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5 Iyar 5760 - May 10, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Mossad snatches Sifrei Torah from Saddam

by Yated Ne'eman Staff

Dozens of sifrei Torah that Saddam Hussein ordered destroyed have been smuggled out of Iraq in an operation masterminded by Mossad, the Israeli secret service, according to the London Sunday Times.

At least 50 sifrei Torah lay for decades in a warehouse in Baghdad after being hidden by Iraqi Jews who left for Israel in 1950-51.

Mossad has retrieved 30 of the sifrei Torah after bribing members of the Iraqi army. One of them, thought to have been written 70 years ago, was put on display last week in a synagogue in Afula. Another, 200 years old, has been exhibited in New York.

Many more sifrei Torah, some far older and more valuable, are still in Iraq. "There is a fair chance that we will recover and return them to Jewish hands so that they can be presented in synagogues in Israel and across the world," said one source.

Mossad is believed to have started the operation after its agents in Baghdad learned of a meeting at which Saddam's generals told him that 50 sifrei Torah had been found in the city's Battawein district where the Jewish community used to be concentrated. He is said to have replied: "Burn them."

The news appalled officers at Mossad's headquarters in Tel Aviv, prompting comparisons with Kristallnacht in 1938 when the Germans burned Jewish shops, synagogues and sifrei Torah in Germany.

Mossad soon learnt that some of Saddam's officers, realizing the value of the sifrei Torah, were prepared cooperate in return for money. The agency's station in Istanbul, which carries out espionage in Iraq, was ordered to investigate.

It is not known how much Mossad paid either to the Iraqi officers or to merchants based in Jordan who acted as intermediaries. It may have been as much as $45,000 for each.

The rescue of the sifrei Torah appears to have been part of a much larger operation to recover artifacts linked to Iraq's once sizable Jewish community.

The Jewish community of Iraq is very old -- some say it dates back 2,500 years to the days of the first Beis Hamikdash. They generally enjoyed good relations with their Arab hosts. After Iraq declared its independence from British rule in 1932, Jews held prominent positions in the country: Sasun Haskail, the first minister of finance, was Jewish.

The climate turned hostile after the creation of Israel in 1948. About 121,000 of the 137,000 Jews who lived in Iraq were flown to Israel in 1950-51. There was a further exodus following the 1991 Gulf war, and a mere 68 are now left in Baghdad.

Israeli sources said last week that efforts to rescue the remaining sifrei Torah were continuing. "We know where they are. Some of them served the Iraqi Jewish community for hundreds of years," said a source in the Israeli Ministry of Religion.

"We will not leave them in the hands of the Iraqis. The state of Israel, with the help of all its secret and non-secret organizations, will bring the sifrei Torah back home."

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