One of the longest surviving Jewish communities still lives in Iraq. In 722 B.C.E., the northern tribes of Israel were defeated by Assyria and all Jews were taken to Mesopotamia in what is now known as Iraq. A larger community was established in 586 B.C.E., when the Babylonians conquered the southern tribes of Israel and enslaved the Jews. That Jewish community distinguished itself from Sephardim, referring to themselves as Baylim (Babylonions). In later centuries, the region became more hospitable to Jews and it became the home to the world’s most prominent scholars who produced the Babylonian Talmud between 500 and 700 C.E.
During these centuries under Muslim rule, the Jewish Community had it’s ups and downs. By World War I, they accounted for one third of Baghdad’s and other major cities population. In 1922, the British received a mandate over Iraq and began transforming it into a modern nation-state.
Iraq became an independent state in 1932. Throughout this period, the authorities drew heavily on the talents of the more well-educated Jews for their ties outside the country and proficiency in foreign languages. Iraq’s first minister of finance, Yehezkel Sasson, was a Jew. These Jewish communities played a vital role in the development of judicial and postal systems.
In the 1936 Iraq Directory, the “Israelite community” is listed among the various other Iraqi communities, such as Arabs, Kirds, Turkmen, Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and Sabeans, and numbering at about 220,000. Hebrew is also listed as one of Iraq’s six languages.
Yet, following the end of the British mandate, the 2,700-year-old Iraqi Jewish community suffered horrible persecution, particularly as the Zionist drive for a state intensified. In June 1941, the Mufti-inspired, pro-Nazi coup of Rashid Ali sparked rioting in Baghdad during the Jewish Feast of Shavuot. Armed Iraqi mobs, with the complicity of the police and the army, murdered 180 Jews and wounded almost 1,000 in what became known as the Farhud pogrom. Immediately following, the British Army re-entered Baghdad, and success of the Jewish community resumed. Jews built a broad network of medical facilities, schools and cultural activity. Nearly all of the members of the Baghdad Symphony Orchestra were Jewish. Yet this flourishing environment abruptly ended in 1947, with the partition of Palestine and the fight for Israel’s independence. Outbreaks of anti-Jewish rioting regularly occurred between 1947 and 1949. After the establishment of Israel in 1948, Zionism became a capital crime.
In 1950, Iraqi Jews were permitted to leave the country within a year provided they forfeited their citizenship. A year later, however, the property of Jews who emigrated was frozen and economic restrictions were placed on Jews who chose to remain in the country. From 1949 to 1951, tens of thousands of Jews were evacuated from Iraq in Operations Ezra & Nechemia another 20,000 were smuggled out through Iran. Later in 1952, Iraq’s government barred Jews from emigrating.
With the rise of competing Ba’ath fascists in 1963, additional restrictions were placed on the remaining Iraqi Jews. The sale of property was forbidden and all Jews were forced to carry yellow identity cards. After the Six Day War, more repressive measures were imposed: Jewish property was expropriated; Jewish bank accounts were frozen; Jews were dismissed from public posts; businesses were shut; trading permits were cancelled and telephones were disconnected. Jews were placed under house arrest for long periods of time or restricted to the cities.
Persecution was at its worst at the end of 1968. Scores were jailed upon the discovery of a local “spy ring” composed of Jewish businessmen. Fourteen men, eleven of them Jews, were sentenced to death in staged trials and hanged in the public squares of Baghdad; others died of torture. Jews remained under constant surveillance by the Iraqi government.
In response to international pressure, the Baghdad government quietly allowed most of the remaining Jews to emigrate in the early 1970’s, even while leaving other restrictions in force. Most of Iraq’s remaining Jews are now too old to leave. They have been pressured by the government to turn over title, without compensation, to more than $20 billion worth of Jewish community property.
Only few synagogue continues to function in Iraq, “a crumbling buildings tucked away in an alleyway” in Bataween, once Baghdad’s main upscale Jewish neighborhood. According to the synagogue’s administrator, “there are few children to be bar-mitzvahed, or couples to be married. Jews can practice their religion but are not allowed to join the army.”
The Iraqi government has refurbished the tombs of Ezekiel the Prophet and Ezra the Scribe, which are also considered sacred by Muslims. Jonah the Prophet’s tomb has also been renovated. Saddam Hussein also assigned guards to protect the holy places during his reign. Each year, hundreds of Muslim pilgrims flock to the holy sites to pay homage to these prophets.
The community still lives in fear, scared even to publicize the exact numbers of Jews remaining in Baghdad. One synagogue, the Meir Taweig Synagogue, was closed in 2003, after it became too dangerous to gather out in the open.
Most traces of Jews living in Iraq are now gone, except for the Prat and Hidekel rivers, the Hebrew names for the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Baghdad’s Jewish quarter, in Taht al-Takia, no longer exists. The end of Saddam Hussein’s regime created hopes of an improvement in the living conditions of Jews, and the return of some of the émigrés. Some hope also existed for rapprochement with Israel. In reality, the instability and sectarian killings in Iraq made the remaining Jewish community there the most vulnerable and terrified group in the country.
Despite this life of seclusion and fear, the remaining Jewish community living in Baghdad simply say they will not leave the land of their ancestors. Most Iraqi Jews hope that one day they will be able to return to Iraq. Many are living outside Iraq, nevertheless, still maintain their Iraqi language, the rich Jewish heritage and bear genuine love to their homeland of Mesopotamia – the land which holds the tombs of their prophets and loved ones.
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