Published in The Sunday Times 7.5.00
Dozens of sacred Jewish scrolls that Saddam Hussein ordered to be destroyed have been smuggled out of Iraq in an operation masterminded by Mossad, the Israeli secret service.
At least 50 manuscripts containing the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, had lain for decades in a warehouse in Baghdad after being hidden by Iraqi Jews who left for Israel in 1950-51.
Mossad has retrieved 30 of the scrolls after bribing members of the Iraqi army. One of them, thought to have been hand-written 70 years ago, was put on display last week in a synagogue in Afula, northern Israel. Another, 200 years old, has been exhibited in New York.
Many more scrolls, some far older and more valuable, are still in Iraq. "There is a fair chance that we will recover and return them to Jewish hands so that they can be presented in synagogues in Israel and across the world", said one source.
Mossad is believed to have started the operation after its agents in Baghdad learnt of a meeting at which Saddam's generals told him that 50 manuscripts had been found in the city's Battaween district, where the Jewish community used to be concentrated. He is said to have replied: "Burn them".
The news appalled officers at Mossad's headquarters in Tel Aviv, prompting comparisons with Kristallnacht in 1938 when the Nazis burned Jewish shops, synagogues and Torah scrolls in Germany.
Mossad soon learnt that some of Saddam's officers, realising the value of the scrolls, were prepared to defy his orders in return for money. The agency's station in Istanbul, which carries out espionage, against Iraq, was ordered to investigate.
It is not known how much Mossad paid either to the Iraqi officers or to merchants based in Jordan who acted as intermediaries. It may have been as much as £30,000 each.
The rescue of the scrolls appears to have been part of a much larger operation to recover artefacts linked to Iraq's once sizeable Jewish community.
After Iraq declared its independence from British rule in 1932, Jews held prominent positions in the country; Sasson Heskail, the first minister of finance, was Jewish.
The climate turned hostile after the creation of Israel in 1948. About 121,000 of the 137,000 Jews who lived in Iraq were flown to Israel in 1950-1951. There was a further exodus (in 1970-71 after the Ba'ath came to power and the hanging in Baghdad of 9 innocent Jews), a mere 68 are now left in Baghdad.
Israeli sources said last week that efforts to rescue the remaining Torah scrolls were continuing. "We know where they are. Some of them served the Iraqi Jewish community for hundreds of years," said a source in the Israeli Ministry of Religion.
"We will not leave them in the hands of the Iraqis. The state of Israel, with the help of all its secret and non-secret organisations, will bring the scrolls back home."
In 1957 my late Father managed to export from Baghdad at his own expense no less than 500 scrolls out of a total of over 3,000 that belonged to our community in Iraq. The 500 scrolls were duly received by the Sephardi Federation in London. Many of them were then despatched to various synagogues all over the world but others unfortunately found their way into the hands of dealers and collectors. Baghdad was famous for the quality of Torah scrolls and orders were received from Eretz Yisrael, having to wait sometimes for up to 3 years for completion and delivery.
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