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Documentary Producers Warn against 'Ethnic Cleansing' of Iraqi Jews' Story as US Ponders Return of Rare Archives

Iraqi Jewish Archives Burned Books
Iraqi Jewish Archives Burned Books

Eighteen years ago, a unique Jewish archive was rescued from Iraq. Now many fear it will be returned to the country that already drove the Jewish people out. Beyond that, a recent film says the threat to the archives is only a symbol of wider ethnic cleansing that is going on in the Middle East.

The Jewish story began almost three thousand years ago in Iraq.  That’s when the Bible tells how the Jewish people were exiled to Babylon, located some 60 miles from modern-day Baghdad.  After the exile ended, many descendants stayed there for generations, until the State of Israel was established in 1948.

“One thing my mom told me, she said, that ‘when you leave Baghdad, never talk about the stuff that happened. Don’t talk about it at all.’ She said, ‘Nobody wants to hear morbid stories. Because whatever happened was morbid,” said Lisette Shashoua, who escaped Iraq in 1970. “I told her, ‘But why? I want everyone to know what we’ve been through if we survive. If we get out.’”

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Filmmakers Carole Basri and Adriana Davis agreed the story needed to be told.  Shashoua’s experiences and those of other Iraqi Jews are featured in their documentary, ‘Saving the Iraqi Jewish Archives A Journey of Identity’. (The film is available to view free of charge as part of the Miami International Jewish Film Festival through April 29.)

It tells how this Jewish community faced its own forced exodus from Iraq after more than 2,500 years and sheds new light on the history of this community, the struggle to save the evidence of its existence, and the fight to keep the story alive.

“I’ve learned that it’s a much bigger issue than just things from the Iraqi Jews. It’s also about the cultural and religious heritage of all ethnically cleansed people in the Middle East,” Basri said.

“The archives to me became the sort of the physical embodiment of the way the community was legally disseminated because there is a legal precedent that detailed the laws that forced the Jewish community out,” Davis told CBN News.

“If you can’t work and you can’t go to school and you can’t even hold money in the bank, you can’t hold property how are you to stay in your homeland of 2,700 years?” Davis asked.

Due to this growing persecution, more than 160,000 Iraqi Jews began fleeing their homeland in 1952.

Over the following decades, Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi government continued to punish the community by stripping property, seizing religious and cultural items, and purging personal records including photographs.

“I don’t know if people understand that when the Iraqi Jews left their homeland of 2,700 years since the First Temple, we were not allowed, legally, to take anything out of the country except three sets of clothes and 50 dinars and you could take your wedding ring. That’s it,” Basri told CBN News.

Richard Obadiah, who left Iraq in 1972, tells his experience in the film.

“I’m trying to go abroad to continue my graduate studies and word came back to show up to the headquarters of the Internal Security. They ushered me into a room where they were taking somebody out who was already being interrogated and was all [with] blood on his head. It was a little bit of a frightening experience,” Obadiah said.

Fast forward to 2003 when, during the Iraq war, the US bombed the Mukhabarat (Secret Police) headquarters in Baghdad.  Explosions ruptured the water system and flooded the basement.

Based on an intelligence tip, Harold Rhode, an Orthodox Jew working for the Pentagon, and others entered the building and found the collection of Jewish belongings underwater.

With US military help, they rescued nearly 20,000 personal and religious artifacts confiscated from the Jewish community, some of them hundreds of years old.

“This whole project is a project of miracles, HaShem, God put me there, as far as I’m concerned, I was to be there to help make this project work,” Rhode said in the film.

Items included Torah scrolls and prayer books as well as documents of the Frank Iny School, the last Jewish school in Iraq.

It closed in 1972 and its founder, Frank Iny, was Basri’s grandfather.

“The school that my grandfather founded was founded because of the Farhoun, which was the pro-Nazi uprising in Iraq in 1941 – there was no Israel then,” Basri said.

The damaged artifacts were then shipped to the National Archives in Washington for restoration.

“In watching how that community left to have miraculously found all this religious, cultural, personal material -- to find all those items was to me the actual physical embodiment of the spirit of the Iraqi Jewish community,” Davis said.

The US government initially agreed to return the archives to Iraq after, where there are just a handful of Jews left today. 

The State Department is trying to work out a new deal whereby the archives would stay in the US. The Jewish community is concerned that if it’s returned it will only be neglected, or worse, destroyed. And, they say the items belong to them anyway. Iraq argues it wants to put the items on display as part of the heritage of the country.

“I believe that the Iraqi Jewish story is an important story to tell and it can only be told with the artifacts, the cultural artifacts that are part of the Iraqi Jewish archives,” Basri said.

The filmmakers see the driving out of the Jews as the same kind of ethnic cleansing from which so many Christians in the Middle East have suffered during the last decade.

“I believe that is a universal story. It’s not a Jewish story, as someone from not that background by birth, I understand the parallels to early Christians. We just heard about it in the news when the Pope visited,” Davis said.

Davis said they need another miracle, in order to keep the archives in the US, safe and accessible to tell the Iraqi Jewish story to generations to come.

Why does Judaism matter and how is it connected to Christianity? Learn more here.

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