The 2,000-year-old Jobar Synagogue in Damascus is said to be the site where the prophet Elijah concealed himself from persecution and anointed his successor, Elisha. It was a UNESCO World Heritage Site until last March when someone appeared to have blown it up. The Syrian government and the rebels blamed one another and most of the world — including UNESCO — yawned. Given the scale of human destruction in Syria, it may be understandable that the synagogue wasn’t on anyone’s priority list, except the world’s Jewish community, for which it is patrimony.
Recently, a story emerged that Al Qaeda rebels appear to be in possession of Torah scrolls and other Judaica, which they wish to barter to the Assad government for a prisoner release. Jewish artifacts from a country with no Jews, bartered between Sunni fanatics and Shiite mass murderers.
A later report, as yet unverified, claims the Jobar Synagogue is being protected by the Syrian government with its contents intact. If so, what does it mean when a government that is implacably hostile to Israel and to Jewish people announces that it will protect Jewish things? When a government will protect things while it starves and drops barrel bombs on its people (barrels filled with nails, pointed shards of metal, and ball bearings dropped from airplanes causing horrific injuries)? Does Bashar Assad want to think of himself as “civilized” despite his barbarism? Should the world permit that?
No. So the story becomes a guidepost for handling the Iraqi Jewish archive, discovered in the basement of Saddam Hussein’s Mukhabarat by Harold Rhode, an American Jew, in 2003. The archive is presently in the United States for restoration and display before it is scheduled to be handed over to the Iraqi government in 2014.
The 2,500-year-old Jewish community had long since been harassed out of Iraq. The home of the Babylonian Talmud has been debased in the modern era, with “The Farhud,” (a pogrom in 1942) and massive restrictions on Jews following the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel. Zionist activity was punishable by prison or execution; Jews were banned from work in banking, railroads, and mining, and from receiving import licenses; and all Jews were dismissed from government posts. A bomb in a synagogue in 1950 killed 3 to 5 people and injured many others. Between 1948 and 1951 an estimated 121,633 Jews left the country. Two Jews were publicly hanged in 1952 after being convicted on phony charges. Persecution increased in the 1960s with the advent of the Ba’ath Party and in 1969, fourteen men, including 11 Jews, were sentenced to death in show trials and publicly hanged. Forbidden to take money, property or possessions, all of which reverted to the State, the Jewish community left more than $200 million behind by 1970 (the equivalent of about $800 million today) and went out as penniless refugees. The few remaining Jews cached their holy books and religious artifacts in a single synagogue, which was itself raided by Saddam in 1984.
In 2003, Rhode, a civilian DOD employee working for the Coalition Provisional Authority, was led to the damaged, flooded basement. He found, among other items:
A 400-year-old Hebrew Bible; a 200-year-old Talmud from Vienna; a copy of the book of Numbers in Hebrew published in Jerusalem in 1972; a Megillat Esther of uncertain date; a Haggadah published in Baghdad and edited by the chief rabbi of Baghdad; the Writings of Ketuvim containing books like Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Lamentations, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles published in Venice in 1568; a copy of Pirkei Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers, published in Livorno, Italy in 1928 with commentary written with Hebrew letters but in Baghdadi-Judeo Arabic; a luach (a calendar with lists of duties and prayers for each holy day printed in Baghdad in 1972); a printed collection of sermons by a rabbi made in Germany in 1692; thousands of books printed in Vienna, Livorno, Jerusalem, Izmir, and Vilna; miscellaneous communal records from 1920-1953; lists of male Jewish residents, school records, financial records, applications for university admissions.
There was a truly heroic effort to collect the material, dry, and preserve it. The Pentagon provided emergency assistance (including, according to Rhode in a terrific article in PJ Media, American WMD teams who waded into the flooded basement to rescue paper, books and artifacts), private donors, the State Department, and the National Archives provided longer-term financing and professional skills for the restoration effort. The results can be seen at an exhibition on display at the National Archives.
The Iraqi government wants what it calls “its” property back. It promises to take better care of Jewish objects than it did of its Jewish citizens who were abused, tortured, and terrorized before being allowed to escape with their lives and little else. The government of Iraq should not have the privilege of being the curator of the history of people it despised — and who return the sentiment with cause. The United States and other governments work to ensure that property taken from European Jews at the moment of their greatest peril is restored to them, to their families or to their communities. Being the last hand to touch something does not confer ownership.
The Jobar Synagogue was (or is) another set of Jewish artifacts, another Jewish place without Jews, displayed for years as evidence of what once was — and now ransom in a war between people who are not Jews. The Iraqi Jewish archive belongs to the Jews for practical as well as legal and moral reasons — lest it happen again.