(March 15, 2018 / JNS) I launched what is now an internationally acclaimed documentary last year, titled “Remember Baghdad,” which chronicles the history of the Jews of Iraq until the community’s destruction in recent decades. It’s already been seen by many thousands of people, from Jews and non-Jews around the world to senior Iraqi diplomats.
So it is with great interest that I read the article “Iraqi-Jewish archive triggers ‘traumatic memories,’ ” published on Al Jazeera a few weeks ago. While in part, it nicely encapsulates issues like the history and sensitivity surrounding the Iraqi Jewish Archive and Iraqi Jewry’s feelings towards our former homeland, it missed some vital elements.
First, and perhaps importantly, it should be recognized that the archive is mostly private and community artifacts, from family heirlooms to school records. These were not the property of the state, and were taken from the homes and communities that we were forced to abandon as tens of thousands of Jews—many of whom had been living in these lands for thousands of years—fled increasing atrocities, pogroms and attacks against our communities.
A condition for being able to flee to sanctuary and safety was that we leave behind our properties, assets and goods.
That they were confiscated by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s Intelligence Agency and left in a basement until discovery by the U.S. Army during the Iraq war should not nullify the nature of this stolen property.
Secondly, while we are indeed indebted to the United States for rescuing and restoring the archive, which would undoubtedly have been left to rot otherwise, it’s not American property.
However, the answer to what happens next should lie in not whose property it is, but where would it be best preserved and provide access for all, especially in its potential use as a gateway towards better relations between Jews and Arabs.
Between 1950 and 1952, approximately 130,000 Iraqi Jews were airlifted to Israel, where they became fully integrated into the country despite their arrival with no assets. This constituted around 75 percent of the total Iraqi Jewish community at the time. While the creation of the State of Israel was the proximate driver, the Jewish community, which had been living in many places around Iraq, had already been traumatized by the Nazi-directed troubles in the early 1940s that highlighted the need for a safe haven, which Israel now represented.
Those of us who remained behind subsequently fled in the ensuing years—after the Iraqi government stripped us of our citizenship, property and business interests—to places like the United Kingdom.
Many of us, despite how it ended, look back fondly on our lives in Iraq and are deeply proud of our more than three-millennia sojourn there. Some of the greatest rabbis, scholars and artists enriched not only world Jewry with their work, but the non-Jewish world around them.
Arabic was our mother tongue, our culture and a strong part of our identity. Iraq is still in our blood and in our bones. It’s like a distant bell ringing in the back of our heads, always reminding us where we came from.
For those, like for me, Baghdad is the formation of our identity.
To be a Jew is sometimes to be a bridge to the past, but I believe that we can also serve as bridges to the future.
In the Iraq where I was raised, Jew, Christian, Muslim, Sunni or Shia worked, learned, sang and danced together. We lived side by side in peace and harmony.
I believe that while the Jewish community there is no more, perhaps the Iraqi Jewish Archive can serve as a new conduit between peoples, nations and religions.
With ISIS finally expelled from Iraq, this could be an auspicious time for Jews of Iraqi origins to rebuild ties with our former country, and for the leaders of the Republic of Iraq to provide gestures of reconciliation to its Diaspora Jewish community.
We hope it could begin with ensuring the Jewish character of holy sites such as the Prophet Ezekiel and Ezra the Scribe, and that the cemeteries of our families and ancestors are well-maintained. Most of all, we hope to be provided with visas to visit Iraq, or better still, to have our passports and citizenship returned and restored.
I know I speak for many when I say I would love to travel to Iraq to see my family home on the banks of the Tigris and visit the places in my dreams of childhood.
For that to happen, there would need to be a complete change in the way the people and government of Iraq viewed people of different faiths. There would need to be a genuine desire to welcome them, treat them with care and consideration, and respect their national aspirations—something now common in many parts of the world.
If this were to be achieved, it would matter less where the archive resided because we would have access to it. Perhaps an agreement could be formulated whereby the archive would also be on display at various locations, allowing this collection of artifacts to educate and inform others.
For Jews and non-Jews around the world, this could serve as a testament to the good relations that Jews and Arabs shared in the past, and serve as a point of entry in exploring how these ties could become strong and vibrant once again.
To Iraqis, the archive communicates the long-standing Jewish community that lived among them. They could demystify the tradition and culture of the Jewish people in the hopes of exploding certain myths and as a point of greater engagement.
I call on all those who are involved in the issue not to use the Iraqi Jewish Archive as a point of division, but instead, as a point of unity and harmony. Not to hide the materials away in the dark, but to allow the artifacts to shine a light in informing the world about how Jews and Arabs are not so very different. About how we can and should live side by side.
Let these artifacts inspire and not discourage relationships, so that we can regain aspirations of a better future for all the peoples of the region.
The writer, a Jewish businessmen and philanthropist living in the United Kingdom, was born in Baghdad and has served as vice president of the World Organisation of Jews from Iraq (WOJI) for the past 10 years.