I never thought much about the Iraqi Jewish community until I met an Iraqi Jew in Israel when I was on a press trip in 2015. It was internationally renowned chef Moshe Basson, known as Israel’s biblical chef, and he fed the group our first dinner of the trip at his Jerusalem restaurant, The Eucalyptus. It remains one of the best meals I’ve ever had.
Basson briefly told us his story at dinner, and I later followed up with a phone interview to write a short profile about him for the JT. He arrived in Israel in 1951 as a 9-month-old, his family having fled Iraq as refugees. The family lived in a 9-by-12-foot aluminum and wood shed when they first arrived. With gold smuggled out of Iraq, the Bassons opened a bakery and bought a small stone house.
As you’ll read in Susan Ingram’s cover story this week, about 120,000 Jews left Iraq — a country where the Jewish community once prospered and lived side-by-side with its co-religionists — in the 1940s and 1950s, leaving behind their synagogues and their sacred objects. Basson’s story is just one of thousands in which Jews fleeing their home country had to start over in new lands, many from scratch.
But the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s new exhibit, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving the Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” the subject of this week’s cover story, showcases some of the objects that were left behind by and seized from the community, including books, calendars, school and organizational records, bibles, a Haggadah and fragments of a Torah scroll. They are among the tens of thousands of books and documents recovered from the basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters in Baghdad in 2003. And it took no small effort to save these items from their deplorable condition.
Although an agreement between the Iraqi government and the U.S. State Department has the archive going back to Iraq in September 2018, several U.S. senators, including Ben Cardin and Chuck Schumer, are looking for alternatives and possibly to work with American Jewish groups, the Iraqi Jewish community and the Diaspora to find a home other than Iraq, where it is estimated there are less than 10 Jews in Baghdad. Some, who fear it won’t be properly protected in Iraq, suggest sending it to Israel.
Much like the stories of Holocaust survivors, it is imperative that the Jewish community and the State Department work to ensure the survival of this archive. Qualms about returning the archive to Iraq are understandable, as it should be housed in a place where the very community whose story it tells can admire it, as the JT advocated in a Sept. 22 editorial. Let’s hope, over the next 11 months, officials can figure out where that will be.