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Iraq is hiding 365 Torah scrolls. Can they be rescued from further damage before it’s too late?
Where can you find the largest collection of Torah scrolls? At the Western Wall in Jerusalem? No. At the Center for Jewish History in New York? Not there. The answer is the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. But don’t look for the exhibit. An exclusive investigation reveals 365 scrolls are deteriorating in a secret sub-terrain location.
After several years of silence, an unlikely hero is going public with his first-hand knowledge about the hidden scrolls. It may be the last chance to save them.
He’s called the Vicar of Baghdad.
Andrew White is an Anglican priest risking his life helping Christians in Iraq. Even more dangerous, however, is what he volunteers to do – protecting the last few Iraqi Jews.
“I help Jews because the very heart of my own education, of my faith, is a love for Judaism,” says Canon White. “I don’t see how I can be a Christian without knowing my Jewish roots, and without loving them.”
The secret stash has an unlikely savior: an Anglican priest, whose nickname is the Vicar of Baghdad.
Canon White juggles life in two very different worlds. In his hometown of London, he’s focused on his family; in Baghdad, he’s occupied with his congregation. In the UK, he dons a bright bow tie. In Iraq, he wears a sand-colored bulletproof vest. In London, he’s followed by two sons. In Baghdad, he’s flanked by bodyguards.
In both worlds, Canon White is a promoter of Judaism.
After Saddam’s regime collapsed, he swung into action. “I organized the first-ever Passover Seder in Saddam’s palace,” he recalled. “We had 89 Jews from the U.S. military and embassy. Glatt kosher food was flown in from America. The only thing missing was a Jewish child to ask the Four Questions, but they all sang ‘Dayenu’ anyway.”
The Secret in the Basement
Another thing happened as a result of Saddam’s demise. Iraqi mobs looted his crown jewel of culture, the national museum. The majestic Iraq Museum is still on Nasir Street but it’s under new management – the elected Iraqi government. A museum director, Dr. Donny George, was appointed to restore the museum in 2005.
Soon after, Canon White was invited for a private tour.
Dr. George and Canon White strolled through the grand halls. Eventually the priest was led down to the basement level. Dr. George opened the heavy doors of a vault.
Canon White couldn’t believe what he was looking it – rows and rows of Torah scrolls.
“There are 365 of them,” declared Dr. George.
Canon White’s surprise turned into horror. “The Torah scrolls were all at risk. Rats were eating some of the parchment. They were not properly preserved or displayed, just stacked up on the dirty floors,” he says.
He asked Dr. George to get the scrolls off the ground to deter the rats. Whether this was done is not known. “The museum had no regard for the importance of the Torah scrolls,” he says.
Canon White wanted to rescue them, but he decided to try to obtain just one. He had a destination in mind.
“Can I bring a Torah to Ezekiel’s grave?” he asked the museum director. “The synagogue there needs one.”
“No, we can’t let you take any because we need to translate each one,” replied Dr. George.
Canon White held back from laughing at Dr. George. “He didn’t even realize that each scroll was the same!”
A Priest Goes to Yeshiva
Canon White is not only concerned about the physical safety of the scrolls; he is also dedicated to what’s written on them.
“The thing that I really respect about how Jews live is that God is in everything. If you’re really Orthodox, God is not removed from anything. From the bathroom to the bracha [blessing] you make afterwards, you bless Him and you thank Him. Every time you say ‘Baruch ata Hashem,’ you are showing that you believe that He is the King of the Universe!”
He pauses. “Do I sound frum?”
Yes, he does. Canon White learned the lingo as the first non-Jewish student at the Karlin yeshiva in Jerusalem. A rabbi there permitted him to get a taste of Jewish learning.
He has grown from a student of Judaism into a teacher of it. He offers a weekly course about Judaism to Christians in Baghdad.
“The Iraqi Christians who come to my class are shocked,” says Canon White.
“They say that nobody has ever told them about Judaism before. It’s hard for them to accept that they’ve been told lies.
