The Great Israeli Theft of Iraqi Jewish Heritage

by Alaa al-Lami, Al-Akhbar English

Recently, Israel stole one of the symbols of Iraqi Jewish heritage, a rare ancient copy of the Torah. The incident went smoothly and quietly, with blatant collusion between Israel, the United States, the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, and the Jordanian authorities, amid suspicious silence from the Iraqi federal authorities and the Iraqi cultural scene, save for a few objections.

The Torah manuscript in question, known as the Iraqi Old Testament Scroll, was written using concentrated pomegranate juice on deer-skin parchments. The manuscript was seized by US forces, among other Iraqi antiquities, which survived the systematic destruction by the illegal Anglo-American invasion and occupation.

At the time, it was said that many Iraqi archaeological treasures and huge amounts of documents from the Iraqi state’s secret archives were transferred to Israel, ostensibly for restoration and preservation. In truth, however, this was the deliberate looting of Iraqi heritage.

At a ceremony held at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Israeli authorities publicly displayed that major Iraqi artifact, thus admitting that they had pirated part of Iraq’s heritage. The Israeli Foreign Minister explicitly admitted that the manuscript had been obtained from Kurdistan via Baghdad and Amman, and that it is now being used in daily prayer in the Foreign Ministry synagogue.

According to The Times of Israel, “After it was repaired and prepared for ritual use by a Jerusalem-based scribe, the scroll was placed in a case from Aleppo, Syria and brought over to the ministry.” Avigdor Lieberman, the extremist foreign minister of Israel, did not let the occasion go without repeating old Zionist cliches, saying that “the scroll’s journey from Kurdistan to Baghdad to Amman to Jerusalem was reminiscent of the destiny of the Jewish nation.”

Some like Iraqi writer Akil al-Azraki, one of the rare voices who commented on the affair, believe that the Israeli announcement exposed the lies of the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government had claimed the manuscript was sent along with other Iraqi artifacts to the United States for restoration.

Azraqi, citing information revealed by The Times of Israel, said, “The claim about the Torah scroll having been sent to the United States for restoration is a lie. The scroll was revealed to not have travelled to the United States, but to the Israeli embassy in Amman from that time until 2011. After the attack by Egyptian protesters on the Israeli embassy in Cairo, the manuscript was sent to Israel.”

After the Israelis celebrated their successful piracy, official Iraqi authorities were oddly silent. There was no immediate response to the reports, even in the Iraqi media and cultural scene, save for a few voices.

Recall here that the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities in Iraq Adel Shershab had said on January 19, 2015, “The Jewish archive should have been returned to Iraq since 2005, after it was removed on the grounds of restoring it,” stressing that this was part of Iraqi heritage and that his government would continue efforts to retrieve it.

However, the minister did not say anything in response to the Israeli theft. In turn, the Iraqi Ministry of Culture fell completely silent following the incident, although it had announced on May 13, 2010, that an agreement was conducted between Iraq and the United States, whereby the Iraqi Jewish archive and millions of documents that the US army removed from Baghdad following the US-led invasion in 2003 would be returned to Iraq. These include the archive of the dissolved Baath Party and many Iraqi historical artifacts.

A few days after the report on the Israeli theft, the media published remarks by a member of the Culture Committee in the Iraqi parliament calling on the Iraqi Foreign Ministry to issue a complaint to Washington over the matter.

The news agency that first published the remarks, which is owned by Fakhri Karim, a businessman and senior adviser to former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, tried to promote another account of what happened.

The news agency said the way the manuscript reached Israel was a “mystery,” describing what happened as “the loss of parts of the manuscript,” even though the Israeli foreign ministry had said in its ceremony that the scroll had come from Baghdad via Kurdistan, Jordan, and then Tel Aviv. Fakhri Karim, however, is known for his pro-Israel attitudes. Karim visited the headquarters of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC in Washington, as reported by renowned Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef, in a story Al-Akhbar reported in August 2013 (in Arabic).

