History of the Jews in Iraq

Iraqi Jews
  • يهود العراق
  • יהודים עיראקים

Total population
156,000 (residing in Iraq in 1947)[1]
Regions with significant populations
 Israel 250,000+[2]
 United States 150,000+[3]
 Canada 25,000+
 Australia 20,000+
 Iraq < 10
Hebrew, Judeo Arabic, Judeo-Aramaic (in Northern Iraq)
Related ethnic groups
Baghdadi Jews, Kurdish Jews, Persian Jews, Mizrahi Jews, Mandeans, Assyrians

The history of the Jews in Iraq (Hebrew: יְהוּדִים בָּבְלִים, Babylonian Jews, Yehudim Bavlim, Arabic: يهود العراق Yahūd al-ʿIrāq), is documented from the time of the Babylonian captivity c. 586 BC. Iraqi Jews constitute one of the world's oldest and most historically significant Jewish communities.

The Jewish community of Babylon included Ezra the scribe, whose return to Judea in the late 6th century BC is associated with significant changes in Jewish ritual observance and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Talmud was compiled in Babylonia, identified with modern Iraq.[4]

From the Babylonian period to the rise of the Islamic caliphate, the Jewish community of Babylon thrived as the center of Jewish learning. The Mongol invasion and Islamic discrimination in the Middle Ages led to its decline.[5] Under the Ottoman Empire, the Jews of Iraq fared better. The community established modern schools in the second half of the 19th century.[6]

In the 20th century, Iraqi Jews played an important role in the early days of Iraq's independence. Between 1950–52, 120,000–130,000 of the Iraqi Jewish community (around 75%) were transported to Israel in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.[7]

Early Biblical history

In the Bible, Babylon and the country of Babylonia are not always clearly distinguished, in most cases the same word being used for both. In some passages the land of Babylonia is called Shinar, while in the post-exilic literature it is called Chaldea. In the Book of Genesis, Babylonia is described as the land in which Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh are located cities that are declared to have formed the beginning of Nimrod's kingdom (Gen. x 10). Here, the Tower of Babel was located (Gen. xi. 1–9); and it was also the seat of Amraphel's dominion (Gen. xiv. 1, 9).

In the historical books Babylonia is frequently referred to (there are no fewer than thirty-one allusions in the Books of Kings), though the lack of a clear distinction between the city and the country is sometimes puzzling. Allusions to it are confined to the points of contact between the Israelites and the various Babylonian kings, especially Merodach-baladan (Berodach-baladan of II Kings xx. 12; compare Isa. xxxix. 1) and Nebuchadnezzar. In Books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah the interest is transferred to Cyrus (see, for example, Ez. v. 13), though the retrospect still deals with the conquests of Nebuchadnezzar, and Artaxerxes is mentioned once (Neh. xiii. 6).

In the poetical literature of Israel, Babylonia plays an insignificant part (see Ps. lxxxvii. 4, and especially Psalm 137), but it fills a very large place in the Prophets. The Book of Isaiah resounds with the "burden of Babylon" (xiii. 1), though at that time it still seemed a "far country" (xxxix. 3). In the number and importance of its references to Babylonian life and history, the Book of Jeremiah stands preeminent in the Hebrew literature. With numerous important allusions to events in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, Jeremiah has become a valuable source in reconstructing Babylonian history within recent times. The inscriptions of Nebuchadnezzar are almost exclusively devoted to building operations; and but for the Book of Jeremiah, little would be known of his campaign against Jerusalem.

Late Biblical history and the Babylonian exile

Three times during the 6th century BC, the Jews of the ancient Kingdom of Judah were exiled to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. These three separate occasions are mentioned (Jeremiah 52:28–30). The first was in the time of Jehoiachin in 597 BC, when, in retaliation for a refusal to pay tribute, the temple of Jerusalem was partially despoiled and a number of the leading citizens removed (Daniel 5:1–5). After eleven years, in the reign of Zedekiah—who had been enthroned by Nebuchadnezzar, a fresh revolt of the Judaeans took place, perhaps encouraged by the close proximity of the Egyptian army. The city was razed to the ground, and a further deportation ensued.[8] Finally, five years later, Jeremiah records a third captivity. After the overthrow of Babylonia by the Persians, Cyrus gave the Jews permission to return to their native land (537 BC), and more than forty thousand are said to have availed themselves of the privilege. (See Jehoiakim; Ezra; Nehemiah.)