None of the young Iraqis have heard about the Holocaust. They don’t know how Christians have persecuted Jews.”
Ignorance, as Canon White calls it, prompted him to write a book about the Jewish roots of Christianity. He shared the newly finished manuscript . It describes several fundamental concepts and practices of Torah observance.
“There is nothing more inspiring than ‘Shema Yisrael,’” he writes in the upcoming book. “I say it every morning and every night. I taught my little boys to say ‘Shema’ before they go to sleep.” He’s planning on translating the book into Arabic. “The Muslims need to know that our faiths come out of Judaism and that therefore the Jews are our brothers, not our enemies. We need to learn from and love our older brother.”
Tracking the Scrolls
Canon White’s story about the scroll sounds credible but required investigation. A search for the former museum director, Donny George, was a dead end. “He died last year of a heart attack,” says Canon White.
A second source was discovered. A former US embassy employee, who does not want to be named, recalled a conversation with Dr. George that occurred around the same time as Canon White’s museum visit. Dr. George told the embassy representative that approximately 300 scrolls were in the museum basement.
The US State Department offers its own partial confirmation. “We are aware that the government of Iraq holds a number of Torah scrolls in the Iraqi National Museum,” says a spokesperson. He would not disclose how the fact came to be known.
Additional support comes from the Associated Press photo archive. A photo taken on April 12, 2003 shows Iraqis examining at least two dozen Torah scrolls in the museum. The caption states that the scrolls were “stored in the vault of the National Museum in Baghdad Saturday after looters opened the museum vault.”
What happened to these scrolls? When even one Torah scroll leaves Iraq it makes news but no news stories were found about a large transfer of scrolls from the museum. The photo proves a large cache of scrolls did in fact exist. It is possible that they were returned to the basement vault where they are still sitting today.
The Iraq Museum did not reply to emailed questions about the existence of the scrolls. However, the Iraq Embassy in Washington acknowledged scrolls are somewhere in the Iraq Museum. “I can’t confirm the number, whether it’s large or small,” a spokesperson says.
However, the museum’s website does not disclose this fact. All of the museum’s collections appear to be catalogued on its website. Not one Torah scroll is listed.
At issue are thorny legal and moral questions of rightful ownership.
Iraq’s policy is not to relinquish Jewish artifacts, according to public statements by high-ranking Iraqi officials. “Jews lived in Iraq. They are part of Iraq’s cultural heritage,” says the spokesperson for the Iraq embassy in Washington, DC.
Iraq’s rationale is undermined by the absence of Jewish artifacts on display in their museums. Even the museum’s written historical narratives omit Jewish references.
The Iraqi Jewish community has a legitimate case for reclamation, say some experts. The scrolls were most likely confiscated during the purge of Iraqi Jews. A possible legal problem is that the Jewish community in Iraq – the original owner – no longer exists.
Canon White and his colleagues were driving down an old dusty street in Baghdad last week when he noticed something. “Look at the doors! See the old mezuzot?”
Iraq was once home to the largest Jewish community in the world. One-third of the Baghdad population was Jewish. From 150,000 Jews at the peak, only a few are left today.
“There was a huge Jewish community here, not so long ago. We must never forget that,” says Canon White.
One person who can’t ever forget is Ruth Pearl. Her childhood was spent on those Baghdad streets.
“Jews were oppressed. It was fear every day.”
Unfortunately, Mrs. Pearl also knows about modern-day terror. Her son was Daniel Pearl, the journalist murdered by radical Islamist terrorists in Pakistan. He was targeted because he was Jewish, say authorities.
Decades ago in Iraq, her family and community were also targeted. Her father lost an eye after being attacked on the street by an Arab. Her brothers were harassed by police. Her walk to school included the sight of lynched bodies dangling in the public square.
“I had nightmares for 20 years,” says Mrs. Pearl.
After three Jews were publicly hanged in 1969, the remaining Iraqi Jewish community decided it was time to emigrate.
