The Tragedy of Iraq’s Jews

We hear much from the Palestinian spokesmen and their Arab and other supporters about their  right to return to what is now Israel, and their demands for compensation for Israel’s alleged displacement of them, but woefully little by comparison about the atrocities perpetrated against Jews from Arab countries, who lived (and in some cases still live) as second-class citizens or dhimmis, at the mercy of the Arab/Muslim governments throughout the Middle East (see also here in respect of the Jews of the Yemen).  Lynn Julius, using the ready overidentification of CiF with its Palestinian focus, wrote about the plight of Jews from Arab lands on CiF and called their treatment in Arab/Muslim countries the Jewish Nakba .

She tells us that ethnic cleansing of Jews from Arab countries began when the Arab League, then comprised of Egypt, Iraq, Trans Jordan (or Jordan), Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen, contemplated passing a law in November 1947 which would brand all their Jews, some of whom had been resident in their respective countries for many generations, as “enemy aliens.”  Their governments’ attitude to and treatment of them was not therefore a reaction to the declaration of independence of the Jewish state and although the “enemy aliens” law was contemplated, it was enacted in their behaviour towards their Jews.

Lynn Julius tells us that

“The Jewish “Nakba” – Arabic for “catastrophe” – not only emptied cities like Baghdad (a third Jewish); it tore apart the cultural, social and economic fabric in Arab lands. Jews lost homes, synagogues, hospitals, schools, shrines and deeded land five times the size of Israel. Their ancient heritage – predating Islam by 1,000 years – was destroyed.”

It suits the anti-Zionists to ignore this ethnic cleansing in their gadarene rush to accuse Israel of the ethnic cleansing of its Arab population, often without foundation.    I shall focus on the circumstances of Iraqi Jews, for reasons which I will explain later, but their circumstances may be said to be typical of all Jews who found themselves in Muslim countries:

Iraq arose out of ancient Babylonia and Assyria and has the oldest Jewish community in the world.  There has been a continuous Jewish presence there from 721 BCE to 1949 CE, which is two thousand six hundred and seventy years.   The status of Iraqi Jews fluctuated, some even held high positions in government, but at the same time they had to pay the jizya tax levied on non-Muslims.  They fared reasonably well until Iraq became independent in 1932.

In June 1941, a pro-Nazi coup, inspired by Hajj Amin Al-Husseini and led by Rashid Ali, led to riots and pogroms in Baghdad.  180 Jews were murdered and over 1,000 wounded.   More anti-Jewish rioting took place between 1946 and 1949.   When Israel was established in 1948 it became a capital offence for an Iraqi Jew to be a Zionist.

The following sets out the Nakba of the Iraqi Jews from 1948 until the early 1970’s when, in response to international pressure, the then government in Baghdad allowed many of the remaining Jews to leave quietly.  Those Jews who remained, only 61 in number as at 28 March 1998 according to the Associated Press, are too old to leave:

1950 – Iraqi Jews permitted to leave the country within a year provided they forfeited their citizenship.

1951 – Jews who emigrated had their property frozen and economic restrictions were placed on Jews who chose to remain in the country.

1949 to 1951 – 104,000 Jews evacuated from Iraq (Operations Ezra and Nehemiah); another 20,000 smuggled out through Iran.  The Jewish population of 150,000 in 1947 dwindled to a mere 6,000 after 1951.

1952 – Jews prevented from emigrating.

1963 – The rise of the Ba’ath factions resulted in additional restrictions being placed on those Jews who remained in Iraq.  Jews forced to carry yellow identity cards and sale of property was forbidden.

1967 (After the Six Days War) – many of 3,000 Jews who remained were arrested and dismissed from their jobs. More repressive measures were introduced, including the expropriation of Jewish property, freezing of Jews’ bank accounts, shutting of Jewish businesses, trading permits were cancelled, telephones were disconnected.  Jews were placed under house arrest for long periods of time or restricted to cities.

