Iraq is demanding Israeli authorities return an antique Torah scroll smuggled into Israel in the early 1950s.
Israel’s Arutz Sheva reported that the ancient scroll, written in the early twentieth century, was extracted from Iraq after the Gabbai family in the Iraqi city of Al-Hila bribed a local official. The family patriarch, Moshe Gabbai, worked in the town’s synagogue.
The scroll was then donated by the family to the Center for the Heritage of Babylon Jewry in the Israeli city of Or-Yehuda.
“This scroll is part of Iraq’s cultural heritage, just like the heritage of other countries in the world,” Abd Al-Zahra Al-Talqani, a spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, told The Media Line.
“When we discovered the publication in the Israeli media, we began to investigate the matter and turned to the National Center for Manuscripts in Iraq. They told us the scroll was not stolen from the center.”
Al-Talqani said the scroll either belonged to an Iraqi library, to a Jewish establishment in Iraq, or was someone’s private artifact. He added that the Ministry of Tourism and Artifacts immediately contacted Interpol (the International Criminal Police Organization) and the Iraqi foreign Ministry with requests to exert diplomatic efforts to retrieve the scroll.
“We are still following the matter and investigating it,” Al-Talqani added.
Mordechai Ben-Porat, director of the Center for the Heritage of Babylon Jewry denied any knowledge of the Iraqi demand.
“I didn’t hear that they were asking for it,” Ben-Porat said, referring to the Iraqi Torah scroll. “In Iraq they suspect we have other things from there, and they threatened to turn to UNESCO about six months or a year ago.”
Al-Talqani said the Israeli report was tantamount to an admission of theft.
“Israel’s announcement that the scroll is in its territory is an implicit admission that it was smuggled from Iraq,” Al-Talqani told the Aswat Al-Iraq news agency. “We will demand the return of the Torah scroll to the country through diplomatic channels.”
Al-Talqani said that following UN Security Council resolution 1483 from 2003, demanding that countries return stolen artifacts to Iraq, many countries began to cooperate with the Iraqi government.
Al-Talqani argued that the Iraqis did not single out Israel.
“In April 2008 Syria returned 702 artifacts; two months later Jordan returned 2,470 – the highest number received from a country. Other countries including Italy, Holland, Germany, Sweden, Saudi Arabia and most recently Turkey have all returned artifacts as well.”
According to Al-Talqani, the Israel Antiquities Authority agreed to cooperate with Iraq in the past.
“There are additional Iraqi antiquities that entered Israel through trading and smuggling. The spokeswoman of the Israel Antiquities Authority admitted this and said she was prepared to work directly with Iraq, or through a mediator.”
Culture Program Specialist at the UNESCO office for Iraq, Tamar Teneishvili, said that Iraq could legally retrieve the Torah scroll.
“If it were proven that the object was stolen, it will be returned,” she told The Media Line.
“If the Iraqis know where it was stolen from and when, they can turn to the Interpol and start the process of restitution. It is possible.”