MIAMI – American special forces stormed the basement of the notorious Mukhabarat, the headquarters of Saddam Hussein’s secret police, shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And while they didn’t find the alleged weapons of mass destruction, nor the Iraqi dictator himself, what they did find was a rare collection of artifacts from the Iraqi Jewish community dating back hundreds of years, including a Hebrew Bible and Babylonian Talmud.
The collection was waterlogged and damaged, and the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq placed an urgent call to the United States National Archives and Records Administration in Maryland. With permission from local officials, the treasures were soon airlifted to the US in a special rescue operation.
At a cost of $3 million, the collection of over 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents dating from the 16th to the 20th centuries has been preserved, cataloged and digitized. Today, some are being shown in an exhibition touring the US until they are ultimately to be returned to the Iraqi National Archives in Baghdad.
“There is no date,” said US National Archives exhibit director Lisa Royse about the exact time the collection is to be returned to Iraq. “[For now] they are willing to let us extend the archive’s time in the US.”
Currently, 23 objects from the collection are on display in an exhibition called, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” at the Jewish Museum of Florida at Florida International University in Miami Beach. Among them are one of the oldest books in the trove, a Hebrew Bible with commentaries from 1568, and a Babylonian Talmud from 1793.
Royse’s favorite object is the tik, a Torah case from the 19th or 20th century. “It’s just a lovely piece,” she said. “It’s so iconic for the area. It’s one of the few three-dimensional objects they found.”
Other articles include a Passover Haggadah from 1902, a Torah scroll fragment from Genesis — one of 43 Torah scroll fragments found — and numerous documents from the Baghdad Jewish community, including from the chief rabbi’s office and schools.
One of the school records is a 1967 transcript of exam grades from the Frank Iny School – the last Jewish school in Baghdad, which closed in 1973 — for a student named Edwin Shaul Shuker. This bashful-looking student wearing a necktie in the black-and-white photo is now the deputy head of the World Jewish Congress in Europe.
“Whoever chose the documents had no idea who was in the pictures,” said former Pentagon official Harold Rhode, who was part of the archives rescue operation in Iraq. “Shuker was at the exhibit [in Washington]. He stares at a document and starts crying like a baby. It was his report card. I was not there, but the whole story of the project is filled with stories like this.”
Signs in English and Arabic detail not only the exhibition items and conservation efforts, but the history of the Iraqi Jewish community.
Iraqi Jewry goes back 2,500 years, and endured everything from the Babylonian captivity after the destruction of the First Temple, to the Farhud pogrom in 1941, in which 200 Jews were killed. Then came the mass exodus in 1951 in Operations Ezra and Nehemiah, with 90 percent of Iraqi Jews immigrating to Israel.
The Jewish population in Iraq once numbered 130,000. Today, it is believed to be fewer than five.
“I think what’s unique about this exhibit is the story behind it,” said Jo Ann Arnowitz, executive director and chief curator of the Jewish Museum of Florida. “It’s something people have to realize when they come to see it.”
Storming the Mukhabarat
On the morning of Tuesday, May 6, 2003, now-retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Richard “Monty” Gonzales led Mobile Exploitation Team (MET) Alpha to the Mukhabarat headquarters in downtown Baghdad.
The US had just bombed the building — “a typical plain, ugly government building,” Gonzales said — obliterating a square kilometer. However, the scene was anything but typical: One of the bombs, weighing 2,000 lbs., had exited through one side of the building, but hadn’t exploded.
“I definitely had security concerns,” Gonzales said. “In addition to the unexploded ordnance directly outside, the state and infrastructure were not sound. It had been hit on more than one occasion. I had concerns with that.”
Nevertheless, Gonzales led his men through a side entrance. Accompanying him was Rhode, who was at the time the Coalition Provisional Authority liaison to the Iraqi opposition. Also present were Iraqi politician and opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi, as well as several journalists, including Judith Miller, then a New York Times reporter embedded with the US military.
Rhode said that a former Mukhabarat official, who had headed its sections on Jews and Israel, had contacted Chalabi to report that there was a 7th-century Talmud in the building. Chalabi then contacted Rhode and Miller to inform them. When they were at the Mukhabarat headquarters, Rhode said, the informant pointed out the presumed location of the artifact, then vanished.
Gonzales said other reasons prompted the expedition.
“It came up as a site that could perhaps be related to the ongoing search for evidence relating to Saddam’s WMD program, which at the time we still believed existed,” he said.