1968 – Persecution at its worst.  Scores of Jews were jailed allegedly for spying and eleven Jews sentenced to death in staged trials.

27th January 1969 – Fourteen men – eleven of them the Jews mentioned previously – publicly hanged in Baghdad and others died of torture.  (Source: Judith Miller and Laurie Mylroie, “Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf”, p. 34)

(A sample list of Discriminatory Decrees and Violations of Human Rights of Iraqi Jews, which is not exhaustive, may be found at http://www.justiceforjews.com/iraq.html )

Why then, have I singled out the plight of Iraqi Jews when the life and human rights of any Jew who may remain in an Arab country or state is equally dire?

During the Gulf war I was forwarded a copy of a letter from Rabbi Carlos C Huerta, Jewish chaplain of the 1st Battalion, 320th Field Artillery 101st Airborne Division (Screaming Eagles), immortalised by Stephen Spielberg in “Band of Brothers.” He was writing from Mosul in Iraq, sited in the ancient city of Nineveh, birthplace of the prophet Jonah, and shared his feelings about being in that ancient and holy place.   The letter is very movingly written.  I can identify with his feeling that the ghosts of the past were all around him, and with his urgency to bring back to the light and into consciousness again the life of those past times.   However, I would ask you to note the following in particular when this Rabbi happens upon the ancient synagogue:

“.. My heart broke as I climbed over the garbage piles that filled the room where, for hundreds of years, the prayers of Jews had reached the heavens. I realised I was probably the first Jew to enter this holy place in over 50 years. Over three-and-a half meters of garbage filled the main sanctuary and what appeared to be the women’s section. I could barely make it out because of the filth, but there was Hebrew writing on the walls…..

” Tears came to my eyes, but I had to hold them back lest I put myself and the soldier with me in a dangerous situation. I had to pretend that I was only mildly interested in what they were showing me.* (emphasis mine). How does one absorb this kind of experience? How do I convey the feeling of hearing all those voices reaching out in prayer at the synagogue as I stood on top of all that garbage? How do I recover our history, how do I bring honour to a holy place that has been so desecrated? I have no answers. I only have great sadness, pain, and loneliness…”

*(This in itself should give rise for concern.  Why should this Rabbi have to hide his feelings about the Jews of Mosul-Nineveh who had been so cruelly treated?  Why should it have been “dangerous” for him to show them openly?)

The final impetus was provided by an article dated 16th January 2010, in the archives of Ha’aretz, in which Iraq urges the USA to give back the archive of Hebrew books and Jewish texts found in Iraq in 2003.  The books and texts were found soaking in sewage in the basement of a secret police building, presumably in Baghdad, although the article does not say. Iraq’s reasons for wanting back the treasured relics of the oldest Diaspora community in the world are a mixture of the mind-boggling insults and out-and-out lies and the usual utter lack of sensitivity towards the extent of the pain Iraq has caused its Jews.  To quote from the Ha’aretz article:

“….But to Saad Eskander, the director of the Iraq National Library and Archives, it is part of a larger effort to rescue the cultural history Iraq lost during the invasion, and to put Iraqis on a tentative path to coming to grips with their past.

“Iraqis must know that we are a diverse people, with different traditions, different religions, and we need to accept this diversity… To show it to our people that Baghdad was always multiethnic,”  said Eskander. ..”

The Iraqi government could demonstrate to the world that it is acting in good faith if it made reparations towards the survivors for the hundreds of thousands of Jews it has killed or caused to flee their homes, for the billions of dollars of assets it has expropriated from them,  for the fear and terror it has caused to them since well before the birth of the state of Israel.  Until it does this the first paragraph quoted above represents bad faith reasoning.

That being the case, I hope that the archive remains where it is in the United States so that the remaining Jews in Iraq can know that it will be safe and be accorded the respect it deserves.

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32 replies »

  1. smtx01, why do you think that Iraq wants the archive of Jewish texts back, and do you think that the Americans should give it back to them?

