Huff Post: JERUSALEM (AP) — Two decades after Israeli spies helped Syrian Jews whisk ancient Hebrew bibles from Damascus to Jerusalem, 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 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.