NEW YORK—In the film The Monuments Men, a historical team of U.S. art experts travels to Europe during World War II to rescue masterpieces stolen by the Nazis, many from the private collections of Jewish families. In one scene, an American art curator seeks information about a Nazi-appropriated trove of art from a French curator working for the French Resistance. She refuses to tell him anything because she believes he is planning to take the French art back to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He has to prove to her that the Americans, unlike other armies in history, are seeking to return the art to its rightful owners.
The United States government is trying to do the same thing again after discovering a trove of stolen Jewish archives during its invasion of Iraq, but the question of ownership is muddier. The collection, a vital record of one of the oldest ethnic groups in Iraq, now all but extinct, is currently on display in New York before it travels back to Iraq in June. Jewish groups are protesting the decision to return the archives, saying the collection belongs to the Iraqi Jewish community—all but six of whom now live outside Iraq. It’s also perhaps one of the only remaining collections of artifacts from the Iraqi Jewish community. Iraqis say it is part of the country’s history. The U.S. government, which has had the archive over the last decade in order to restore the documents, many damaged, says it has no choice because it signed an agreement with Iraq to return the archives.
The tension over the ownership of the collection was evident in the opening of the exhibit of the archives in New York in February. The Iraqi ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, who sent a representative to deliver his remarks at the opening, referred to the trove as the “Iraqi National Jewish Archive,” reinforcing that the archive belongs to Iraq.
“As with every other community in Iraq, they played a crucial role in building our country and contributing to our culture,” the representative read from Faily’s remarks. “For us as Iraqis, it is important to recover this precious piece of our cultural heritage that documents an era of our country’s history. This exhibition shows Iraq as a country of diversity where people from different religions, regions, and ethnicities lived together in harmony for centuries. That is what we once were, and that is what we are striving to become again.”
Iraqi Jew David Dangoor, who believes the collection should remain in the United States, spoke after Faily’s representative. “At one time it was even forbidden to have any books or writings in Hebrew in one’s homes [in Iraq],” Dangoor, a businessman in New York, said. “I am sure that it is now clear why they mean so much to the Iraqi Jewish diaspora.” Dangoor’s great-grandfather, who was the chief rabbi in Baghdad, started the first sizable Hebrew printing press in the city in 1904; materials from the Dangoor press were found in the archive. I asked Dangoor later if he discussed the fate of the archive with the Iraqi representative. “We avoided it,” Dangoor said.
Late last year a group of prominent Jewish American groups, including Iraqi Jewish groups in the States, penned a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry asking him to reconsider the transfer. “These items were looted by the Baath regime,” they wrote. U.S. government officials have pointed out that the entire collection has been digitized, so it will be available to everyone on the planet regardless of where the physical archive is. Still, the U.S. Senate recently passed a resolution urging the State Department to renegotiate the deal with Iraq, so the archives could be kept in a place “accessible to scholars and to Iraqi Jews and their descendants.”
The collection was almost lost in the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Right after U.S. forces had taken Baghdad, special teams were searching the secret caches of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for weapons of mass destruction. One of these teams was combing through the flooded basement of the headquarters of Hussein’s intelligence service and found a cache it hadn’t anticipated: thousands of Jewish books and documents, going back to the 1500s. No one knows why Hussein had collected the archives; presumably, he was confiscating them from Jewish communities.
The archives range from the sacred to the mundane, copies of the Torah and children’s schoolbooks. The U.S. National Archives text that goes with the exhibit states that the books and documents in the archive were “expropriated by the Baathist Party regime from synagogues and communal organizations.” This supports the Jewish groups’ argument that the archives never belonged to the Iraqi government in the first place.
The U.S. National Archives flew out experts to salvage the wet archives; they put the documents and books in freezers to halt mold then flew back everything to the States for restoration. The Americans signed a deal with the Iraqis to return the archives when the restoration was complete. Three million dollars and 11 years later, the process is almost complete.
The collection documents only a sliver of Jewish history in Iraq. The Jewish presence in Iraq goes back to the early 700s B.C., when Assyria took the northern Israeli kingdom into exile in modern-day Iraq, and then later when Babylon conquered Judah and took the Jews into exile in Babylon (near modern-day Baghdad). While some Jews were able to return to Israel under the reign of the Persian Emperor Cyrus, many stayed in Iraq, remaining for generations through successive empires. In a 1917 census of Baghdad, at least a third of the city’s population was Jewish.
The tide turned against the Jews at the beginning of June 1941, known as Farhud, when about 180 Jews were killed and Jewish homes were burned. Conditions worsened for Jews after the creation of Israel in 1948. Iraqi Jews faced more persecution, and most of the Jewish population fled to Israel. Iraq declared that any Jew leaving the country would have his assets frozen and would lose his citizenship—a printed declaration that appears in the Jewish archive.
“In most of the Arab world there were very big old, old Jewish communities and they were very much part of society there,” said Dangoor, whose father left Iraq in the 1930s. Dangoor’s grandfather refused to leave Iraq until the 1970s, when he was 92, but he was unusual. Arab persecution forced most Jews to leave, and Dangoor noted that many educated Muslim families in Iraq left with the Jewish families too.
“Babylonian Jewry had survived the violent conquests of the Mongols and the Black Death, but not the founding of the state of Israel,” said Dangoor.
With the rise of the Baathist Party in the late 1960s, persecution of the remaining Jews worsened. In 1969, nine Jews were hanged publicly as spies, though they had no real trial. The regime killed dozens more that year. Iraqi Jews now living in New York recall being arrested for being Jewish and tortured. By the time the United States invaded Iraq, just a handful of Jews remained in the country and they live inconspicuously.
After 2,700 years of history, this small exhibit may be one of the only enduring physical records of the Jews in Iraq. The U.S. National Archives was not sure whether any other Iraqi Jewish artifacts survived in the world. A spokesperson for the Museum of Jewish Heritage said Iraq may have some more artifacts of the Babylonian Jews. Jewish groups say a number of Torah scrolls remain in Iraq, and Iraq still has geographic memorials, like the tombs of the prophets Nahum and Ezekiel. Because the families had to leave their possessions when they were smuggled out of Iraq, there is little physical reminder of their rich history. One Iraqi Jewish woman who visited the exhibit told the staff that all she had brought from Iraq was a photo album.
The exhibit, though small, is rich in details of daily life, like notes from a chemistry class at one of the elite Jewish schools in Baghdad, where Jews as well as Muslims and Christians were educated together in French and English. There’s a handwritten letter from an Armenian Christian group in 1962 asking some Jewish businessmen to play them in a basketball game. Correspondence shows the reach that Iraqi Jewish businessmen had in the early 20th century, to Britain and India and Asia. One letter from a Baghdad Jewish businessman in 1920 refers to “our Hong Kong office.” Dangoor said he recognized the names of some of his friends in the school records. Shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Dangoor got a call from an Iraqi Muslim businessman who wanted to meet. The two met and talked through the afternoon and into the night; the Shiite Muslim told Dangoor that his parents had sent him to a Jewish school in Iraq. The last Jewish school closed in Iraq in the 1970s.
“It would be wonderful to visit Iraq and Baghdad the way it was,” said Dangoor. “But it’s no longer the way it was.”