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 )

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.

Tags from the story
Written By
More from Medusa
Also-ran Rosselson
The subtitle of Leo Rosselson’s web page reads, “How I failed to...
Read More
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *