Saddam's Secret Jewish Archives
Moment Magazine, Washington
In the basement of Iraqi intelligence headquarters, Torahs
and books from a lost community are rescued from three feet
It all began with a tip like the one that led the Americans
to where Uday and Qusay Hussein were holed up in Mosul.
Except that this was a tip about a rumored seventh-century
Talmud in the basement of the Mukhabarat headquarters in
Baghdad. The Mukhabarat was Saddam Hussein’s feared
secret service, and the tipster was the head of the Israel-Palestinian
section of the Mukhabarat. The massive Mukhabarat headquarters
in the heart of Baghdad was an early target of Allied precision
The Americans decided to investigate but were careful enough
to initiate the investigation with a team searching for
weapons of mass destruction (WMD). “Embedded”
with the WMD team chosen for the task was New York Times
reporter Judith Miller who decided that since they would
be looking for Jewish documents, they should take with them
someone who knew something about Judaism. So she called
Harold Rhode, an Orthodox Jew who was a policy analyst with
the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the Pentagon.
Rhode was already in Baghdad, speaks Arabic as well as Hebrew,
and is knowledgeable about Islam as well as Judaism. He
is a protégé of Bernard Lewis, who dedicated
his most recent book, The Crisis of Islam, to Rhode.
When the WMD team, Miller and Rhode and the tipster, arrived
at the Mukhabarat headquarters, looters were swarming through
the building. “It was eerie,” says Rhode. “The
building could have collapsed at any moment and there was
a live 2,000-pound bomb which could have exploded at any
The basement, which housed the Israel and “Jew”
departments as well as a torture chamber, was flooded with
three feet of water. The unexploded bomb had hit the building
and the force of the impact had shattered the water pipes.
“It smelled like putrid water,” recalls Rhode.
Wearing miner’s lights and anti-WMD suits to protect
themselves from possible radioactivity, the team began their
search. There were no WMDs but the first thing they found
in the Israel section was a model of the Knesset in Jerusalem.
Above a map on the wall that showed where the 39 Iraqi scuds
landed in Israel during the 1991 Gulf War a sign in Arabic
asked, “Who is going to send off the 40th?”
The team also found a Soviet photograph of Israel’s
nuclear reactor at Dimona.
Across a hall from the Israel section was the Jew section.
“Torah scrolls were just strewn all over the place.
I could understand why they had the Israel section—but
thousands of Jewish holy books? I was angry at the total
lack of respect for Iraq’s Jewish heritage, all that
is left of a dead community,” recalls Rhode. “I
had seen so many dastardly things in the country that I
wasn’t surprised by what levels Saddam and his henchmen
would stoop to humiliate and murder. Nothing was surprising—that
was what was so amazing.”
Rhode quickly took charge of the rescue operation. The first
task was simply to pump the water from the basement. For
this, Rhode needed workers. And for this Rhode needed money.
Rhode’s first call was to Ahmed Chalabi, the head
of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), whom Rhode greatly
admired and knew well from over a decade of working together.
Chalabi, from a prominent Iraqi banking family, returned
to Iraq at the end of the war, after living in exile for
45 years. Chalabi, a Shiite Muslim, is in turn a great admirer
of the former Jewish community of Iraq, and he made the
first contribution from his own funds to finance the draining
of the Mukhabarat basement. Rhode then contacted people
in the United States who led him to Lehman Brothers investment
banker and philanthropist Harvey Krueger who rounded up
and supplied the money needed to continue the operation.
When the water was drained out, the treasure trove could
be assessed for the first time. One large area of the basement
was devoted to documents about Israel. A separate long hall
contained materials apparently confiscated from Iraqi synagogues.
The variety of books and documents was bewildering. The
situation was reminiscent of the Cairo Genizah, from which
thousands of medieval documents were emptied in the late
19th century by Solomon Schechter, then of Cambridge University
and later head of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New
Except that these documents were in the basement of Saddam
Hussein’s secret service headquarters. Imagine finding
a Torah scroll in such a place!
No one on the team knew anything about how to save the soaked
Torahs and books. Rhode called Israel for expert help but
not before committing what he considers a sinful technical
transgression, something sacrilegious. “I rolled out
a Torah scroll on the ground in order to help it dry. My
choice was to let it dry out, then roll it up in a scroll
and hope that afterward it could be saved or to let it harden.
I am still thinking about what I did.” Drying the
wooden Torah case, a tiq, used by Sephardic Jews, was easier.
The Mukhabarat headquarters also yielded a variety of other
holy books, including a copy of the book of Numbers in Hebrew
published in Jerusalem in 1972, a Megillat Esther of uncertain
date, a Hagaddah published in Baghdad and edited by the
Chief Rabbi of Baghdad (Hakham Ezra Dangoor). The oldest
book was the third section of the Hebrew Bible, the Writings
or Ketuvim, containing books like Psalms, Proverbs, Job,
Lamentations, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles. It was published
in Venice in 1568.
Another oddity was a copy of Pirke Avot, or Ethics of the
Fathers, published in Livorno, Italy, in 1928, with an interlinear
commentary written in Baghdadi-Judeo Arabic but written
with Hebrew letters.
A luach, a calendar with the lists of duties and prayers
for each holy day, was printed in Baghdad in 1972 and the
frontispiece was the ruler’s portrait.
Apparently, Saddam confiscated entire synagogue libraries.
There were thousands and thousands of books. In addition
to books printed in Vienna and Livorno and Jerusalem, other
books were printed in Izmir, Turkey and Vilna. Obviously
the Iraqi Jewish community had wide contacts with Jewish
communities all over the world. These items told the story
of Iraqi Jews.
The story began in 721 B.C.E., when the Assyrians conquered
Samaria, eventually deporting 27,290 of the cream of Israelite
society to the Mesopotamia heartland, according to Chronicles.
Then in 586 B.C.E., Nebuchadnazzer exiled thousands of Jews
to Babylon. These Jews created a vibrant community that
was one of the two main sources of Mishnaic and Talmudic
learning and lore. “For close on four millennia the
fortunes of the Jewish people, the growth of their religious
beliefs, and the shaping of their culture were, in one way
or another, inextricably linked with the ‘land of
the twin rivers,’ now known as Iraq,” wrote
Nissim Rejwan, a Baghdad-born Jew and author of The Jews
of Iraq: 3,000 Years of History and Culture.
When Baghdad was established in 762 C.E., Jews were among
the first residents. They lived in a Jewish quarter and
on the west bank of the city—in Al-Karkh, its commercial
and industrial center. Baghdad quickly became a major trading
and intellectual center in the Islamic world, in part because
the ruling Islamic caliphs included Jews in the political,
business and artistic life of the city. Some of the rulers
even gave Jews autonomy over their own affairs; Jews were
ruled by Jewish exhilarchs who traced their roots back to
The fortunes of Jews in Mesopotamia rose and fell throughout
the centuries, but generally the community thrived, even
after the invasion of Genghis Khan and later, Ottoman rule.
The Jewish population swelled in the 15th and 16th centuries
when large numbers of Sephardic Jews who had been expelled
from Spain immigrated.
When the British entered Baghdad in 1917 there were 80,000
registered Jews out of a total population of 202,000. During
the British Mandate, Jews served in parliament and a Jew
was minister of finance. Conditions quickly deteriorated,
however, when Iraq gained independence in 1932 and became
a haven for Pan-Arab nationalists and attacks on Jews escalated.
In 1941, about 130 Jews were tortured and murdered and 1,000
were injured by mobs incited by Prime Minister Rashid Ali,
a Nazi sympathizer.
When Israel declared its independence in 1948, martial law
was declared in Iraq. Being a “Zionist” constituted
a crime—punishment was seven years in prison or, in
some cases, death. The law was rigorously enforced; fines
up to $40,000 were imposed on wealthy Jews. During the first
three years of the Jewish state, approximately 125,000 Iraqi
Jews emigrated to Israel. They were forced to leave property
behind, which of course was confiscated. By 1952, barely
6,000 remained in Iraq, living under difficult conditions
and, for a time, were forbidden to leave the country. After
the Six Day War arrests became more widespread and the number
of Jews continued to dwindle—to about 2,500.
The Ba’ath party came into power in 1963 and in 1969,
nine Jews accused of espionage were publicly hanged in the
streets of Baghdad to the riotous cheers of the populace.
When Saddam Hussein took power in 1979, he continued to
persecute Jews. In 1996 only 120 Jews were reported to be
left. When the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society came to Baghdad
after Saddam’s fall, they found 34 Jews, mostly old
and sick. They spoke of their “inherited fear.”
Other estimates go as high as 70.
The basement treasure trove that Saddam confiscated also
included miscellaneous communal records from the 1920s through
1953—marriage records, lists of male Jewish residents,
school records, financial records, applications for admission
to the University. These may ultimately prove to be the
most valuable documents in the Jewish collection. They reflect
the nature and quality of Jewish life in the Baghdad community
at the time.
Preserving all these documents will be a challenge. Initially
they were simply taken out and left to dry in the hot sun.
When Rhode made contact with conservators in the United
States, he was told that they should be immediately frozen.
Unfortunately, there were no freezers available. They were
simply taken to INC headquarters where they were left to
dry. They were placed in 27 aluminum trunks and stored in
a freezer truck in Baghdad. In late August, they were flown
to a restoration company in Fort Worth, Texas with the permission
of the Iraqi Cultural Ministry.
What is to be done with the documents and books? The answer
is unclear. Recently the American government has taken over
the matter, but the negotiations and resolutions are in
flux and hard information is difficult to obtain. Reportedly,
the U.S. National Archives is preparing to send a team to
Baghdad to assist in conservation. One of the trickiest
questions is the ultimate disposition of the trove. To whom
do they belong? Clearly, to the Iraqi Jewish community.
But the former Iraqi Jewish community is scattered all over—the
United States, London, Israel, Turkey. In effect, there
is no longer an Iraqi Jewish community.
“Their final resting place is to be determined,”
says Rhode. “Wherever it goes, it is the historical
legacy of 3,000 years of Iraqi Jewish community, the overwhelming
majority of whose heirs are in Israel.”
And where and how will they be studied? And who will provide
the funds? There are no answers at this time. Perhaps the
more interesting question is: What does this tell us about
Saddam Hussein? What in the world was this stuff doing in
Mukhabarat headquarters? Why were these documents so important
to Saddam and his henchmen that they were confiscated and
stored in this most sensitive location? All that seems clear
is that it reflects Saddam’s paranoia and the depth
of his hatred for Jews and Zionists
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