On the day Al-Mada reported the story, one of its most famous staff writers, Sarmad al-Tai, wrote a strongly-worded criticism of those who protested the theft of the Iraqi Torah scroll, accusing them of folly. He suggested that the Jews who were expelled by the Iraqis from their country in various ways had only retrieved their Torah.
Tai’s article is often quoted by the Israeli media, though some Iraqi Jews who live in Israel and beyond dispute such analysis. Refer, for example, to what Sasson Somekh wrote in his books, and novels by Jewish Iraqi writer Samir Naqqash, who wrote all his novels in Arabic and refused to write anything in Hebrew, considering himself an Iraqi until the last day of his cruel life in Israel. The article received strong responses, though they were few in number, on social media.

The article’s absurd and sinister logic is meant to exonerate the occupation and its allies in the Iraqi federal government, the KRG, and Israel, for the crime of stealing important Iraqi artifacts, produced in Iraq hundreds of years before the creation of the Zionist entity.

Furthermore, this logic justifies any future Israeli piracy of Iraqi historical artifacts, which could include items from shrines or tombs belonging to Israelite prophets, such as those that can be found in the town of Uzair. Uzair is home to the tomb of the prophet Uzair whose bilican name is Ezra, in the southern province of Maysan. The town of Kifl, home to the town of Prophet Ezekiel, whose Quranic name is Zulkifli, in the Babel province, could be another potential target.

Extrapolated further, the same skewed skewed logic can be used to justify an artificial entity, built on injustice, aggression, and warmongering, which has killed, maimed, and displaced people by the millions amid global silence.

The official Iraqi position was not stated publically until days after the incident. The Iraqi minister of tourism released a statement calling on Washington to return the manuscript to Iraq, and said what happened was unlawful confiscation of a part of Iraqi heritage.

However, the minister repeated previous claims purporting the manuscript had been in Washington. These claims were invalidated by remarks made by Israeli Labor MP Mordechai Ben-Porat, who has Iraqi Jewish ancestory. Ben-Porat said that it was Iraqi government officials who gifted Israel a number of precious historical manuscripts.

Ben-Porat’s account cannot be completely dismissed. It is indeed possible that insiders colluded with this theft and piracy. Recall that Lieberman said that the manuscript was moved from Baghdad to Kurdistan, Jordan, then Tel Aviv.

The theft of Iraqi antiquities is not unprecedented. Many Western powers, led by France, Britain, Germany, and the United States, have its looted artifacts in the last century and before.

Dr Mahmoud al-Saied al-Doghim, Research Associate, Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of London, wrote a paper titled, “One Hundred and Ten Years of US Theft of Iraqi Heritage.” The paper says that entire wings of the Louvre Museum, the Berlin Museum, and the British Museum would have to close down entirely, if they returned all the artifacts stolen from Iraq (and elsewhere).

Doghim estimates the number of stolen artifacts at more than one million. A single US university, the University of Pennsylvania, as he wrote,, “Acquired more than 50,000 palettes and other artifacts shedding light on the history of Mesopotamia, and discrediting many of the biblical claims promoted by the Zionists.”

The American occupation forces hit the motherlode following the invasion of 2003. The US forces seized a large part of the contents of Iraq’s 33 museums.

In effect, the astounding rich history of Iraq and its wealth of ancient historical artifacts is not the subject of dispute. However, it might be very surprising when one examines the numbers.

According to a statement made in March 2003 by former head of Iraqi antiquities Jaber Khalil Ibrahim, archaeologists believe that there are 500,000 archaeological sites in Iraq that remain undiscovered and unstudied, along with ten thousand registered and discovered sites. The sites include at least 25,000 highly important ones.

Only 15 percent of the sites in Iraq have been excavated, most of them located between the Euphrates and the Tigris. This area is considered the cradle of humanity, and from six thousand years ago, it was home to civilizations like the Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, all the way to the Abbasids.

The US occupation of Iraq was a disaster for the country’s material heritage. This is a subject best left for future articles.

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