Inside the ransacked building, Gonzales led the group down two flights of stairs into the basement. Towards the base of the second flight, he could see what turned out to be three to four feet of water and sewage. Gonzales waded in with his interpreter Tewfik Boulenouar and Sergeant First Class Lou Diaz. They removed their jackets before going in.
“It was filthy,” Boulenouar recalled. “There was sewage and dead animals. We moved very, very carefully.”
In the Middle East section of the basement, the men found uniforms from different branches of the Israeli military, a 3D model of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, a Soviet map of the Israeli nuclear reactor in Dimona and a sign in Arabic calling for “the 40th missile” — a reference to the 1991 Gulf War, when Hussein launched 39 Scuds at Israel.
“It was almost obsessive in a way,” Gonzales said. “So much of the facility was devoted to that particular area of interest.”
‘There were records of every single person who was Jewish in Iraq’
In the room with the “40th missile” sign, Boulenouar said, “I started bringing stuff out. There were a lot of books. The first one I brought up, I showed it to Harold [Rhode]. He said, ‘My God, this is from the 1500s.’” Rhode also recalled seeing a floating Torah scroll.
“Chalabi asked me, ‘Harold, what do you want to do?’” Rhode said. “I had a billionth of a second. I said, ‘I want to save it.’ Saving Torahs is like saving a life in Judaism.”
States of damage to the objects varied. Some were floating, others were saturated. There were also items in better shape that were stored in boxes and large metal containers.
“There were stainless steel cases with records of the whole Jewish population in Iraq,” Boulenouar said. “There were records of every single person who was Jewish in Iraq — their ancestries, where they came from, family stuff, surveillance. There were so many documents. It was very weird.”
Gonzales deployed those men not on security detail to enter the muck and retrieve items. They removed their tops, vests, helmets and gloves, leaving only their T-shirts, desert pants and boots.
“We were holding materials with our bare hands,” he said. “We had nothing to help remove or carry, just our normal kit with weapons, radios and vehicles. It was not equal to this sort of mission by any measure.”
Nevertheless, Gonzales led by example.
‘We had nothing to help remove or carry, just our normal kit with weapons, radios and vehicles. It was not equal to this sort of mission by any measure’
“I was carrying stuff out and water splashed and hit me in the face,” he said. “I was as sick as I’ve ever been in my life. I was down for two days.”
Gonzales and his team spent hours pulling the items from the basement to a space outside in an effort to dry them out. After getting approval from his commanding officer, they returned the next day with a team to recover the records.
But the question remained: What do you do with them?
Rhode sought preservation guidance from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“They told me it has to be in a cold place,” Rhode said. “But there was sporadic electricity. I kept saying, ‘Wonderful, I’d like to do that. But it doesn’t work.’ They said, ‘Do the best you can.’”
He found a solution, aided by Chalabi, who had also paid for two trucks to pump out water from the building’s basement, as well as for local Shiite workers to remove sewage. Aided by generators, he provided lighting during the records’ removal.
“Chalabi gave us part of his compound,” Rhode said. “In the courtyard, we spread all the stuff out so it could dry a bit, like the Torah scrolls. If you let a waterlogged piece of leather dry, it becomes like a straitjacket. We dried out things, put the Torahs on the ground… I would roll it on the ground to save it.”
Journalist Miller remembers Rhodes “painstakingly drying all of these ancient pages, manuscripts, documents, baking them in the Iraqi sun,” she said. “There was no other way to fix things.”
Rhode reached out to his former boss, Richard Perle, a former official in the Reagan administration who was then chairman of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee, as well as to former Soviet human rights activist and Israeli cabinet member Natan Sharansky. Sharansky called then-vice president Dick Cheney, and Perle called then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld.
“Cheney and Rumsfeld expressed an interest in the Jewish archives,” Rhode recalled, and that’s when the Americans took over the archives program.
Restoration and exhibition by the US National Archives
A few weeks after the discovery, two American experts — National Archives Director of Preservation Programs Doris Hamburg and Conservation Chief Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler – flew in to evaluate the artifacts, which had been placed inside 27 aluminum trunks. They flew them out on a plane to the US.
While some artifacts couldn’t be saved (they were burned in a New York cemetery with the Iraqi ambassador present), the National Archives restored thousands of others.
A conservation team unpacked the trunks and catalogued each item, entering them into an online database. Team members separated waterlogged pages, removed mold, mended tears and dealt with insect damage and missing pages.
Once restored, the artifacts went on display to the public at the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery at the National Archives in Washington, DC, in November 2013. The exhibition then moved to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City in 2014.
