A few years ago, in response to a Palestinian critic who made a disparaging remark about the fact that I don’t speak Arabic, I felt compelled to write an article explaining why that is the case. I said that under different circumstances, I could have been born in an Arab country and grown up speaking Arabic. My father’s family had been settled in Iraq for generations, but they fled to England in 1941—the same year that Baghdad’s Jews were convulsed by a June pogrom known as the farhud—presaging a much larger exodus of Iraqi Jews over the next decade.
Among my father and his relatives, there was little nostalgia for the old country, and therefore no reason, as they saw it, to ensure that their children born outside Iraq learned Arabic. It’s not that they didn’t appreciate the centrality of Iraq to Jewish history; this was the land where the Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) was completed, where scholarship flowed from the Jewish academies of Sura and Pumbedita (now the city of Fallujah, site of some of the most brutal fighting during the war in Iraq), and where, in modern times, Jewish merchants flourished alongside Jewish writers and musicians.
Yet there were also more recent memories of Iraq, uglier and sharper. The farhud—a word which Edwin Black, the author of a fine book on the subject, translates as “violent dispossession”—cast a pall over relations between the Jews and their Muslim neighbors, and the mistrust deepened because of the support of many ordinary Arabs for Hitler’s Nazi regime. During the 1950s, anti-Semitic legislation and property confiscation forced the departure of the majority of Iraq’s Jews, but the small remnant who stayed were not immune from persecution. In 1969, the Ba’ath Party fascists ruling Iraq executed 11 Jews on trumped-up charges of spying, transporting Iraqis from all over the country to Baghdad to watch the gruesome spectacle of a public hanging.
Since these images are seared into the minds of Iraqi Jews, it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to understand why the vast majority wouldn’t consider returning there even if they could, and therefore why there are vibrant Iraqi Jewish communities in cities like Tel Aviv, New York, and London, but not Baghdad or Basra. Indeed, the break with the mother country is so irreparable that Iraqi Jews are of one mind when it comes to the current controversy over whether the United States should return an archive of Iraqi Jewish treasures to the Iraqi government: it absolutely should not do so.
The archive of books, photographs, scrolls, writings and communal documents, including one item that dates back to 1658, was discovered by American troops in Baghdad in 2003, as they combed through the flooded basement in the headquarters of Saddam Hussein’s much-feared mukhabarat, or secret police. Lyn Julius, a London-based writer and advocate on behalf of Jewish communities from the Arab world, has noted that the archive was seized by Saddam’s henchmen from the Bataween synagogue in Baghdad, in 1984. If the archive was stolen from its Jewish guardians at gunpoint, why on earth would the State Department, which has spent millions of dollars lovingly restoring its contents, return it to the Iraqi government? Simply because that government has suddenly decided that the archive constitutes, as one Iraqi representative put it, “part of our identity and history”? Or because the U.S. feels duty bound to respect an agreement it made at the time to return the archive?
Julius and other advocates on behalf of Iraqi Jews make a strong case that returning the archive essentially involves restoring stolen property to those who stole it. Instead, they say, the archive should sit with its rightful owners themselves, the close-knit Iraqi Jewish communities spread around Israel and the countries of the West.
On moral and legal grounds, I cannot counter this position. But here’s a confession: I wish I could.
I wish I could envisage the sight of the archive on display in a Baghdad museum, much as it will be at the National Archives in Washington next month, with crowds of schoolchildren gathering to learn about the great community that lived among their great-grandparents. I wish I could organize a family trip to Iraq to see that hypothetical exhibition, safe in the knowledge that what is being shown belongs to our community, and that we are sharing it with the other ethnic and religious groups among whom we lived. I wish I could discover where my grandparents resided, in much the same way that American Jews of Polish or German extraction freely go on visits to these and other countries in Europe, walking the same streets trodden by their ancestors. I even wish that I were eligible to reclaim the Iraqi citizenship my grandparents lost, just like those descendants of Jews from Poland and Germany who can now obtain the passports of those countries not as a privilege, but as a right.
Most of all, I wish that after being displayed in Baghdad, the archive could go on a tour whose first stop would be the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, or Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv. What better symbol of reconciliation could there be?
All that, sadly, is a pipe dream. Iraq today is not Germany, a country that solemnly commemorates the barbarism of the Nazis and is home to a thriving Jewish community. As far as the Jews are concerned, Iraq now—with the important exception of the Kurdish region, whose people have a noble record of aiding Jews in plight—is the same Iraq of yesteryear, where populist anti-Semitism runs deep, hatred of Israel is a doctrine, and denial bordering on contempt overwhelms any discussion of the Iraqi Jewish exodus of the 20th century.
So, yes, those Jews who say that Iraq has done nothing to deserve the return of stolen Jewish property are correct. Still, I can’t help wishing that would not be the case.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.