A war-torn nation now split between the Iraqi government, ISIS controlled areas, and the Kurdish region of the north, Iraq is certainly no safe land for anyone, let alone the small ethno-religious minorities that once thrived there for centuries. It’s hard to imagine now, but Iraq was once home to a large Jewish population of over 150,000 souls, one of the longest surviving and most historically significant of Jewish communities in the Diaspora. As of 2008, there were less than ten Jews counted still living in Iraq, and the number today may very well have dwindled to none.
In 722 B.C.E., the northern tribes of Israel were defeated by Assyria and some Jews were taken to 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. These Jews distinguished themselves from Sephardim, referring to themselves as Baylim (Babylonions). In later centuries, the region became more hospitable to Jews and it became the home to some of 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 its ups and downs. By World War I, they accounted for one third of Baghdad’s 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 mall 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, Kurds, Turkmen, Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and Sabeans, and numbering at about 120,000. Hebrew was 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 and a pogrom 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.
From 1949 to 1951, 104,000 Jews were evacuated from Iraq in Operations Ezra & Nechemia … and another 20,000 were smuggled out through Iran.
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, 104,000 Jews were evacuated from Iraq in Operations Ezra & Nechemia (named after the Jewish leaders who took their people back to Jerusalem from exile in Babylonia beginning in 597 B.C.E.); another 20,000 were smuggled out through Iran.
In 1952, Iraq’s government barred Jews from emigrating and publicly hanged two Jews after falsely charging them with hurling a bomb at the Baghdad office of the U.S. Information Agency.
With the rise of competing Ba’ath factions 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.
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. On January 27, 1969, Baghdad Radio called upon Iraqis to “come and enjoy the feast.” Some 500,000 men, women and children paraded and danced past the scaffolds where the bodies of the hanged Jews swung; the mob rhythmically chanted “Death to Israel” and “Death to all traitors.” This display brought a world-wide public outcry that Radio Baghdad dismissed by declaring: “We hanged spies, but the Jews crucified Christ.” Jews remained under constant surveillance by the Iraqi government. An Iraqi Jew (who later escaped) wrote in his diary in February 1970:
Ulcers, heart attacks, and breakdowns are increasingly prevalent among the Jews…The dehumanization of the Jewish personality resulting from continuous humiliation and torment…have dragged us down to the lowest level of our physical and mental faculties, and deprived us of the power to recover.
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 $200 million worth of Jewish community property.
Copyright American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, Reprinted with permission.