The Iraqi Jewish Archive

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What is true is that the Jewish community in what is now Iraq is of ancient and distinguished lineage—more ancient than any other outside the Holy Land. For more than 2,500 years, from the Assyrian conquest of Israel and then the Babylonian conquest of Judah, Jews resided along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates as an integral minority, and by the 20th century had long learned to accommodate themselves to new rulers and new empires washing back and forth. But in the race unleashed by the British after their conquest of the territory, Jews along with Christians, Kurds, and other minorities were soon crushed by Muslim supremacism, now cloaked in the name of Iraqi nationalism.

The process of dispossessing Jews from the new state of Iraq began almost immediately with the dismissal of Jewish officials in 1934 and 1936, unofficially complemented by bombings of Jewish establishments in 1936 and 1938 and culminating in the Farhud massacre of June 1941. The official process intensified with the criminalization of Zionism in 1948. A year later, Prime Minister Nuri as-Said was describing to foreign diplomats a plan to expel Iraq's Jews. The climax occurred with a 1950 bill on de-naturalization, confiscating the property of Jews who emigrated, and the bombing of Baghdad's Masuda Shemtob Synagogue in January 1951.

By March 1951, 120,000 Jews had left Iraq, being permitted to take with them no more than 50 pounds sterling per adult and 20 per child. In 1952, the gates were closed. In 1963, Jews were forbidden to sell property. After the Six-Day war of 1967, Jews were dismissed from jobs, their property seized, bank accounts frozen, and telephones disconnected. Jews were hanged as alleged spies in 1968 and 1969. By the 1970s, the few remaining Jews were permitted to leave after being pressured to turn over title to property. When the Americans arrived in 2003, perhaps two or three dozen remained.

By what right should a society that barely tolerated and then expelled its Jews, and that loathes and forbids the presence of Jews now, be given 27 cases of Jewish documents and books? Saad Eskander, the director of the Iraq National Library and Archives, has stated one rationale: "Iraqis must know that we are a diverse people, with different traditions, different religions, and we need to accept this diversity ... [and] that Baghdad was always multiethnic." A glance at the headlines from Iraq suggests that such noble aspirations are increasingly belied by reality.

Besides, should the materials be returned to Iraq, what assurances are there that anyone, much less Jews, will have access to them? What assurances that the materials will be preserved at all? Countless artifacts from Israeli excavations in Sinai were returned to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace agreement. No one knows their fate, but rumors have long circulated that they were simply dumped alongside the road. Similar proposals have been made regarding artifacts, even demonstrably Jewish ones, excavated in the West Bank, which Israel is being urged to turn over to the Palestinian Authority as a confidence-building measure. Intellectuals, who in other settings deplore "politicization" of the past, are usually at the forefront of such seemingly therapeutic schemes.

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Alexander H. Joffe is an archaeologist and historian specializing in the Middle East and contemporary international affairs. From 1980 to 2003 he participated in and directed archaeological research in Israel, Jordan, Greece and the United States.