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Torah scrolls of the Iraqi-Jewish community at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda. Photo by Lily Shor.
Torah scrolls of the Iraqi-Jewish community at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda. Photo by Lily Shor.
featureJewish Diaspora

The secret archive of the Iraqi Jews

The documents were rescued during the Iraq War and are now in Washington. The Baghdad regime wants them back.

Dr. Harold Rhode spoke at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda, near Ben-Gurion Airport, on Tuesday, delivering an extensive lecture regarding his central role in the rescue and preservation of an immense Iraqi-Jewish archive that was uncovered during the U.S. occupation of Baghdad in 2003.

Speaking to an audience of primarily Jewish émi​grés from Iraq, many of whose family documents were found in the archive, Rhode emphasized its importance in the story of Iraqi Jewry.

“This is your heritage, these are your letters, your marriage certificates, your communal documents and your holy texts,” Rhode said. “This is the inheritance that you have every right to.”

Rhode served as a cultural and historical expert on Islam and the Middle East at the Pentagon for more than 28 years. During his career, he took a special interest in Iraq and Shia Islam, developing a close relationship with top members of the Iraqi opposition and the dissident movement against Saddam Hussein.

In 2003, Rhode joined the American forces in Baghdad during the opening stages of the Iraq War, in his capacity as an Islamic expert.

“There are about a dozen coincidences or miracles that led me to the archive in the first place and then another dozen that helped me get the archive out,” he told JNS.

According to Rhode, as the American forces rolled into Baghdad, many members of the old regime began spilling intelligence information in the hope of achieving some sort of immunity under the new administration due to their collaborator status. One of these collaborators was the head of the “Jewish Wing” of the Iraqi Intelligence Service, also known as the Mukhabarat.

In his lecture, Rhode described the clandestine phone call that he received from the head of the Iraqi opposition telling him that a secret Jewish archive was uncovered in the Iraqi intelligence headquarters.

“I remember the phone rang and Ahmed Chalabi called me and told me to drop everything and get over to the Mukhabarat as soon as possible. I had no idea what I was about to stumble upon,” he said.

A document from the chief rabbi of Baghdad. Credit: The National Archive in Washington.

The archive found

Rhode found a semi-collapsed building that a half-ton munition had torn through. Luckily, the bomb was a dud that buried itself deep into the ground a few meters from where the Jewish archive would be found.

“Everything was half rubble, When we got into the basement where the archive was stored there was damage to the plumbing so the place was flooded with water to the waist,” he described.

Over the next two days, an old water truck slowly pumped out the room while Rhode tried to activate his American and Israeli connections to save the archive.

“Originally the Americans were completely uninterested and the Israels could only really give advice,” he recalled. “I am a historian by profession, not a restoration expert. They were asking me to dry the books and then put them in cooling but there was no electricity so that was out of the question. In the end, they just said, ‘Do what you can.'”

After two days, the water level receded to ankle depth, which allowed Rhode to move in with a small group of Iraqi day laborers and begin moving the books and documents out one by one. The soaked books were very heavy. As each was removed it was laid out on the ground to dry in the sun.

Drying the books led to a religious dilemma as the archive contained a large number of holy books including a Torah scroll. According to Jewish law, it is illegal to place sacred text on the ground, and dropping a Torah scroll traditionally bears the consequence of a 40-day fast for the entire community.

The documents, rescued during the Iraq War, are in Washington. The Bagdad regime wants them back.
A document from Chief Rabbi of Mosul Slimon Barzani. He made aliyah in 1951 and died in 1961. Credit: The National Archive in Washington.

Holy work

“I was very concerned about this question but after talking to rabbis in Israel, they explicitly said that there is no religious problem because this work was holy and they even likened it to a case where someone’s life is threatened, in which circumstance almost all Jewish law is canceled,” Rhode explained.

The entire task took around six and a half weeks of intense labor. All the while, Rhode was trying to get the American government to contribute to the effort.

“Many weeks into the project I got in touch with some high-level people in Israel and asked them to make contact with the U.S. vice president [Dick Cheney] and secretary of defense [Donald Rumsfeld],” Rhode told JNS.

“Almost immediately after that, American officials showed up with some very advanced technology and the entire archive was quickly loaded on a plane for transfer to a restoration lab in Houston.”

The archive contains thousands of books, scrolls and documents, including texts that date back to the 1500s.

“The archive is a vast ocean of information that sheds light onto every aspect of the Iraqi-Jewish community,” Lily Shor, the director of events at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, told JNS. “Until the archive almost all we had was memoirs, but these texts show us the unfiltered day-to-day experience of the Jewish community there. What they worried about. What they thought was important.”

The archive sheds light on the dilemmas the Jews faced, including letters from community leaders to politicians asking for help with civil rights and economic concerns. The archive also contains documentation of the antisemitic violence that befell the Jewish community in the aftermath of the establishment of the State of Israel, including lists of jailed persons, lists of properties destroyed in riots, and documents relating to the execution of alleged spies.

The fate of the archive is uncertain. It is currently housed in the National Archives in Washington, but a claim by the Iraqi government has put the Jewish archive’s future on thin ice.

“The Iraqis claim the records that they stole from the Jews as their own heritage, instead of the families of the original owners. This is an absurdity,” Shor said. “We will never be able to see those records if they are transferred to Iraq.”

Shor has been trying to investigate family records in the archive and has transferred copies of relevant documents to known family members whenever possible.

Rhode said, “The children and grandchildren of the original authors are almost all in Israel. This is their inheritance and their history, not Iraq’s.”

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