The end of Iraqi Jewish life began with a brutal pogrom in 1941, in which hundreds of Jews were killed and injured. In 1948, the creation of the State of Israel fueled even more anti-Zionist hatred.
By 1951, 80% of Iraqi Jews were forced to leave the country. Ruth Pearl, then 15, and her family were among them. They were allowed to take only one piece of luggage. Jews had no choice but to leave many Torah scrolls and other Jewish treasures behind.
“After Jews were forced out of Iraq, they confiscated Jewish items from synagogues, community centers, and homes,” says Mrs. Pearl. “We would not have given the scrolls to the Muslims.”
She hopes the international community will pressure Iraq to return an array of Jewish artifacts, archival records, and Torah scrolls. “I’m dismayed that nothing is being done to preserve Iraqi Jewish history and culture,” says Mrs. Pearl. “It’s not just my personal fight. It should be the fight of any human rights organization. History is being destroyed.”
In 1969, three Jews were lynched in a Baghdad public square. Almost all remaining Jews emigrated to safer existence in other countries.
Only a handful of Jews are in Iraq today. They live in fear of violence and death. Falsified identity cards hide their religion. There is no active synagogue, no minyan, no communal life. They are invisible.
Canon White helps with whatever they need, such as gaining access to the U.S. embassy for holiday prayer services.
Now they are in more danger than ever before. WikiLeaks released a classified U.S. embassy memo last summer listing the names and addresses of the last nine Jews. Canon White helped two Jews flee to Israel and America. That left seven.
One of the elderly Jewish women just died of natural causes, says Canon White. That leaves six. Despite the risk, they don’t want to leave. They are a childless mix of the elderly and middle-aged. It will not be long before Iraq will be free of all Jews.
The Iraqi government, however, is very determined to keep its vast collection of Jewish artifacts and Torah scrolls.
Search for Solutions
“I don’t understand how Iraq could claim ownership,” says Ruth Pearl. “All the items were owned by the Jewish community. There was no cultural exchange.”
“Since most of the Iraqi Jewish community is in Israel, Jewish texts and Torah scrolls should be transferred there,” she says. “The Jewish Babylonian Museum in Israel is an appropriate destination.”
Iraqi politics make this solution impossible, experts say. The elected Iraqi leadership is not likely to send anything to Israel, a country hated by so many Iraqi citizens.
Another possible solution is for Iraq to negotiate a deal with a U.S. cultural institution. The institution could then return the scrolls to Jewish cultural and religious organizations.
Canon White doesn’t think that will work either. “The Iraqis at the moment are really anti-American. They see America as trying to rule Iraq, and not doing anything for their benefit.”
“A public adversarial approach is not necessarily the path to success,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, Director of International Jewish Affairs for the American Jewish Committee.
Rabbi Baker speaks from experience, having negotiated the release of some 300 Torah scrolls in the Lithuanian national archive. They were restored in Israel and then sent to synagogues around the world.
Other Torah scrolls in Iraq have been rescued by more direct covert efforts.
–Earlier this year, a 17th-century scroll owned by the Ben Ish Chai was smuggled from Iraq with the help of U.S. soldiers. It found its new home in Israel and became the second-oldest Torah still in use.
–Over 30 Torah scrolls were smuggled out during Saddam’s reign, according to a public statement by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau.
–In the 1950s, a scroll was smuggled out of Iraq and donated to the Jewish Babylonian Heritage Center in Israel. Iraq demanded that their “cultural heritage” be returned.
Several Iraq scrolls found their way to American synagogues in the years after Saddam’s fall. That’s no longer an option. Any “liberated” Torah scrolls from Iraq are not allowed to enter America. In 2007, U.S. Customs agents were issued a written directive to prohibit the entry of unauthorized Torah scrolls, Kiddush cups, Torah pointers, and other Judaica.
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Canon White won’t rest until the scrolls are safe. He plans to return to the Iraq Museum to determine their current condition. “I’ll let you know,” he says. “I might just go into the museum and ask how much money they would be willing to sell them for.”
A longer version of this article appeared in Ami Magazine.