Will the U.S. Allow Iraq to Steal a Jewish Treasure?
I saw something amazing today. The National Archives of the United States, which houses the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, hosted an exhibition of more than 2,700 Iraqi-Jewish artifacts – including Torah parchments and ancient prayer books – from a Baghdad synagogue that was looted under gunpoint by Saddam Hussein in 1984 and discovered in 2003 by U.S. troops in the basement of the Baghdad Intelligence Agency. The rescue of the treasure was orchestrated by former Pentagon analyst and Orthodox Jew Harold Rhode, whose name is on the metal boxes that were shipped from Baghdad but who is curiously not mentioned once in the exhibit. I’m told it’s the first time the National Archives has hosted a collection that is not native to the United States.
The United States spent approximately $3 million to restore the badly molded documents and did a spectacular job. But there’s a catch. Our government made a commitment to the government of Iraq that it would return the collection once it was restored. The Iraqi-Jewish community of the United States is now demanding their ownership.
Let’s be clear. This is not something that belongs to the Iraqi government. It was looted by Saddam Hussein and should be returned to its rightful owner, the Jewish community of Iraq, who now find themselves mostly in Israel (between 250,000-400,000) and the United States. That the US is even considering returning the stolen collection is incredible. Our government contends that it made a commitment to the Iraqis before they took the documents to restore them. But you can’t make any commitments about property that doesn’t belong to you so the United States is not bound by its commitment. We’ve had enough property looted and stolen from the Jewish community in recent history to condone any more, and the Jewish community in the US should organize politically and fight any attempt to return the collection.
But this just begs the bigger question of the Iraqi government’s lack of sensitivity, if not outright contempt, for things Jewish.
Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi stated to the world, as early as 2004, that the new Iraqi government would not reconcile in any way with Israel, with whom Iraq had technically been in a state of war since 1948. The current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reiterated the policy, pledging for his nation to establish diplomatic ties with every sovereign United Nations member state, except one – Israel. He also announced Iraq would not have anything else to do with Israel, be it cultural, military or economic. For good measure the Prime Minister’s Dawa Party went further and called on all Islamic countries to sever any and all relations with Israel.
Really? Are we back to this kind of hate-Israel-even-when-you-have-experienced-Arab-tyranny-yourself nonsense?
But what is truly horrible is the thought that the American people gave the Iraqis their liberty only to see their government become a gang of anti-Semites.
The United States should have imposed a peace treaty on Iraq with Israel from the outset. Our government spent $1 trillion and lost close to 4,500 heroic American lives liberating Iraq. We did not do it so they could be xenophobic Israel-haters. The vast majority of Americans are supporters and admirers of Israel and would be appalled to discover that a steady stream of anti-Israeli invective is seeping out of Baghdad. When we Americans liberated Iraq we didn’t ask them for their oil and we didn’t ask to be reimbursed for the unprecedented expenditure and loss of life. But what we certainly deserve is for Iraq to embrace the universal, humanitarian values that make America exceptional. Irrational hatred of Jews and Israel is not an American value and our soldiers did not die for Iraq to become a bunch of bigots.
In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, Israel’s Jewish Agency attempted to find any Jews remaining in Iraq for the purpose of relocating them to safety in Israel. Of the grand total of 34 Jews that were discovered, six left Iraq for Israel. Among that group was Ezra Levy, the father of Emad Levy, Baghdad’s last rabbi. In 2006, amid growing sectarian violence and political instability, Emad himself left for Israel out of fear for his life.
After the defeat of Saddam’s regime, the process of establishing a new democratic government began. Among the subjects for debate over the new constitution was whether Jews should be considered a minority group, or left out of the constitution altogether. With approximately five Jews left in a country that once boasted more than 120,000, most of whom left after massacres of Jews that followed the establishment of Israel in 1948, Iraq can be declared to be virtually yudenrein.
The Iraqi government seems to forget that many Jewish voices – my own included – called for the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Not because, as Protocols of Zion-minded bigots argued that we Jews wanted to protect Israel by getting rid of Saddam. Israel at the time was probably more focused on Iran as a menace, just as it is today. Rather, we Jews live by the biblical commandment, “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Saddam Hussein, according to even The New York Times, who opposed the American invasion, killed approximately 1.1 million people, including 800,000 Arabs, making him the single biggest murderer of Arab life in all of human history. He also gassed to death tens of thousands of children in Halabja in April 1988. As the world’s foremost killer, he had no right to run a country.
The Iraqi government seems scarcely appreciative of the central role which Jewish voices played in their liberation. They can start by forfeiting any claim to looted Iraqi Jewish treasure, which, if not for the benevolence of the United States, would have rotted in Saddam’s intelligence dungeons.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom Newsweek and The Washington Post call “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the founder of This World: The Values Network, and is the international best-selling author of 30 books. He will shortly publish Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.