    It’s rather strange, don’t you think, that the Iraqi government should suddenly take a deep interest in the history of a people which it has been, and probably still is active in trying at least to undermine if not to eradicate?

    I am intrigued by Eskander’s motives and I believe that they are almost certainly not what he says they are.

  2. And the tragedy of Afghanistan’s Jews also, Kabul alone ,once home to 25,000 jews, today none remain

  3. I quite agree, Medusa. Since when has the cultural history of Iraqi Jews been of the slightest interest to Iraqi governments, unless to prove that Jews are disloyal?

    Eskander’s acknowledgement of the diversity of Iraqi people, and his inclusion of Jews in that diversity, is too little and far too late, if indeed he means what he says.

    And like you, I doubt that he does. I smell a rat.

  4. smtx01 it may be a typing error, but I feel distinctly uncomfortable with your writing “Jews” with a small “j”

  5. It is interesting that Rachel Shabi, frequent misrepresentor of the Mizrahi group in Israel on behalf of the Guardian’s anti-Israeli crusade, daughter of parents who fled from Iraq, instead of investigating the sources of her parent’s flight, has focused rather on trying to prove that it is Israel that is discriminatory to Mizrahi Jews.

    Somewhere I recall she wrote about the wonderful relations her parents had with their non-Jewish neighbors. Only in Israel, the one country willing to accept them when they fled Iraq, were things not as good as in Iraq ….

  6. AKUS, I have a theory about Shabi’s family, who were probably quite well off in Iraq but had to “downsize” and be like every other Iraqi refugee in Israel when they had to flee Iraq.

    I believe that Shabi’s animus may be the result of her having inherited the family’s exaggerated sense of entitlement which Israel did not meet. It must be very threatening for such a person to realise that she is merely one of many, and she has allowed it to poison her view of the country which took her family in.

  7. I’m delighted to see your excellent post, Medusa, and we do need far more like it to balance a distorted narrative of lies and fabrications about Jews and Israel, where Jews from Arab lands constitute half the population. Come and visit my blog where you will find over 160 articles about Jews of Iraq alone: http://www.jewishrefugees.blogspot.com
    I would not say that the treatment of the Jews in Iraq was typical of the persecution suffered by Jews in Arab countries – it was worse. As the writer Eli Amir once said, it was the only Arab country to kill Jews for being suspected Zionists. Egypt tortured and jailed several thousand Jews, but never executed them as in Iraq, culminating, as Medusa points out in the terrible hangings of 1969 – and the disappearance of dozens of others. I would also point out that the Iraqi government let very few of the remaining Jews leave with their passports in 1970, most of the remaining Jews had be be smuggled out through Kurdistan.
    Medusa is right to link the affair of the Iraqi Jewish archives with reparations to the Iraqi Jewish community. With only six Jews remaining in Iraq, it is very hard to justify the return of these documents, which were confiscated from Jewish homes and synagogues by the Iraqi secret police and should by rights belong to the community in exile from whom the documents were stolen. (As 90 percent of the Iraqi Jews ended up in Israel, my view is that the archives should be kept at the Babylonian heritage centre in Or Yehuda). Eskander’s claim is of the kind ‘what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is also mine – ‘nationalising’ the Jewish heritage of Iraq after first stealing it and destroying much of it (eg the Nineveh synagogue).

  8. Medusa: “why do you think that Iraq wants the archive of Jewish texts back…”

    For the same reason the Arabs dig under the temple mount and destroy every artifact they find.

    “…and do you think that the Americans should give it back to them?”

    Hell no!

  9. Smtx01 : “And the tragedy of Afghanistan’s Jews also, Kabul alone ,once home to 25,000 jews, today none remain”

    I read that one was left a few years back.

    He said that he has no intention to leave.

    I guess he never did.

