September 19, 2020

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Forward trilogy does not do archive saga justice

At first glance, it is heartwarming to see that Talya Zax, the culture editor of the Forward, has devoted a trilogy of articles to the saga of the Iraqi-Jewish archive, which the US has promised to return in September. But reader irritation and even anger soon begin to mount.

A crate of waterlogged items from the Iraqi-Jewish archive. The crate was marked with the name of  Harold Rhode, an orthodox Jew working for the Pentagon in Baghdad in 2003, who first drew attention to the archive.

Firstly, Zax has got elementary facts wrong: the Babylonian exile began in 586 BCE, not in 596 BCE. The troubles of the Jews are said to have started in 1948,  ie can be blamed on the creation of Israel – no mention of the 1941 Farhud in this context.Then the man who discovered the archive in the waterlogged basement of the secret police headquarters is not even named – Harold Rhode. The impression is given that members of the Iraqi National Congress were present at the salvage operation. (More accurately, Ahmed Chalabi  facilitated it. Other key figures like Natan Sharansky  are not given the credit they deserve.) The Hebrew inscription in the photo is not on the ceiling but the wall of Ezekiel’s shrine ( bizarrely, the caption calls the site by its Muslim name, Dhu al Kifl).

But the most egregious omission is that nowhere in the three articles does Zax refer to the fact that the archive was not abandoned by departing Jews in the same way as they ‘lost their life’, homes, assets and property, but was physically seized by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Witnesses watched aghast as Saddam’s men carted off piles of books and documents from the ladies’ gallery of the Bataween synagogue.The ownership of the archive ceases to be ‘up for debate’, but appears more of an open-and-shut case of brazen theft.The extraction from Iraq may have been legal, but was based on a false premise.

Zak  gives credence to the Iraqi ambassador who claims that Iraq has a ‘deep emotional tie to the archive’. Yet there has ben hardly a peep about 30,000 other documents concerning the Baath regime  : the US shipped these from Iraq and insists on retaining them ‘for security reasons’. who might guarantee that the ‘museum-like space in which the ambassador pledges to house the archive on its return to Iraq will be preserved, won’t be smuggled out  or destroyed. Then there is the fear  that the archive will not be accessible to them exiled Jews themselves, an argument which the writer fails to develop. (Past experience does not inspire confidence.)

The horrific stories told by the Iraqi  ladies of the Bene Naharayim congregation  contradict the idea that these Jews left ‘voluntarily, but under duress’. No amount of quibbling can deny the fact that these people fled Iraq as dispossessed refugees and that Arab states were responsible for the Jewish exodus. Granting reparations to the Palestinians should not obviate reparations to Jews.

 It is a pity that the articles are written in the style of ‘he said, she said’ with scrupulous equivalence between thief and victim. With the return of the archive to Iraq imminent, few will be persuaded of the justice of the Jewish claim.

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