Jewish heritage sites in Arab countries face extinction

Posted: 11/4/2014 7:27:00 PM
Author: Kseny Svetlov
Source: This article first appeared in Israel Hayom on October31, 2014.

|Jewish heritage sites in Arab counties face extinction

Old Jewish synagogues and cemeteries in Syria, Iraq, Libya and the rest of the Arab world are being turned into mosques or completely destroyed • Several Jewish organizations are sparing no effort to preserve these historic sites.
by Ksenia Svetlov

A large group of tourists gets off the brightly colored bus. The waters of the nearby Euphrates River flow gently in the shade of the palm trees that adorn both banks. The local children run over to sell souvenirs and water bottles to the tourists. Welcome to Al Kifl, a small town southeast of Baghdad and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, where tradition says that the grave of the biblical Prophet Ezekiel is located. After a brief visit, the bus takes you to the northern part of the country, to the Assyrian city of Kush, where the grave of the Prophet Nahum is said to be located. Then it will take you to Mosul so you can pray at what is believed to be the final resting place of the Prophet Daniel, according to Jewish, Christian and Muslim tradition.

This could have been the picture of Jewish tourism in Iraq, the ancient home to many of the Bible's characters. Until the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, it was still possible to dream of a celebration at the grave of Nahum, or of prayer services at the grave of Ezekiel and a visit to the Jewish quarter in Baghdad.

But those who had dreamed of a better future in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein have had a rude awakening. The new Iraq has treated its own heritage -- the Babylonian, Christian, Muslim and, of course, Jewish -- with sheer brutality, and far worse than the old Iraq ever did. Terrorism on a daily basis, religious fanaticism and a weak and corrupt government -- all these have led to the utter ruin of human life and of important heritage sites all over the country.

As the sound of an explosion rips through the air, another golden dome of an ancient Shiite mosque falls into the building. Another museum is looted by Islamic State terrorists; another ancient Jewish home is consumed by flames. The mosques in the important Shiite city of Najaf were demolished countless times by Sunni terrorists; the Baghdad Museum was looted; and the remnants of American tanks now riddle the ancient city of Babylon.

This chaos has made the fate of the Jewish sites all too predictable. While several synagogues are still standing in Baghdad, Ezekiel's Tomb has been turned into a mosque. Most of the ancient Jewish inscriptions there have been destroyed or covered with cement. Daniel's Tomb in Mosul was blown up by Islamic State, which opposes worship at tombs in general, whether they are the tombs of Jewish prophets or relatives of the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca and Medina. In other areas, Islamic State and other jihadist groups are destroying sites held sacred by Shiites, including magnificent mosques, as well as Christian churches.

The atmosphere destruction has reached Syria as well. Aleppo's historic market suffered severe damage recently, together with the Umayyad mosque in Damascus and many Jewish sites. The Jobar Synagogue in Damascus, also known as the Prophet Elijah Synagogue, was demolished in May 2014. The site is in ruins, and no one will do anything to save what remains of the beautiful building that the Jewish community constructed in the Middle Ages.

Almost 20 years ago, the manuscripts known as the Damascus Codices, books of the Hebrew Bible that were written in Tiberias in the 10th century C.E., were removed from the Hosh al-Basha Synagogue in Damascus and taken out of Syria in a daring Mossad operation. They are now in the National Library in Jerusalem, far from those who dream of the destruction of books and people alike.

In a time when large areas of Iraq and Syria are controlled by fanatics, at the peak of a bloody civil war, it is hard to get a clear picture of the state of the Jewish heritage sites in those regions. Still, Professor Shmuel Moreh of the Hebrew University, an Israel Prize laureate in Arabic literature, a native of Baghdad, and the author of the book "My Beloved Baghdad," speaks of a group of courageous Iraqis who took on the difficult mission to document the damage done to Jewish holy sites, synagogues and cemeteries, and to the residential neighborhoods of one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Middle East.

