The Jews of Iraq are one of the oldest civilizations in the world. For more than 2,500 years, they called the land in the heart of the Fertile Crescent their home. It’s where they celebrated births and where they mourned deaths. It’s where they worked, studied and prayed. It’s where some of their most important holy writings originated.
“Every part of our history, our culture, our self-identity is there, and they should be returned to us.”
Violence can be traced back to June 1941. In what became known as the Farhud Pogrom, 180 Jews were slaughtered in just two days. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 brought on even more anti-Jewish sentiment. The majority fled the country in droves between 1949 and 1952. They were forced to leave behind many of their assets.
The 1967 Arab-Israeli War made conditions even more precarious for the 2,500-3,000 Jews who were left in Iraq. In 1969, nine Jews were executed in Baghdad based on fabricated charges of spying. Shohet, now 64, was not allowed to attend university because he was Jewish.
By the time the Iraq War began in 2003, their numbers had dwindled to less than 50 people. Most had fled to escape anti-Semitic violence and persecution. They were forced to leave behind centuries worth of sacred and secular texts and artifacts. But a month into the start of the Iraq War, thousands of those materials, stewing in a massive clutter under four feet of water, were found in an unexpected place — the basement of Saddam Hussein’s secret police headquarters.
The National Archives has created a publically accessible and searchable website of the digital versions of the artifacts — many of the items are available on it now. The rest is slated to be uploaded by June 1.
Shohet, who lives in Washington, D.C., said that the materials mean a lot to the Jewish exile community. In 2010 he was part of a committee who went over the material and was surprised to see his father’s and grandfather’s names on some of the items. He also learned from Dina Herbert, the Iraqi Jewish Archive project librarian, that his own name was found on school records. He received the information on his birthday last year.
“The collection is really a symbol of the richness of the Iraqi Jewish culture,” Shohet said. “You need to feel them and not just relate to them through websites.”
Shohet says the archives show the accomplishments of the Jewish community in Iraq, a community who can trace their history back to the Babylonian exile 2,500 years ago.
“All we have left is this treasure of our history that we couldn’t take with us,” he said. “Every part of our history, our culture, our self-identity is there, and they should be returned to us.”
Visitors can view some of the items that were preserved by the National Archives. The exhibit, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” is now on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City through May 18. All of the archived materials are on the National Archives website at ija.archives.gov.
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