News / Middle East

Iraqi Jews Seek to Prevent Return of Religious Artifacts to Iraq

Iraqi Jews Try to Prevent Return of Artifacts to Iraqi
X
January 31, 2014 9:05 PM
On Tuesday, February 4, part of a trove of Jewish artifacts seized by Saddam Hussein and uncovered during the Iraq war will go on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Iraqi Jews in America are trying to keep the collection from being sent back to Iraq after the exhibit, as the U.S. government has promised. VOA Religion Correspondent Jerome Socolovsky spoke to one of the leaders of the effort.
Iraqi Jews Try to Prevent Return of Artifacts to Iraq
Maurice Shohet shuffles through a box full of old black-and-white photos and reminisces about growing up in Baghdad, in one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities.

The snapshots show family weddings and bar-mitzvahs, and there’s one of him and his brothers in t-shirts, and his mother in a bulky old rowboat on the serene waters of the Tigris River.

The Shohet family fled Iraq in 1970 - crossing the border on foot in the dead of night - during the reign of Saddam Hussein’s Arab nationalist Baath Party. But Shohet is still proud of his fatherland.

“I love Iraq because I was born and raised there. And the people are wonderful,” he said, wistfully. “We cannot equate what happened at the time by the Baath regime as reflecting everybody.”

Shohet loaned his family album to accompany a National Archives exhibit of a trove of Jewish religious books and community documents found in Baghdad during the Iraq war.

U.S. soldiers searching for weapons of mass destruction discovered them in the flooded basement of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service.

The exhibit, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” opens next week at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, after being on display since November at the National Archives in Washington. It will run in New York until May 18.

Iraq’s Jews once numbered about 150,000 and the archive offers a glimpse at the life of one of the most important Jewish communities of the Middle East, which dates back thousands of years, but was driven out in the 20th century amid Arab nationalism and the founding of Israel.

In total, more than 2,700 books and documents were recovered from the Mukhabarat headquarters, including dozens of Torah fragments, a “tik,” or Torah scroll case, and scriptural books dating back to the 16th century. Many were printed in Baghdad, but some were brought from faraway places such as Venice.

They were in such bad shape - soggy and stuck together, and covered with mold - that they had to be frozen immediately despite the war situation, said Doris Hamburg, who directed the preservation effort.

“They were able, believe it or not, to find a freezer truck in these very difficult circumstances in Baghdad,” she said.

According to the U.S.-Iraqi agreement to bring the items to the United States for restoration, they are scheduled to be shipped back to Iraq after the process is completed this year. The U.S. State Department says it has trained Iraqi archivists to make sure the collection is protected in Baghdad.

Iraqi Jews living in the U.S., though, backed by major Jewish organizations, say the U.S. government had no right to promise to return the archive.

Iraq's ambassador offered in an interview with the Jewish Daily Forward to delay the return of the artifacts.

For Maurice Shohet, that is not enough. He argued that Iraqi-Jewish expatriates were never consulted about the agreement, and maintains the items still belong to them.

“Because they were confiscated from us to begin with,” he said. “So it has to be returned to the community, since there is no community left in Iraq, only five people who are afraid even to meet each other.”

  • A Babylonian Talmud before restoration. This volume of the Talmud discusses laws and topics relating to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. (U.S. National Archives)
  • A restored Babylonian Talmud. This volume of the Talmud discusses laws and topics relating to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. (U.S. National Archives)
  • IJA conservator Katherine Kelly works on an artifact. (U.S. National Archives)
  • This colorfully illustrated French and Hebrew Haggadah was published in Vienna and is pictured before restoration. (U.S. National Archives)
  • This colorfully illustrated French and Hebrew Haggadah was published in Vienna and is pictured after restoration. (U.S. National Archives)
  • Iraqi Jewish Archive material being sorted. (U.S. National Archives)
  • Materials drying in Iraq. (U.S. National Archives)
  • Materials are piled up before treatment and restoration. (U.S. National Archives)
  • A Torah case. (U.S. National Archives)
  • A close up of the detail on a Torah case. (U.S. National Archives)

Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

You May Like

Ukraine: Mysterious 'Roaming Tank' Reportedly Takes Aim at Smugglers

Ukraine's TV, print media, Facebook abuzz with reports a 'roaming tank' is on the loose, destroying vehicles of those involved in smuggling More

US Wildlife Service Begins Probe of Killing of Cecil the Lion

Minnesota man accused of killing beast is in hiding, has been asked to contact US officials; White House to review extradition petition More

Video Kerry Tour Will Cover Security, Iran Nuclear Deal

US secretary of state to visit 5 countries in the Middle East, South Asia in bid to strengthen economic and security ties, ease concerns over deal with Tehran More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’i
X
July 29, 2015 9:34 PM
Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs