A 200-year-old Torah scroll has taken an unusual and mysterious journey from Baghdad to Jerusalem, where it was greeted with candies and song in a jubilant dedication ceremony Thursday.
Israeli experts in Jewish scribal tradition who restored the Hebrew parchment say it was written two centuries ago by two different scribes in northern Iraq using pomegranate ink, a rarely-used writing material.
The scroll is a remnant of Iraq’s 2,500-year-old Jewish community, one of the world’s oldest, which all but disappeared when large numbers of Jews left for Israel following the creation of the Jewish state in 1948. Only a handful of Jews are left in Iraq today, following decades of war and instability.
Like other ancient Jewish texts from Arab lands, the scroll’s path to Israel remains unclear, with Israeli officials offering different theories.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the scroll’s journey from Iraqi intelligence storage to a synagogue in the ministry "represents the fate of the Jews." Jews have been persecuted, he said, but "in the end they come to Israel."
Iraqi authorities forbade Jews who left for Israel from taking ritual objects and other property with them. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, American soldiers discovered ancient Iraqi Jewish Torahs and other community documents in the waterlogged basement of Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad and took the manuscripts to the U.S. for restoration. They have gone on display in the U.S., and American officials have promised to return the items to Iraq.
Foreign Ministry officials say the scroll is Jewish property and belongs in the Jewish state. To celebrate the scroll’s restoration, Lieberman and an Israeli chief rabbi marched with the scroll around the perimeter of the Foreign Ministry building, with some 300 ministry employees, from workers in the diplomatic mailroom to ambassadors, trailing behind them throwing candy, clapping and singing.
The head of storage at Foreign Ministry headquarters in Jerusalem, Amnon Israel, said he stumbled upon the scroll, moldy and torn and without any label marking its origin, in the ministry’s storage room on his first day on the job in late 2013.
He was told that American soldiers took the scroll from Iraqi intelligence storage during the war and handed it to Israeli diplomats in Jordan for restoration in Israel. On the back of the Torah scroll, in a section from the Book of Exodus, is a round black splotch that Israeli foreign ministry officials say is an Iraqi intelligence stamp.
But Israel, the storage head, says he is not sure that’s the real story.
An Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the Iraqi Torah’s existence in Israel is a potentially sensitive diplomatic issue, said someone brought the scroll to Israel’s embassy in Jordan around 2007. Security officials at the embassy X-rayed the scroll to make sure it was not booby-trapped before showing it to the Israeli ambassador, the official said.
The official said the Israeli embassy in Jordan had been offered many Jewish artifacts throughout the years. He estimated that an Iraqi smuggled the scroll out during the chaos of the war and that someone brought it to the Israeli embassy. He said it had been used at least once for Jewish prayers at the embassy but was then largely forgotten.
In 2011, after an Egyptian mob ransacked the Israeli embassy in Cairo, Israel’s Foreign Ministry ordered diplomats in Jordan to transfer all nonessential items from the embassy in Amman to Israel.
"There was great fear that people in Jordan would hold demonstrations and burst into the embassy in Jordan, and there was an order to take out any object that didn’t necessarily need to be kept at the embassy," Israel said.
The scroll was brought to the Foreign Ministry in 2012, where it sat undisturbed in the storage room. Only when Israel invited Jerusalem scribe Akiva Garber to inspect the scroll did it become clear the Torah was from Iraq.
For Israel, it felt like the completion of a circle: his own relatives had immigrated to Israel from the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, and Iraqi authorities prohibited them from taking their belongings.
"Maybe my great-great-grandfather touched (the scroll)," Israel said.
Garber and his organization of scribes treated the neglected scroll over a period of months, using chemicals to restore the cracked letters, repairing tears in the parchment and fixing some Hebrew letters so that it would be fit for ritual use.
"It’s…not every day that one gets a scroll which is as old as it is," Garber said. "Since we have expertise in fixing these kinds of scrolls, it’s a pleasure to be able to take a scroll like this, which is otherwise unusable, and to bring it alive again."