Jerusalem: Two decades after Israeli spies helped Syrian Jews whisk ancient Hebrew bibles from Damascus to Jerusalem, Israel's national library asked an Israeli court today 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 between 700 and 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 operation by Israel's Mossad spy agency, eight ancient bibles were spirited to Israel between 1993 and 1995. The ninth was smuggled out of Syria in 1993 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, Israel's longtime foe. The library already had two other Damascus bibles in its collection, purchased in the 1960s and 70s in private sales.
Details of the Mossad operation remain classified, but the man who helped organize it was Rabbi Avraham Hamra, the then-leader of the Damascus Jewish community who now lives in Israel. Shabtai Shavit, the Mossad Director at the time, confirmed Hamra's involvement, without giving details.
The existence of the bibles was revealed in 2000 when they were exhibited at the Israeli president's residence. Today, 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 bibles 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.
That promise, Hamra says, appears in a catalogue from the 2000 exhibition co-sponsored by the library.
The catalogue calls the manuscripts the "religious and spiritual treasure of the Syrian Jewish community" and says the Israeli library would safeguard them "until the establishment of a Syrian Jewish heritage center in Israel."
But Hamra has not yet built the center, and the library denies it ever promised him the manuscripts. It asked Hamra to be a member of the proposed steering committee, but he declined.
"It is not my property, but it is the property of my community," Hamra said.
The library, which houses many other ancient Jewish manuscripts, says it has the expertise to preserve the brittle bibles.
The proposed trust would enshrine the manuscripts as "owned by the Jewish people," said Haggai Ben Shammai, the library's academic director. "It cannot be transferred to anybody."
Shammai said he is not worried about possible Syrian demands to return the bibles to Damascus, since they were never Syrian government property but belonged to Syria's Jewish community. The war-engulfed country is not a safe place for the manuscripts anyway, he added.
There was no immediate comment today from authorities in Damascus, where few Jews remain.
The battle over the bibles mirrors a famous tug-of-war over another important Jewish manuscript from Syria: the 10th-century Aleppo Codex, considered the most ancient authoritative copy of the Hebrew Bible.
Like the Crowns of Damascus, the Aleppo Codex was safeguarded in a Syrian synagogue for ages. A Syrian Jew fleeing persecution smuggled it out of Aleppo to Israel, where it landed in the hands of the Israeli president in the 1950s.
Aleppo Jews in Israel took the Israeli government to court, saying the bible was meant to reach their community. A trial lasted years and ended in compromise - a trusteeship led by an Israeli chief rabbi was established to oversee the Aleppo Codex.
Meir Heller, a lawyer for the national library, said the library is prepared to advertise its proposal for the Crowns of Damascus in newspapers in Syria, Europe and the US to allow objectors to challenge the move in court.
"Any interested party can come forward, and the court will decide," he said.