The earliest accounts of the Jews exiled to Babylonia are furnished only by scanty biblical details; certain sources seek to supply this deficiency from the realms of legend and tradition. Thus, the so-called "Small Chronicle" (Seder Olam Zutta) endeavors to preserve historic continuity by providing a genealogy of the exilarchs ("Reshe Galuta") back to King Jeconiah; indeed, Jeconiah himself is made an exilarch. The "Small Chronicle's" statement, that Zerubbabel returned to Judea in the Greek period, can of course not be regarded as historical. Certainly, the descendants of the Davidic line occupied an exalted position among their brethren in Babylonia, as they did at that period in Judea. During the Maccabean revolt, these Judean descendants of the royal house had immigrated to Babylonia.

Greek period

With Alexander the Great's campaign, accurate information concerning the Jews in the East reached the western world. Alexander's army contained numerous Jews who refused, from religious scruples, to take part in the reconstruction of the destroyed Belus temple in Babylon. The accession of Seleucus Nicator, 312 BC, to whose extensive empire Babylonia belonged, was accepted by the Jews and Syrians for many centuries as the commencement of a new era for reckoning time, called "minyan sheṭarot," æra contractuum, or era of contracts, which was also officially adopted by the Parthians. This so-called Seleucid era survived in the Orient long after it had been abolished in the West (see Sherira's "Letter," ed. Neubauer, p. 28). Nicator's foundation of a city, Seleucia, on the Tigris is mentioned by the Rabbis (Midr. The. ix. 8); both the "Large" and the "Small Chronicle" contain references to him. The important victory which the Jews are said to have gained over the Galatians in Babylonia (II Macc. viii. 20) must have happened under Seleucus Callinicus or under Antiochus III. The last-named settled a large number of Babylonian Jews as colonists in his western dominions, with the view of checking certain revolutionary tendencies disturbing those lands. Mithridates (174–136 BC) subjugated, about the year 160, the province of Babylonia, and thus the Jews for four centuries came under Parthian domination.

Parthian period

Jewish sources contain no mention of Parthian influence; the very name "Parthian" does not occur, unless indeed "Parthian" is meant by "Persian," which occurs now and then. The Armenian prince Sanatroces, of the royal house of the Arsacides, is mentioned in the "Small Chronicle" as one of the successors (diadochoi) of Alexander. Among other Asiatic princes, the Roman rescript in favor of the Jews reached Arsaces as well (I Macc. xv. 22); it is not, however, specified which Arsaces. Not long after this, the Partho-Babylonian country was trodden by the army of a Jewish prince; the Syrian king, Antiochus VII Sidetes, marched, in company with Hyrcanus I, against the Parthians; and when the allied armies defeated the Parthians (129 BC) at the Great Zab (Lycus), the king ordered a halt of two days on account of the Jewish Sabbath and Feast of Weeks. In 40 BC. the Jewish puppet-king, Hyrcanus II, fell into the hands of the Parthians, who, according to their custom, cut off his ears in order to render him unfit for rulership. The Jews of Babylonia, it seems, had the intention of founding a high-priesthood for the exiled Hyrcanus, which they would have made quite independent of Judea. But the reverse was to come about: the Judeans received a Babylonian, Ananel by name, as their high priest which indicates the importance enjoyed by the Jews of Babylonia. Still in religious matters the Babylonians, as indeed the whole diaspora, were in many regards dependent upon Judea. They went on pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the festivals.

How free a hand the Parthians permitted the Jews is perhaps best illustrated by the rise of the little Jewish robber-state in Nehardea (see Anilai and Asinai). Still more remarkable is the conversion of the king of Adiabene to Judaism. These instances show not only the tolerance, but the weakness of the Parthian kings. The Babylonian Jews wanted to fight in common cause with their Judean brethren against Vespasian; but it was not until the Romans waged war under Trajan against Parthia that they made their hatred felt; so that it was in a great measure owing to the revolt of the Babylonian Jews that the Romans did not become masters of Babylonia too. Philo speaks of the large number of Jews resident in that country, a population which was no doubt considerably swelled by new immigrants after the destruction of Jerusalem. Accustomed in Jerusalem from early times to look to the east for help, and aware, as the Roman procurator Petronius was, that the Jews of Babylon could render effectual assistance, Babylonia became with the fall of Jerusalem the very bulwark of Judaism. The collapse of the Bar Kochba revolt no doubt added to the number of Jewish refugees in Babylon.

