Two decades after Israeli spies helped Syrian Jews whisk ancient Hebrew Tanachs from Damascus to Yerushalayim, Israel’s national library asked an Israeli court on Monday to grant it custodianship over the manuscripts — a move that could spark an ownership battle over some of the Syrian Jewish community’s most important treasures.
Known as the Crowns of Damascus, the nine leather-bound parchment books — some featuring microscopic calligraphy and gold-leaf illumination — were written mostly in Spain and Italy 700-1,000 years ago. For hundreds of years, they were guarded inside synagogues in the Syrian capital, presented only on special occasions.
In the early 1990s, Syria lifted travel restrictions on Jews and many emigrated, but they were not permitted to take their sacred manuscripts.
So, in a covert Mossad operation, eight ancient Tanachs were spirited to Israel between 1993 and 1995. The ninth was smuggled out of Syria with the help of a Canadian Jewish activist.
Once in Israel, the manuscripts were entrusted to the national library for restoration and storage. Their existence there was kept secret for a decade, presumably so as not to draw the ire of Syria.
Details of the Mossad operation remain classified, but the man who helped organize it was Rabbi Avraham Hamra, then-leader of the Damascus community who now lives in Israel.
The existence of the Tanachs was revealed in 2000 when they were exhibited at the Israeli president’s residence. And on Monday, the National Library of Israel went to court to formally ask the Justice Ministry to establish a kind of public charitable trust for the nine Crowns of Damascus.
According to the proposal, the manuscripts would remain in the library’s climate-controlled coffers and a steering committee, including Damascus Jewish immigrants in Israel, would oversee them. The Damascus Jewry Organization in Israel, the main group representing Damascus immigrants, supports the library’s initiative.
But Hamra, who is not connected to that organization, opposes the library’s proposal and says he may challenge it in court. He argues the Tanachs are Syrian Jewish cultural property, and that the library had promised to transfer them to a Syrian Jewish heritage center in Israel he plans to build.