"Our friends, Shiites and Sunnis, most of them academics employed in universities in Iraq, writers and poets, are documenting what is going on in their country for us," Moreh said. "When news about 'renovations' at Ezekiel's Tomb appeared in the Arabic press, we sent a few friends to Al Kifl, and they brought sketches and photographs of the place. As it turns out, the Shiites destroyed the Hebrew inscriptions under the guise of renovations, and turned the place into a mosque."

At Moreh's request, his friend -- one of the Iraqis who mourns the destruction of Iraq's Jewish culture and dreams of its restoration -- visited the neighborhood where he grew up, and photographed the building and the Meir Taweig Synagogue, where he prayed as a boy. Moreh said the people who go on these documentation missions are private individuals who often do so at risk to their own lives.

Moreh is not the only one who is concerned. Officials of the World Organization of Libyan Jews tell of the attempts at documentation of what is left of the Jewish heritage sites in Libya. "During [President Moammar] Gadhafi's time, we were in contact with the authorities and also with journalists who visited Libya. They photographed the remains of cemeteries and ancient public institutions," Libyan historian Yaakov Hajaj-Lilof, who runs the Institute for the Research and Study of Libyan Jewry, said.

Gadhafi, he said, engaged for many years in the confiscation of Jewish property, the destruction of Jewish cemeteries and the transformation of synagogues into mosques. But during the last few years of his regime, when he was trying to curry favor with the West, he met with representatives of Libyan Jewry and held talks for the payment of compensation to Jews who were not citizens of Israel. A visit by MK Moshe Kahlon to Libya was also reportedly discussed, but never took place.

But all memory of Jewish life in Libya was almost wiped out under Gadhafi's regime. Cemeteries were destroyed over the locals' desire to used the tombstones as building materials, and synagogues were turned into mosques or public buildings. When I visited Libya in 2005, I saw the destroyed, abandoned cemeteries in the city of Zliten, roughly 70 kilometers (40 miles) from Tripoli. "When the armed gangs started taking control of Libya after the overthrow and murder of Gadhafi, there was nothing to save anymore," one of the people involved in the talks with Gadhafi at the time, said.

From Baghdad to New York

While concerned members of the Damascus Jewry Organization in Israel are following events in Syria closely, they prefer not to expand documentation efforts, which are evidently focused on the few Jews still living in the war-torn country. Several year ago, Moshe Shemer, the editor of the journal Mi-kan U-mi-sham ("From Here and There"), kept track of the renovation projects in the Jewish Quarter in Damascus, where boutique hotels and restaurants began springing up. Now he is worried that the remnants of a once-magnificent community could go up in the flames.

Local residents have begun documentation and preservation projects despite the war. Such actions are taken by lovers of culture, archaeology students and ordinary citizens who fear for the fate of their country's cultural heritage. In his article "It's Not Too Late to Save Syria's Cultural Heritage" published in Foreign Policy Journal, Franklin Lamb, author of the book "Syria's Endangered Heritage," wrote about efforts by the Syrian regime and local volunteers in the area to document the damage caused to ancient sites , as well as the efforts to renovate the Umayyad mosque and the magnificent Crusader castle known as Krak des Chevalier in western Syria.

Lamb is known for his connections with the Syrian regime and to Hezbollah in Lebanon -- a fact that might account for the lack of any mention of Jewish sites in his article. But the Facebook pages in English and Arabic that the article mentions contain information about demolished synagogue in Jobar and other places. The Syrians themselves say that in some cases, there is no way to examine the sites, which have now turned into battlefields. In other cases there are reports of damage, but no funding or experts to help in reconstruction efforts.

Like many places in the Middle East, Syria has not yet been thoroughly studied, and pirate archaeological digs by interested parties looking for Crusader-era treasure, could severely damage Syria's past and future, according to a blogger who calls himself Ibn Haleb.

