Sooner or later, it’s all about IRAQ! 

It’s been a few months since ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq) became a household word and the debate about what the US should do about Iraq began—again. Then war between Israel and Hamas and the crash in Ukraine of Malaysia Flight #17 pushed Iraq off the front page for a while. But it’s back! With President Obama’s decision on air strikes, Iraq again became the crisis du jour. Or should I say the ISIS du jour?

Ok, Iraq is back in the news, but what makes it a Ripped From the Headlines topic for this blog? 

The headlines about the disposition of Iraqi Jewish archival and ritual items didn’t scream with the same urgency as those about ISIS advances and the plight of the persecuted Yazidis and Christians. Still, for Jews from Iraq it’s another case of their tangible heritage looted and nearly destroyed by a lunatic tyrant.

Saddam Hussein had collected by force–aka looted–and incongruously kept thousands of documents and Judaica pieces that depicted the once thriving Jewish community in his country. I’m no apologist for George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, but one positive thing our troops there did was to find this trove, mostly waterlogged in one of Saddam’s palaces, and bring it out of Iraq to the US.  Found were everything from Torahs to report cards from a Jewish school. Damaged items that could be restored were; those without hope, such as 49 Torah fragments buried in a Jewish cemetery in New York, were properly disposed of. An exhibit of 24 pieces derived from this discovery appeared first in Washington, DC, at the National Archives and then in New York City at the Museum of the Jewish Heritage.          

Photo Credit: Associated Press

Photo Credit: Associated Press

The agreement between the US government and the Iraqi government we established was that after restoration work the items would be returned to Iraq. This is when the controversy started. As the current state of the Jewish community there is virtually defunct–only a handful of Jews remain–politicians, Jewish organizations and expatriate Iraqi Jews all over joined in an effort to prevent such return and to instead distribute identifiable items to their proper owners or their heirs. Both the House and Senate passed resolutions asking that we renegotiate the agreement with the Iraqi government.

As of this past May, the word was the items would stay in the US for another two years. Perhaps to save face, the Iraqi government’s announcement of this alludes to the level of interest in the exhibits. Fortunately, this revision came about before recent events in Iraq and the inevitable handover of power of Premier Nouri Al-Maliki. Two years is a long time in the life of Iraq. Who knows who will be in power by then? One can only hope it’s not ISIS.  

 As I came closer to publishing The Last Torah of Shanghai, I’m struck again that truth is stranger than fiction. How does this apply? The Torah in my book came from Baghdad.

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