That was supposed to be the last stop in the US before being sent back to Iraq that summer as part of a 2003 agreement with the Iraqi government. However, just a few days before the New York exhibition ended, a deal was reached after Jewish groups and members of Congress had called for the US government to reconsider the terms of the original agreement.
On May 14, 2014, Lukman Faily, the Iraqi ambassador to the US, said in a statement that his government had authorized an extension period in which the exhibit may remain in the United States and be displayed in other cities. No specific return date was given.
A new tour began just over a year later, starting at the National Archives at Kansas City, Missouri, and then continuing on to the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California. The collection arrived at the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach in December 2015, just in time for Hanukkah.
“When I heard it was a possibility to host [the exhibit], I sent a request very early on, a couple years ago,” museum director Arnowitz said. “I was holding the time slot in hopes that we got it. It’s our peak season when we get visits from all over the world.”
“The Iraqi Jewish Archive is in the temporary custody of the US National Archives and Records Administration for conservation, preservation, digitization and, to the extent practicable, exhibition,” Department of State spokesperson Noel Clay wrote in an email. “The project is proceeding in accordance with the August 2003 agreement, with both governments remaining in regular contact on its progress.”
A permanent home for the records… in Israel?
Several individuals who were present when the collection was discovered during the Iraq War, however, have voiced concern over what will happen once the tour ends.
The US tour is scheduled to end in the summer of 2016 and at some point following, the exhibition is planned to be shown at the Iraqi National Archives in Baghdad. “That’s its final venue,” exhibit director Royse said.
Some have called for a permanent destination outside Iraq — either in the US or Israel.
“To whom does it belong?” asked Rhode, who has grappled with this question ever since he navigated in waist-deep waters to rescue a floating Torah scroll in Iraq over a decade ago. “The answer, to me, is that it belongs to the people who used it, the Jews of Iraq… It belongs to them, not the Iraqi government.”
‘When you take over a country, you can’t steal its treasures’
Rhode and others believe the time is ripe to reexamine the terms of the agreement under which the artifacts arrived in the US.
“International law says you can’t take the patrimony. When you take over a country, you can’t steal its treasures,” Rhode said. But, he followed that up by saying: “The US government has taken millions and millions of documents from the period when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq. They’re still in the US. We’re not giving them back.”
He said that the artifacts on display in Miami Beach were stolen by Saddam. “The Jews did not relinquish this material on their own will; they did it under duress, having no other option… We know how and we know when. They’re in a limbo now. Who can you give it back to? Will it be safe?”
Gonzales, who led the recovery effort on the ground, said the documents will not be safe in Iraq.
“In my opinion, it should never be returned to Iraq, for all the obvious reasons,” he said. “I think there’s the historical significance, and I feel strongly that if they are to return, there is no guarantee they will exist one year from now. [In the US] they’re in the hands of stewards interested in safeguarding and protecting them.”
Another veteran from the rescue team had a different take.
“If it can be safely secured, preserved and looked after, it would be very meaningful if it can be back in Iraq, with the community caring for it [from which it] originated or belonged to,” countered Kirt Lewis, who served as a pastor both before and after his tour of duty in Iraq. “I can understand if there is any question as to whether or not it can be safely secured. I don’t know the particulars of the situation.”
Perhaps the uncertain state of the Iraqi Jewish collection mirrors the uncertain recent history of Iraq itself, currently embroiled in a civil war between the national government and the Islamic State.
Former New York Times reporter Miller, who controversially reported from Iraq while on the hunt for WMD, told The Times of Israel, “I would like to see [the exhibition] one more time. It was the most productive thing I did in Iraq.”
“It seems to me that the material ought to belong to the Jewish community, the Iraqi Jewish community,” Miller said, adding that there are more Iraqi Jews now in the US than in Baghdad.
In Rhode’s opinion, the ideal destination for the collection is the Museum of Babylonian Jewry outside Tel Aviv. “It’s the only museum of Iraqi Jewish heritage that exists,” he said.
He said he feels the archive belongs in Israel in general. He remembers a conversation with a Pentagon lawyer who is an Orthodox Jew when they were looking at a Torah section in the exhibit. She noted that the parsha was from “Lech Lecha” in Genesis, in which God tells Abraham to leave his home for the promised land.
According to Jewish tradition, Abraham came from the city of Ur, which scholars believe is in present-day Iraq.
“From a personal point of view, this was my bar mitzvah portion,” Rhode said. In regards to the archives,“It [the parsha] was screaming at you, saying: ‘Out of Iraq, to Israel where I belong.’”
For now, the Iraqi Jewish heritage exhibition will remain on display in Miami until March. After that it’s anyone’s guess where the collection will go.