One day in 1984, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein sent his henchmen to Bataween synagogue, one of the last working houses of Jewish prayer in Baghdad. The men carted off a trove of books and documents retrieved from Jewish homes, schools and synagogues. The material had been deposited for safe keeping in the ladies' gallery. The few remaining Jews were aghast to see the archive driven away in trucks from under their noses.
Ten years have elapsed since the US military discovered 2,700 Jewish books and 10,000 documents in the waterlogged basement of Saddam's secret police headquarters in Baghdad. But the restoration work could not be done on the spot, and the provisional government (CPA) decided to ship the ' Iraqi-Jewish archive', as it became known, out to the US. The CPA signed an agreement promising that the archive would be returned as soon as the restoration was complete.
The archive was taken to the National archives depot in Texas and vacuum-freeze-dried. The US State Department has since spent over $3 million stabilizing, digitizing, photographing and cataloguing the material. Archivists worked painstakingly to save what they could, prizing pages apart, removing mould and watermarks, re-gluing and sometimes sewing bindings by hand.
Some 24 items were selected for display at the National Archives building in Washington DC, an incongruous sight alongside the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The Discovery and Recovery exhibition attracted 16,000 visitors, a record for a temporary exhibition. The exhibition re-opens at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York on 5 February.
Among the key items are a 400-year-old Hebrew Bible; a 200-year-old Talmud from Vienna; a copy of the book of Numbers in Hebrew published in Jerusalem in 1972; a scroll of Esther; a Haggadah edited by the chief rabbi of Baghdad; holy writings published in Venice in 1568; a copy of Ethics of the Fathers, published in Livorno, Italy in 1928 with commentary written in Judeo-Arabic; a calendar with lists of duties and prayers for each holy day printed in Baghdad in 1972; a collection of rabbi's sermons printed in Germany in 1692; thousands of books printed in Vienna, Livorno, Jerusalem, Izmir, and Vilna; miscellaneous communal records from 1920-1953; lists of male Jewish residents, school records, financial records, applications for university admissions. This archive does not have great rarity value and the handwritten notes in the margins are more precious. But all in all, it is a unique record of Iraqi-Jewish history of primary interest to the Jews to whom the books belong - many of whom are still alive.
On a chilly December morning, in the presence of Iraqi government officials, the World Organisation of Jews from Iraq held a ceremony to bury unusable or pasool fragments of Torah scrolls at a Jewish cemetery in the aptly-named town of West Babylon, NY.
But the rest of the archive is scheduled to go back when the digitizing process is complete - probably in June 2014.
The prospective return of the Iraqi-Jewish archive has sent Iraqi Jews into paroxysms of outrage. US Jewish organisations, congressmen and senators have raised their voices in indignation. Several articles have appeared in the mainstream press and media calling for the archive not to go back to Iraq. Nearly 10,000 people have signed a petition.
Iraq is adamant: It wants the archive back. "They represent part of our history and part of our identity. There was a Jewish community in Iraq for 2,500 years," said Samir Sumaidaie, the former Iraqi ambassador to the United States. "It is time for our property to be repatriated."
Repatriated? That assumes that the archive was Iraq's property to begin with. There is a bitter irony in Iraq, which has driven its pre-Islamic Jewish community to extinction, having dispossessed them on the way out, demanding the return of 'its property'. It should be noted that the US shipped tens of thousands of documents out of Iraq after its invasion, but the forlorn and random reminders of Iraq's Jewish community are the only documents Iraq is insisting must be returned.
Legally, the US government did the correct thing to sign an agreement. Morally, it was a singular act of blindness.
The archive is the cultural property of the Iraqi-Jewish community, and save for five Jews still in Baghdad out of a community of 140,000, Jews no longer live in Iraq, but in Israel and the West. To return the archive to Iraq would be like 'returning stolen property to the Nazis'.
When Iraq did have a Jewish community, the regime took every step to persecute and destroy it. What is there to stop Iraq losing interest in the archive the minute it arrives back on Iraqi soil? Or more likely - selling the items off on the international market to the highest bidder? There are practical objections to return, too. Despite assurances to the contrary, Iraq itself does not have the resources to conserve and store the archive safely. Daily bombings and the advance of Al-Qaeda on Iraqi soil hardly inspire confidence.
Even if the archive is digitized and accessible online, Iraq's Jews and their descendants, 90 percent of whom are in Israel, will be debarred from access to the original documents.
The issue of the archive not only draws attention to the mass spoliation of nearly a million Jews driven from the Arab world, but is a test case. Here at last is a unique opportunity to return Jewish property to its rightful owners. Will the US take it up?