Israel's Manuscript Theft: Appropriating Jewish Arab History
By: Joanne Bajjaly
Published Monday, October 31, 2011
Ancient Jewish manuscripts have been stolen and smuggled from Arab countries including ones briefly displayed in Jerusalem earlier this month. The consistent Israeli practice is an attempt to undermine the existence of Jewish presence outside of Israel.
The ‘Damascus Crowns’ are Bible manuscripts between 700 to 1,000 years old originating from Damascus’s Jewish community. The manuscripts were smuggled to Israel and were stealthily displayed earlier this month for a few hours in Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem. This was the second time Israel claimed possession of the documents.
Syrian Jews were renowned for being ‘rich in books.’ The 11 manuscripts that form the ‘Damascus Crowns’ were guarded in some of Syria’s 24 synagogues. None were written in Syria, but arrived there with Jewish migration and held in the Jewish community’s libraries. In the 1970s, with the smuggling of Syrian Jews to Israel via Turkey, the manuscripts were quietly spirited away.These human and manuscript smuggling operations received financial backing from Israeli authorities.
Israel’s National Library displayed three volumes of the ‘Damascus Crowns’ for a few hours, the oldest of which dates to the 10th century. According to experts, it was written in Palestine. The manuscript demonstrates the influence of two rival schools of textual scholars, shedding light on the evolution of the Biblical text. It was purchased by David Sassoon and taken to Britain in 1914. The library purchased it in 1975 from Sassoon’s heirs.
The second most important manuscript displayed dates 700 years back. It is a masterpiece which can be politically manipulated as propaganda. The organizers of the exhibition say that the manuscript’s story resembles that of the Jews, because it traveled across the centuries from Italy to Spain. When the Jews were expelled from Spain the documents moved to Constantinople, then from Istanbul to Damascus with the fall of the Ottoman Empire. From there they moved to Toronto, Canada, and finally Jerusalem by way of the Canadian-Israeli agent Judy Feld Carr, who smuggled 3,000 Jews from Syria between 1970 and 1990.
Carr learned of the manuscript from Jews she smuggled out of Syria. She dispatched an agent in Damascus who hid the manuscript under his raincoat and smuggled it out to Canada. Carr then arranged the manuscript’s passage to Israel.
Eight manuscripts remained in Syria and in 1993, Israeli authorities decided to steal them. The Mossad conducted the operation and delivered the stolen manuscripts to Tel Aviv. The theft remains largely classified, preventing the manuscripts regular display in the national library.
Shlomo Baso, a rabbi born in Damascus who fled with his family in 1985, has a 300-year-old manuscript from Syria. “When the Syrian authorities allowed the Jews to leave, they (the Jews) dismantled the manuscripts into parchment segments, no bigger than a piece of paper, and distributed them among each other, concealing them in their luggage. When the pieces reached Israel, I sewed them back together and reconstituted the scrolls,” explained Baso in an interview with AP. Baso not only had a manuscript, but also a story for the media about the difficulty of preserving Jewish identity.
The Israeli press described the seizure of the manuscripts as an act of heroism, knowing full well that it is considered theft under international law. The UNESCO convention of 1979 prohibits illicit trafficking of cultural properties and decrees the return of all properties stolen after 1970 to their country of origin. Syria (which signed the convention) can claim back the stolen manuscripts.
But Israel doesn’t care for such conventions and seems bent on trying to erase any Jewish presence outside of Israel. When Israeli authorities failed to steal Hebrew manuscripts from the Iraqi House of Manuscripts, they waited until the fall of Baghdad before their specialized teams raided the archives as it was burning. The Hebrew manuscripts were ‘rescued’ and sent to Washington to be restored, it was claimed. Later on, the same manuscripts miraculously resurfaced in Israel, where they remain to this day.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.