Sometimes fortune smiles on heritage. When the Americans invaded Iraq, the troops found quite a few Jewish treasures -- Torah scrolls, certificates and jewelry that had been hidden away in Saddam's palaces. The American military sent this rich and amazing collection over to the United States for study. The treasure was put on public display at the National Archives and then in the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.

Kenneth Bandler, director of media relations at the American Jewish Committee's, revealed in an article titled "Heritage Protection," that in July 2014 the Iraqi government demanded the U.S. return the collection to Baghdad. Groups, including the U.S. Senate, believed returning the items to Baghdad would be an illogical thing to do, and demanded that the State Department reach an agreement with Iraq that would prevent the move, at least for the collection for the time being. In August the Islamic State group, which believes in the physical destruction of people and history alike, reached the gates of Baghdad.

Moreh, whose Iraqi friends call him Sami Mouallem, is anxious at the very idea that the collection could be handed over to Iraq. "It is the property of Iraqi's Jews," he said. "It contains my graduation certificate, among other things. Why should the United States hand the collection over to the Iraqi government? If they are going to hand the collection over to anyone, then we, the members of the Jewish community, have the right to receive it. Israel has a museum devoted to Iraqi Jewry that can protect the collection, but if we must choose between the U.S. and Iraq -- then let it remain in the U.S. I once visited Iraqi colleagues at a museum in Berlin, and they were enthusiastic over a collection of sculptures and Iraqi art that was on display there. They said that they were glad that the Germans, together with the British and the French, had rescued their country's cultural heritage, which certainly would have been destroyed otherwise."

Revival in Lebanon

Surprisingly, the destruction and ruin of Jewish antiquities and heritage sites garnered attention and prompted a debate in several countries about the role of Jewish heritage in Arab countries. The Lebanese press published several articles condemning the razing of the Jobar Synagogue in Damascus in May, and the Magen Avraham Synagogue in Lebanon was rebuilt with joint funding from Jewish emigres from Lebanon and a grant from the Rafic Hariri Foundation for the reconstruction of Lebanese heritage sites.

Egyptians tell of an unprecedented stream of local visitors to the Ibn Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, the ancient city of Cairo. But visits by Jews to Abu Hatzera's Tomb in Damanhour have ceased almost completely since the revolution, and there are rumors that the site is in shambles. In the not-too-distant past, hundreds of Jews from Israel and abroad held celebrations on the premises.

Moreh tells of an Iraqi publishing company called Mesopotamia that publishes books of poetry by well-known Jewish poets, together with other works about the history of Iraqi Jewry. One of the books Mesopotamia has published is entitled A Poem of Human and Patriotic Brotherhood, which was written by Dr. Jabbar Jamal a-Din of the University of Kufa. The book, which contains poems of yearning for Iraqi Jewry, talks about the circumstances under which the Jews, whom the Sunni government persecuted together with Shiites, left the country.

Moreh's memoirs, which are written in sophisticated literary Arabic, appeared in recent years in the Saudi journal Elaph. They received rave reviews in Iraq and in other Arab countries, even though Moreh freely criticized the Iraqi regimes throughout history and also devoted a great deal of attention to the topic of anti-Semitism in Iraq, the causes of the 1941 massacre known as the Farhud, and the treatment of Jews in Arab countries in general.

Quite a few Iraqis agree with Moreh and his colleagues, Iraqi academics, and are quietly moving forward with a separate peace with their friends from Baghdad, Kufa and Bosra. It is not only a love of literature and poetry that links them, but also the realization that the only way the forces of darkness, with their goal to rewrite and ruin history -- the dream of every evil force since time began -- will be defeated is if the good people in Israel, Iraq, Syria and other places pull together.

Will these efforts prove successful? There is no way to be sure. But even if not all the heritage sites survive the Islamist chaos in Iraq, Syria and Libya, the cultural bridges that have been built with these countries over many years will continue to exist.