  10. “It suits the anti-Zionists to ignore this ethnic cleansing in their gadarene rush to accuse Israel of the ethnic cleansing of its Arab population…”

    Love it Lynn Julius and Medusa. Here is an web version of the story of the gadarene swine:

    Jesus sent the demons into a herd of pigs. Matthew 8.30-32 (cf. Mark 5.11-13 and Luke 8.32-33) wrote:
    And there was a good way off from them an herd of many swine feeding. So the devils besought him, saying, If thou cast us out, suffer us to go away into the herd of swine. And he said unto them, Go. And when they were come out, they went into the herd of swine: and, behold, the whole herd of swine ran violently down a steep place into the sea, and perished in the waters.

  11. @ Bataween : “Egypt tortured and jailed several thousand Jews, but never executed”

    Moshe Marzouk and Azaar were hanged but this is after being caught as spies.

    Eli Cohen was also caught several times but managed to escape and find his way to Syria where after a few year’s service as our spy he was caught and hanged in Damascus square.

    But all of these where people who worked for Israel and spied and not suspected Zionists as you rightly said.

    Iraqi Jews must have suffered the most as you rightly said.

    what is your opinion about the following:

    “Between April 1950 and June 1951, five bombings of Jewish targets in Baghdad occurred. Iraqi authorities eventually arrested 3 Zionist activists for the bombings, sentencing 2 – Shalom Salah Shalom and Yosef Ibrahim Basri – to death and a third – Yehuda Tajar – to 10 years in jail .[54] Over the decades, there has been much heated debate over whether the bombs were in fact planted by the Mossad in order to encourage Iraqi Jews toe emigrate to the newly created state of Israel or whether they were the work of genuine anti-Jewish extremists in Iraq. The issue has been the subject of lawsuits and inquiries in Israel.[55] In May and June 1951, the arms caches of the Zionist underground in Iraq, which had been supplied from Palestine/Israel since the Farhud of 1941, were discovered.

    Historian Moshe Gat contends that the claim that the bombings were carried out by Zionists is contrary to the evidence, and in any event the impetus for the Jewish-Iraqi exodus was the imminent expiration of the denaturalisation law (allowing Jews to leave), not the bombing.[56][57]

    However Naeim Giladi’s position that the bombings were “perpetrated by Zionist agents in order to cause fear amongst the Jews, and so promote their exodus to Israel” is shared by David Hirst (1977), Wilbur Crane Eveland (1980), Uri Avnery (1988), Ella Shohat (1986), Abbas Shiblak (1986) ,[58] Marion Wolfsohn (1980), and Rafael Shapiro (1984). In his article, Giladi notes that this was also the conclusion of Wilbur Crane Eveland, a former senior officer in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who outlined that allegation in his book “Ropes of Sand”.[59] The British Embassy in Baghdad also blamed the bombings on Zionist activists trying to highlight the danger to Iraqi Jews if they stay in order to hasten the pace of Jewish emigration.[60]

    During the months after the first bomb, all but a few thousand of the remaining Jews registered for emigration. In total, about 120,000 Jews left Iraq.”


    Was Israel involved in the bombings, and how strong was the effect?

  12. Hello Itsik
    The bombs issue is Arab propaganda supported by anti-Zionists and antisemites, trying to deflect responsibility for the Jewish exodus on to Israel.
    See http://jewishrefugees.blogspot.com/2006/04/iraqi-muslims-threw-1951-synagogue.html
    You will note from my ‘fisking’ of Naiem Giladi that he doesn’t even get the dates of the bombings right.
    Even the leftwing Tom Segev thinks Israel did not do the fatal bombing of Jan 1951.
    There were three minor incidents after May 1951 but they did not injure anyone and the deadline for emigration had expired.
    In his new book Sir Martin Gilbert does not even mention the bombs (except the fatal bombing in Jan 1951). He reveals that the Jewish Agency did not want to exceed its monthly quota of 2,500 Jews from Iraq. Therefore Israel had no vested interest in encouraging more Jews than they could cope with.

  13. @ bataween, thank you – this is praise indeed coming from you. I have visited your blog often, it is excellent and I have read the articles by you which have been cross-posted here – also excellently written and argued.