In the continuous Roman–Persian Wars, the Jews had every reason to hate the Romans, the destroyers of their sanctuary, and to side with the Parthians, their protectors. Possibly it was recognition of services thus rendered by the Jews of Babylonia, and by the Davidic house especially, that induced the Parthian kings to elevate the princes of the Exile, who until then had been little more than mere collectors of revenue, to the dignity of real princes, called Resh Galuta. Thus, then, the numerous Jewish subjects were provided with a central authority which assured an undisturbed development of their own internal affairs.

Babylonia as the center of Judaism

Further information: Talmudic Academies in Babylonia
1932 photograph of Ezekiel's Tomb at Kifel. The area was inhabited by Iraqi Jews who appear in the photo.

After the fall of Jerusalem, Babylon would become the focus of Judaism for more than a thousand years, and the place where Jews would acclimate themselves as a people without a land.[9] The Jews of Babylon would even for the first time write prayers in a language other than Hebrew, such as the Kaddish, written in Judeo-Aramaic a harbinger of the many languages in which Jewish prayers in the diaspora would come to be written in, such as Greek, Arabic, and Turkish.

The rabbi Abba Arika (175–247 AD), known as "Rab" due to his status as the highest authority in Judaism, is considered by the Jewish oral tradition the key leader, who along with the whole people in diaspora, maintained Judaism after the destruction of Jerusalem. After studying in Palestine at the academy of Judah I, Rab quietly returned to his Babylonian home; his arrival, in the year 530 of the Seleucidan, or 219 of the common era, is considered to mark the beginning of a new era for the Jewish people. Rab's career is seen as initiating the dominant rôle that the Babylonian academies played for several centuries, for the first time outmoding Judea and Galilee in the quality of Torah study. Most Jews to this day rely on the quality of the work of Babylon during this period over that of the Galilee from the same period. The Jewish community of Babylon was already learned Rab just focused and organised their study. Leaving an existing Babylonian academy at Nehardea for his colleague Samuel, Rab founded a new academy at Sura, where he and his family already owned property, and which was known as a Jewish city. Rab's move created an environment in which Babylon had two contemporary leading academies that competed with one another, yet were so far removed from one another that they could never interfere with each other's operations. Since Rab and Samuel were acknowledged peers in position and learning, their academies likewise were accounted of equal rank and influence. Their relationship can be compared to that between the Judea Galilee and Iudemea Province academies of the House of Hillel Ha-Zaken and the House of Shammai, albeit Rab and Samuel agreed far more often than did the houses of Hillel and Shammai, who nearly never agreed on the Law. Thus both Babylonian rabbinical schools opened this new era for diaspora Judaism well, and the ensuing discussions in their classes furnished the earliest stratum and style of the scholarly material deposited in the Babylonian Talmud. The coexistence for many decades of these two colleges of equal rank, even after the school at Nehardea was moved to Pumbedita (now Fallujah), produced for the first time in Babylonia the phenomenon of dual leadership that, with some slight interruptions, became a permanent fixture and a weighty factor in the development of the Jewish faith as we know it today.

The key work of these semi-competing academies was the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud (the discussions from these two cities), completed by Rav Ashi and Ravina, two successive leaders of the Babylonian Jewish community, around the year 520, though rougher copies had already been circulated to the Jews of the Byzantine Empire. Editorial work by the Savoraim or Rabbanan Savoraei (post-Talmudic rabbis), continued on this text's grammar for the next 250 years; much of the text did not reach its "perfected" form until around 600–700 AD. The Mishnah, which had been completed in the early 3rd century AD, and the Babylonian Gemara (the discussions at and around these academies) together form the Talmud Bavli (the "Babylonian Talmud").

The three centuries in the course of which the Babylonian Talmud was developed in the academies founded by Rab and Samuel were followed by five centuries during which it was intensely preserved, studied, expounded in the schools, and, through their influence, discipline and work, recognized by the whole diaspora. Sura and Pumbedita were considered the seats of diaspora learning; their heads and sages were the weighty authorities, whose decisions were sought from all sides and were accepted wherever diaspora Jewish communal life existed. They even successfully competed against the learning coming from the Roman provinces of the mythologised "Land of Israel" itself. In the words of the haggadist, "God created these two academies in order that the promise might be fulfilled, that 'the word of God should never depart from Israel's mouth'" (Isa. lix. 21). The periods of Jewish history immediately following the close of the Talmud are designated according to the titles of the teachers at Sura and Pumbedita; thus we have the time of the Geonim and that of the Saboraim. The Saboraim were the scholars whose diligent hands completed the Talmud and the first great Talmudic commentaries in the first third of the 6th century (however earlier commentaries had already been completed in the Galilee, for example by Greek convert Unkoles). The two academies among others, and the Jewish community they lead, lasted until the middle of the 11th century, Pumbedita faded after its chief rabbi was murdered in 1038, and Sura faded soon after. Which ended for centuries the great scholarly reputation given to Babylonian Jews, as the center of Jewish thought.

