Centuries-old Bibles Mossad Smuggled From Syria to Remain in Israel's National Library

Books smuggled into Israel in the 1990s are 'for the benefit of the entire public, on behalf of future generations and to perpetuate the heritage of the Syrian Jewish community,' court rules

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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A library clerk shows a Jewish manuscript smuggled into Israel from Damascus in a spy operation by the Mossad in the early 1990s in Jerusalem, October 5, 2011.
A library clerk shows a Jewish manuscript smuggled into Israel from Damascus in a spy operation by the Mossad in the early 1990s in Jerusalem, October 5, 2011.Credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill / AP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The “Damascus Crowns,” rare Bibles hundreds of years old that were smuggled to Israel from Syria by the Mossad, will remain in the National Library of Israel, the Jerusalem District Court ruled on Monday. Rabbi Avraham Hamra, the last rabbi of Damascus and the chief rabbi of the Syrian Jewish community in Israel, who helped in bringing the Bibles to Israel over the years, had asked the court for the Bibles to be returned to the community.

The books will remain a “sacred public trust,” and they should remain permanently in the National Library in Jerusalem – where they have been since the 1990s, ruled the court.

Judge David Gideoni wrote that he hoped the declaration of the Bibles, each known as a “crown” (keter), as a trust of sacred public property would provide a foundation “to protect, preserve and glorify this treasure of the Jewish people, for the benefit of the entire public, on behalf of future generations and to perpetuate the heritage of the Syrian Jewish community.”

A library official shows a Jewish manuscript smuggled into Israel from Damascus in a Mossad spy operation in the early 1990s in Jerusalem, October 5, 2014.
A library official shows a Jewish manuscript smuggled into Israel from Damascus in a Mossad spy operation in the early 1990s in Jerusalem, October 5, 2014.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner / AP

The Bibles were written by scribes in the 13th to 15th centuries, in Spain or Italy, and over the centuries found their way to a number of synagogues in Damascus. The books were brought to Israel from Syria in a secret rescue operation by the Mossad in the 1990s, when the Jewish community left Syria and came to Israel.

Hamra played a central role in the operation, and he arrived in Israel in 1994. Mossad representatives deposited the Bibles in the National Library in Jerusalem, where they were treated, conserved and restored.

A dispute broke out in recent years over the question of ownership and control of the crowns. Hamra said he was promised by the Mossad that if they succeeded in rescuing them from Syria – and if he also made aliya to Israel – then the government would help him found an institute for the heritage of Syrian Jewry, to be headed by Hamra, where the Bibles would be kept. Such institution has not yet been built.

At the same time, a different organization, the association of Damascus Jewry in Israel, supported the National Library’s position and wanted the Bibles to remain there. Representatives of the Syrian Jewish community in New York took Hamra’s side in the dispute, emphasizing the rabbi’s efforts to bring the books to Israel, and claiming the National Library wanted to “take over” control of the Bibles.

Pages from one of the Damascus Bibles, in the National Library of Israel, October 5, 2014.
Pages from one of the Damascus Bibles, in the National Library of Israel, October 5, 2014.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner / AP

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit told the court in the past that the Damascus Crowns are “cultural property of a public and national nature, which are ascribed historic, religious and national importance of the highest order.” The Bibles are not anyone’s private property and should remain in the hands of the “national institutions of the Jewish people and not in private hands,” added Mendelblit.

In recent years, Mendelblit and his deputy Dina Zilber, have led an explicit policy of protecting such national treasures of historical importance, and keeping them out of private hands. This was the case concerning the drafts of Israel’s Declaration of Independence that had been held in private hands, which were put up for auction – but were handed over to the National Archive last year at the order of the Supreme Court. “The drafts of the Declaration of Independence are part of the State of Israel’s cultural assets, testimony to our past, a part of our collective identity,” riled the Supreme Court, accepting Mendelblit’s position.

These Bibles are similar to the even older Aleppo Codex – purportedly the oldest and most authoritative copy of the Hebrew Bible in existence – which is on permanent display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. This Bible, large parts of which have gone missing, was smuggled out of Aleppo in Syria in 1958 and brought to Israel.

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