restoration process. Preserved, catalogued and digitised, some pieces were put on display in a touring exhibit that has gone across the US.
At the exhibit’s last stop at the Jewish Museum of Maryland this month, visitors could see “tiks” (cases for Torah scrolls) shaped like minaret towers, a testament to Iraq’s architecture; a Hebrew Bible from 1568; and a Haggadah (Passover guide), hand-written and decorated by an Iraqi youth.
Washington had assured the Iraqis the archive would be repatriated after the restoration process was done. But after pushing back the return date several times, the relics are still here.
US officials now say they are slated to be sent back in September 2018.
The personal pictures and letters found in the archive paint a vivid picture of a well-integrated community whose members held prominent positions in government and commerce and excelled in the world of arts.
Hit songs such as Foug el-Nakhal by Iraqi-Jewish composers Saleh and Daoud al-Kuwaiti remain popular across the Arab world. Sassoon Eskell, a legislator, minister and financier, is still remembered fondly as one of the architects of modern-day Iraq.
In 1910, records show Jews living in Baghdad made up one-quarter of the city’s overall population.
By 1949, Iraq’s Jewish population totalled about 130,000 people, mostly living in Baghdad, but also in Basra and Mosul.
Many documents capture snippets of their communal life: a letter details the allocation of sheep during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, while another asks the community’s patriarch to persuade a man to grant his wife a “Get” (religious divorce).
“The archive talks about public life … and most of the period it covers is the interwar period [between the two world wars] and the 1950s and 60s of Iraqi Jews who didn’t migrate to Israel and lived in Iraq,” said Bashkin.
“And you see the degree of Arabisation of the Iraqi Jewish community,” she told Al Jazeera.
“It shows you that you could be an Iraqi and a Jew and that there’s not an inherent contradiction there, and it shows you can be an Arab Jew.”
Repatriating the collection
But in the US, legislators and Jewish and pro-Israel groups say the archive should be conserved in a more stable environment where the descendants of Iraqi Jews can access them. They have been lobbying to keep the collection from being repatriated to Baghdad.
In 2014, the Senate passed a unanimous resolution urging the Obama administration to come to a different agreement with Iraqi officials.
Charles Schumer, the Senate minority leader, asked the Department of State in October 2017 not to send the archive back and instead find a location that’s more accessible to Iraqi Jews and their descendants.
Groups such as the Zionist Organization of America have made similar arguments, as have members of the Israeli parliament who have been pushing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pressure the US to back out of its commitment to Iraqi authorities.
“It’s pretty clear that a lot of artefacts didn’t reach the West in a very ethical way,” said Assaf Shalev, an Israeli-American journalist whose paternal family hails from Baghdad.
“It’s very clear that the US holding on to it would activate [the] sensitiveness around Third World countries getting their cultural heritage stolen,” he said, adding he saw the other side of the repatriation debate as well.
“If this collection goes to Iraq, Iraqi Jews won’t have access to it for the most part. I’m not sure where I fall exactly. I see merits in both arguments,” Shalev said.
When Israel was established in 1948, it began to push for Iraqi Jews to immigrate to the newly established state. Many in the community believe that several explosions targeting them in Baghdad were instigated by Israeli operatives or local Zionist groups to hasten their exodus.
This was coupled with a right-wing campaign inside Iraq against Jewish people that was spurred by ultra-nationalists who conflated Zionism and Judaism, as well as a government crackdown on the communist party where many young Iraqi Jews were active.
In 1950 and 1951, about 90 percent of the Jewish population left Iraq with most families moving to Israel, US-based historian Michael Fischbach estimates.
Many Iraqi Jews faced discrimination once they arrived in Israel, however, and they were not given proper work or education opportunities, said Yael Ben Yefet, director of HaKeshet HaDemocratit HaMizrahit (the Democratic Mizrahi Rainbow), a social justice coalition of Middle Eastern Jews in Israel.
Ben Yefet said most of the Iraqis in Israel today would be unable to see the archive if it remains in the US because of “the educational and social-economic status of Iraqi Jews”, which has declined from one generation to the next.
“On a personal level, and if I want my mother to be able to see [the archive], I’d like it to come to Israel or to a place where Iraqi Jews can have access to it,” she said.
A recent idea has been to permanently house the archive in Iraq, but allow it to tour museums that are accessible to Jewish communities worldwide.
That’s a proposal that Ben Yefet said she supports.
In the meantime, Bashkin said the collection remains close to the hearts of many Iraqi Jewish families, for whom it also raises painful memories.
Those include the Farhud – a 1941 pogrom that claimed the lives of 180 members of the community and ended in mass looting of their property – and the killing of 40 Iraqi Jews in 1968 when the Baath party came to power.
“These traumatic memories are often projected onto the archive,” Bashkin said.
“They know they can’t go back to Iraq and they do want access to it. And this genuine sentiment is being politicised and tied to the question of who represents world Jewry.”