Just days after coalition forces captured Baghdad during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in May 2003, several Americans heard about a hidden Jewish archive in President Saddam Hussein’s bombed-out intelligence headquarters.1
In the facility’s flooded basement, U.S. soldiers found 2,700 books and thousands of documents relating to Iraq’s Jewish community. The cache included a 16th-century Bible, Torah scrolls, other religious objects, community records and a Jewish calendar from 1971–72 in Hebrew and Arabic, one of the last examples of Hebrew printing in Iraq.2
Under an agreement with the Iraqis, U.S. forces sent the waterlogged trove to the United States, where they were dried out, restored and exhibited by the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington. A National Archives exhibit of the recovered documents is on display until Jan. 15 at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore. But under the agreement, the archive must be returned to the Iraqi government next September.
Several American Jewish groups oppose the archive’s planned return, noting that a succession of Iraqi governments persecuted and expelled their Jewish populations.
“The Jewish community of Iraq was mistreated and forced to flee. Their patrimony — which includes all the religious artifacts, Torahs and personal and communal property — was stolen from them,” says Gina Waldman, co-founder and president of the San Francisco-based Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. Thus, the archive “should not be given back to the thief that stole it.”
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., agrees. “This collection … belongs to the ancient and proud Iraqi Jewish community,” he said. He wrote to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Oct. 3, urging him to work with the Iraqi Jewish community in the United States and abroad to find a permanent home for the collection of Judaica.3
The State Department did not respond to CQ Researcher‘s request for comment. However, in October a department spokesman said the archive would be returned next September under the agreement with the Iraqis. “Maintaining the archive outside of Iraq is possible,” State Department spokesman Pablo Rodriguez told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “but would require a new agreement between the government of Iraq and a temporary host institution or government.”4
Patty Gerstenblith, a law professor at DePaul University in Chicago and an expert on cultural property law, says if the United States does not return the trove to Iraq it would breach the agreement and violate international law.
The Iraqi Jews, one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, are believed to have arrived in Babylonia, site of present-day Iraq, in the sixth century B.C.5 Although 130,000 Jews made up a third of Baghdad’s population at the beginning of the 20th century, today only five Jews remain in Iraq, according to Waldman.
Jewish life in Iraq was all but obliterated after the rise of pro-Nazi leaders in the 1930s, the development of the modern Iraqi state and its growing hostility toward Israel. When Nazi sympathizer Rashid Ali became prime minister in 1933, Jews faced discrimination and employment quotas. He invited Nazi propagandists to Baghdad, which became the early base for the Nazis’ Middle East intelligence operations during World War II. On April 3, 1941, Ali staged a pro-Nazi coup, but his regime was toppled by the British a month later, and Ali fled to Berlin. In June 1941, hundreds of Jews were killed and thousands injured in an anti-Jewish riot known as the Farhood.6
The persecution increased in 1948 when Iraq entered the war against the new state of Israel. From 1949 to ’51, Jews could leave if they renounced their citizenship and gave up their assets. More than 100,000 Jews left Iraq, most ending up in Israel, the United States or England.7
Harold Rhode, an Arabic- and Hebrew-speaking policy analyst on assignment in Baghdad for the secretary of Defense, was part of the group that rescued the documents in 2003. He learned that Iraqi Jews had stored most of their remaining community records and holy books in the women’s balcony of the last functioning synagogue, but Hussein’s armed henchmen arrived one night in 1984 and carted them away.8
Kate Fitz Gibbon, executive director of the Committee for Cultural Policy, a think tank in New Mexico, says the State Department has been too eager to turn over cultural property to its country of origin in the Middle East.9
“Despite the egregious abuse of human rights by governments or government-supported militias in Syria, Libya, Egypt and Iraq, the State Department has encouraged making cultural property agreements with these nations,” which often means returning historic objects belonging to oppressed communities, she wrote. As recently as 2010, she noted, any person associated with Zionist principles or organizations was subject to punishment by death under Iraq’s criminal code.10
But Gerstenblith says returning the Jewish artifacts to Baghdad could show Iraqis that “their history is diverse and would be a good thing for Iraqis to learn.”
Rhode said he is appalled at the prospect of returning to Iraq the archive he helped to save. “It would be as if Germany demanded material looted from German Jewish communities under the Nazis [be placed] in German government hands,” he wrote in 2013.11
 “Schumer: State Department Once Again Unwisely Plans to Return Confiscated Judaica Collection to Iraq,” press release, Office of Sen. Charles Schumer, U.S. Senate, Oct. 3, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yc8mev5j.
 “Jewish History,” op. cit.
 Under the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act of 1983, a country with a bilateral agreement with the United States can seek a U.S. ban on imports of cultural property in danger of being pillaged and demand that any property imported after the date of the agreement be returned to the source country.
 Rhode, op. cit.