Lawsuit Possible Over Ancient Hebrew Bibles Known As The “Crowns Of Damascus”
Shmarya Rosenberg • FailedMessiah.com
Two decades after the Mossad smuggled a group of ancient Hebrew Bibles from Syria to Israel, a member of the Syrian Jewish community wants them back.
The books were smuggled out of the totalitarian anti-Semitic state and brought to Israel's National Library, where they were restored and preserved.
The National Library – which houses many other significant ancient manuscripts, scrolls and books that are considered to be national treasures – asked an Israeli court today to give it legal custodianship of the nine books, commonly known as the Crowns of Damascus.
The books are made of leather-bound parchment. Some have microscopic calligraphy and gold-leaf illumination.
Almost all of them were created in Spain and Italy 700 to 1,000 years ago and were kept for hundreds of years by Damascus synagogues where they were used only on special occasions.
After years of being effectively held prisoner by the Assad regime, in the early 1990s Syria allowed the country’s few remaining Jews to emigrate – but without the books.
In response, the Mossad smuggled eight of nine ancient bibles to Israel from 1993 and 1995 with the help of Rabbi Avraham Hamra, who at the time lead the Damascus Jewish community and who now lives in Israel.
The ninth ancient bible was smuggled out of Syria in 1993 in an operation run by the heroic Canadian Jewish rescuer of Syrian Jews, Judy Feld Carr.
That Israel had the books was a closely guarded secret for almost decade.
Now the AP reports that Israel’s National Library wants a court to have the Justice Ministry establish a public charitable trust for the books, which would be left in the care of the National Library in its climate controlled storage. A committee, including Jewish immigrants from Damascus, would oversee the trust, which would be in the name of the entire Jewish people.
The Damascus Jewry Organization in Israel supports the library's request for a trust to formed and for the books to remain in the library’s care.
But Hamra, the former top rabbi of the Damascus community who was involved in the smuggling of the books, opposes it and says he may challenge in court any arrangement that gives the books to the care of the National Library and a charitable trust.
Hamra – who could never have saved the books without the help of the State of Israel – claims the books are Syrian Jewish cultural property, not state property. He wants them moved to a Syrian Jewish heritage center in Israel he one day hopes to build, and claims the library once promised him it would do so.
As proof, Hamra points to the catalogue of the exhibition of the books held in 2000. That exhibition was cosponsored by the National Library.
The catalogue says the books are the "religious and spiritual treasure of the Syrian Jewish community.” The library will safeguard them "until the establishment of a Syrian Jewish heritage center in Israel,” the catalogue reportedly reads.
But is that purported promise still valid 14 years later when Hamra has made no real progress on building his heritage center and lacks the expertise necessary to properly preserve and store the books, and when the leadership of ex-Damascus Jews does not want him to have them?
The likelihood of Hamra building his center and properly funding it seems small, especially because the Syrian Jewish community has a significant amount of wealth but has yet to generously support it.
Hamra was asked by the National Library to be a member of the proposed steering committee for the charitable trust that would control the books. He refused.
The Syrian Jewish community has a checkered history of dealing with ancient books and manuscripts in its possession. Some were ripped up into individual pages or small sections by Syrian Jews fleeing the country. But many of those pages were never reunited after leaving the country and are thought to be held by individual Syrian Jewish families in New York and Israel as talismans.
[Hat Tip: Joel Katz.]