    You are obviously far more informed than me, and I am neither shocked nor surprised that the treatment of Iraqi Jews was far worse than other Arab governments’ treatment of their own Jews. If that does little else it really gives the lie to the excuse that Arab/Muslim animus and violence against Jews stemmed from the creation of the State of Israel.

    Modernity, thank you.

    I was appalled to read of the Iraqi government’s request for the return of the Iraqi Jewish archive. Not only does it evidence the supreme arrogance and lack of conscience and insight of the man, the rationale behind it as stated by Eskander is so patently a tissue of lies that it almost beggars belief. My immediate reaction to that was, “How dare they?” but then I remembered how if Arab leaders say a thing they really do believe it to be true.

    And yes, the archive should be kept in the Babylonian Heritage Centre in Or Yehuda.

  14. @Itsik de wembly ‘I read that one left a few years back,he said that he had no intention to leave, I guess he never did’.

    I remember reading a few years back that the last 2 Jews In Afghanistan, had lived in hiding in opposite ends of an ancient dilipadated Synagogue in Kabul,they couldnt stand eachother, and hadn’t spoken in years, I believe one went to Israel, and the other wanted to be known as the Last surviving Jew in Afghanistan.(Levy and Simanto)

  15. Jesus sent the demons into a herd of pigs. Matthew 8.30-32 (cf. Mark 5.11-13 and Luke 8.32-33) wrote:
    And there was a good way off from them an herd of many swine feeding. So the devils besought him, saying, If thou cast us out, suffer us to go away into the herd of swine. And he said unto them, Go. And when they were come out, they went into the herd of swine: and, behold, the whole herd of swine ran violently down a steep place into the sea, and perished in the waters.

    One of the stories used to show that ‘the son of gOD’ was not wothout sin. Why should pigs have been treated thus. Is it not enuf that we eat them even though they are as intelligent if not more intelligent than dogs.

    Bertrand Russel mentioned this in his essay ‘Why I Am Not a Christian’.

  16. smtx01, did I imagine it, or did you post here once that you are descended from Mizrachi Jews? If so, would you be prepared to share their story with us here? I am sure that people would be interested.

  17. The ill treatment of Jews in Iraq and other Arab countries seems to be a C20 phenomenon and it can be reasonably believed that the conflict over Palestine was the trigger. But Abba Eban in his book “My People” traces Arab anti-Jewish behaviour back through centuries and indeed we can see it at the very beginning in the massacre of Jewish tribes by Mohammed’s armies and in some verses of the Koran. In modern times it is just another example of the inrellectual confusion between “Jew” and “Zionist” or “Jews” and “Israelis” and if zionism was the underlying cause it simply gave an excuse for anti-Jewish behaviour endemic to a people of a tribalistic mindset.

  18. Thanks, julian.

    Abba Eban was correct to trace Arab/Muslim treatment of Jews back through the centuries and the roots of it are contained in the Medina Koran, when the Muslim prophet, having been rejected as their prophet by the Jews of Mecca, turned against them. The abrogated verses of the Medina Koran form the template for Islamic supremacists’ treatment of Jews and other non-Muslims not least because devout Muslims are enjoined to emulate their prophet in every particular.

    I focused on the 20th century experiences of Iraqi Jews mainly to give background to and introduce the letter from the Rabbi about his finding the derelict synagogue in Mosul-Nineveh, and to make a nonsense of the Iraqi government’s current claim to want to afford respect to the tiny remnant of a once glorious Jewish community which lived there and which its predecessors were complicit in helping to eradicate.

    The Medina Koran gave the Muslim prophet permission to betray and murder his Jewish allies and you are right, I think, that the birth of Israel was used as an excuse for pogroms throughout the Arab world, sanctioned, as their perpetrators perceived it, by what their prophet had done.

  19. I certainly agree that if you disrespect something you have little right to demand it back from someone who respects it. What you throw onto a garbage heap you have abandoned any moral right to forbid others from taking. I would compare what the rabbi found in Nineveh to the desecrated tombstones found around Jerusalem after the 1967 war.