WASHINGTON - The tattered Torah scroll fragments, Bibles and other religious texts found in a flooded Baghdad basement 10 years ago testify to a once-thriving Jewish population that's all but disappeared from Iraq.
Recovered from the Iraqi intelligence headquarters and shipped to the United States for years of painstaking conservation was a literary trove of more than 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents that are being digitized and put online. A sample of that treasure is being displayed for the first time this fall at the National Archives in Washington.
"One thing that is particularly touching about them, or particularly interesting about them, is that they connect to a community that no longer lives in Iraq," said Doris Hamburg, the National Archives' director of preservation programs.
The exhibit of two dozen items offers a rare glimpse into a Jewish population that dates to antiquity but dispersed after Israel was created in 1948. But the decision to return the collection to Iraq after its display here has raised bitter feelings among Iraqi Jews in the United States and stirred debate about whom the materials belong to: the country where they were found or the people who once owned them?
Iraqi Jews consider the artifacts part of their heritage and say a nation that decades ago drove out its Jewish citizens doesn't deserve to recover sacred objects of an exiled population. Some also fear there's no constituency of Jews remaining in Iraq to ensure the books are maintained, especially in a country still riven by violent conflict.
A petition circulating among Iraqi Jews seeks to prevent the materials from being returned and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., made a similar public statement to the State Department last week. Some have written newspaper opinion pieces urging the items to be shared with the exiled Jewish community and have discussed burying torn Torah scroll pieces, as is customary for holy texts that are no longer usable.
"The fact is these were archives that belonged to the Jewish community in Iraq," said Gina Waldman, president of Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa and a Libyan Jew. "They need to be returned to their rightful owners. They were looted from the Jewish community and they rightfully should be returned."
State Department officials have expressed confidence that the Iraqi government will make the materials accessible in an educational exhibit. The materials will be housed in Iraq's national library and archives, with the goal of helping future generations understand the contributions Iraqi Jews made and the repression that they endured, said Saad Eskander, director of the Iraqi institution. Though an adviser to the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities said there were no current plans to exhibit the materials and that the public and researchers would be able to see them online, Eskander said an exhibition would happen either next year or 2015.
"Now, Iraqis have no problem in accepting the fact that the Jews are true Iraqi patriots who can live with their culture in a multi-cultural society," Eskander said, calling the archive part of the country's history and cultural heritage. He said the country now has the ability to adequately protect the materials. Two Iraqi conservators are expected to receive specialized training here ahead of the collection's relocation.
The artifacts were found in May 2003 after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime as American troops searched for weapons of mass destruction. They found the material in the flooded basement of the Iraqi intelligence building, its water system damaged by an unexploded bomb.
An intelligence official had tipped authorities to the collection's existence, and though rumors of an ancient Talmud proved false, the discovery was nonetheless remarkable: a 16th century Bible printed in Venice, centuries-old Torah scroll fragments, Hebrew year calendars and reams of school records of Jewish students in Baghdad. There's also a colorful 1930 Haggadah, or Passover narrative, depicting a family dining; a flood-damaged Torah case originally covered with velvet and metal; and school primers conspicuously missing pages professing loyalty to an Iraqi king murdered in a 1958 military coup.
"All this together gives the impression and the feeling that we had a rich history," said Maurice Shohet, president of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq and a project consultant.
The exhibit will open Nov. 8 after being delayed by the recent federal government shutdown. It's scheduled to run through Jan. 5.
The Iraqi Jewish heritage traces to ancient Babylonia, predating the Muslim communities that settled there and surviving ever-changing conquerors. By 1910, Jews comprised roughly a quarter of Baghdad's population. But Nazi-inspired riots in 1941, known as the Farhud, left some 180 Jews dead and helped drive out the population. In the early 1950s, forced to relinquish citizenship and stripped of their assets, some 120,000 Jews fled.
The belongings they left were eventually stored by Hussein's secret police, presumably to help gather intelligence on the population, said Harold Rhode, a retired Defense Department official who was assigned to the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-headed agency that governed Iraq after the invasion. He said he was stunned that the Iraqi government found value in the books.
"I could understand anything vis-a-vis Israel because Saddam saw Israel as an enemy," Rhode said. "From a logical Western point of view, why do you need religious texts? Do you think you're going to find the deep, dark secrets of how Jews think?"
National Archives representatives traveled to Baghdad to inspect the documents, which were dried outdoors, stored in metal trunks and shipped frozen to the United States to be individually freeze-dried and preserved. A team of conservators has worked on the documents in an archives building in College Park, Md., while other specialists digitize them for online use.
The collection will be returned to Iraq next year under a 2003 agreement between the National Archives and the Coalition Provisional Authority. Discussions since then have been occasionally tense. Documents obtained by The Associated Press through public records requests reveal sensitive State Department meetings with Jewish leaders to address some of the concerns, and requests from organizations including the Anti-Defamation League urging the State Department to reconsider.
"Iraqi officials have stressed to us their desire to preserve all aspects of the country's history, including evidence of repression and persecution by the previous regime, and make that history fully accessible to the Iraqi people and the world," read one 2010 letter from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Joseph Dabby, a Baghdad-born Jew who was jailed three times and had friends and family killed, attended the same Baghdad school whose records are featured in the exhibit. He said he's grateful the documents have been restored, but said he was never consulted about the decision to return the collection and can't imagine why Iraqis would be proud to have it.
"It's very simple: Imagine the government goes in a church and takes stuff from the church," said Dabby, chairman of the board of Kahal Joseph, a Los Angeles synagogue home to Iraqi Jewish families. "Don't you think the people who prayed there in the church own these things? There should be a way to have these communities maintain it, where they have access to it."