Sassanid period

The Persian people were now again to make their influence felt in the history of the world. Ardashir I destroyed the rule of the Arsacids in the winter of 226, and founded the illustrious dynasty of the Sassanids. Different from the Parthian rulers, who were northern Iranians following Mithraism and Zoroastrianism and speaking Pahlavi dialect, the Sassanids intensified nationalism and established a state-sponsored Zoroastrian church which often suppressed dissident factions and heterodox views. Under the Sassanids, Babylonia became the province of Asuristan, with its main city, Ctesiphon, becoming the capital of the Sassanid Empire.

Shapur I (Shvor Malka, which is the Aramaic form of the name) was a friend to the Jews. His friendship with Shmuel gained many advantages for the Jewish community.

Shapur II's mother was Jewish, and this gave the Jewish community a relative freedom of religion and many advantages. Shapur was also the friend of a Babylonian rabbi in the Talmud called Raba, and Raba's friendship with Shapur II enabled him to secure a relaxation of the oppressive laws enacted against the Jews in the Persian Empire. In addition, Raba sometimes referred to his top student Abaye with the term Shvur Malka meaning "Shapur [the] King" because of his bright and quick intellect.

Christians, Manicheans, Buddhists and Jews at first seemed at a disadvantage, especially under Sassanian high-priest Kartir; but the Jews, dwelling in more compact masses in cities like Isfahan, were not exposed to such general discrimination as broke out against the more isolated Christians.

Islamic Arab period

The first legal expression of Islam toward the Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians after the conquests of the 630s were the poll-tax ("jizyah"), the tax upon real estate ("kharaj") was instituted. The first caliph, Abu Bakr, sent the famous warrior Khalid bin Al-Waleed against Iraq; and a Jew, by name Ka'ab al-Aḥbar, is said to have fortified the general with prophecies of success.

The Jews may have favored the advance of the Arabs, from whom they could expect mild treatment. Some such services it must have been that secured for the exilarch Bostanai the favor of Umar I, who awarded to him for a wife the daughter of the conquered Sassanid Chosroes II as Theophanes and Abraham Zacuto narrate. Jewish records, as, for instance, "Seder ha-Dorot," contain a Bostanai legend which has many features in common with the account of the hero Mar Zuṭra II, already mentioned. The account, at all events, reveals that Bostanai, the founder of the succeeding exilarch dynasty, was a man of prominence, who received from the victorious Arab general certain high privileges, such as the right to wear a signet ring, a privilege otherwise limited to Muslims.

Omar and Othman were followed by Ali (656), with whom the Jews of Babylonia sided as against his rival Mu'awiyah. A Jewish preacher, Abdallah ibn Saba, of southern Arabia, who had embraced Islam, held forth in support of his new religion, expounded Mohammed's appearance in a Jewish sense. Ali made Kufa, in Iraq, his capital, and it was there that Jews expelled from the Arabian Peninsula went (about 641). It is perhaps owing to these immigrants that the Arabic language so rapidly gained ground among the Jews of Babylonia, although a greater portion of the population of Iraq were of Arab descent. The capture by Ali of Firuz Shabur, where 90,000 Jews are said to have dwelt, is mentioned by the Jewish chroniclers. Mar Isaac, chief of the Academy of Sura, paid homage to the caliph, and received privileges from him.

The proximity of the court lent to the Jews of Babylonia a species of central position, as compared with the whole caliphate; so that Babylonia still continued to be the focus of Jewish life. The time-honored institutions of the exilarchate and the gaonate—the heads of the academies attained great influence—constituted a kind of higher authority, voluntarily recognized by the whole Jewish diaspora. But unfortunately exilarchs and geonim only too soon began to rival each other. A certain Mar Yanḳa, closely allied to the exilarch, persecuted the rabbis of Pumbedita so bitterly that several of them were compelled to flee to Sura, not to return until after their persecutor's death (about 730). "The exilarchate was for sale in the Arab period" (Ibn Daud); and centuries later, Sherira boasts that he was not descended from Bostanai. In Arabic legend, the resh galuta (ras al-galut) remained a highly important personage; one of them could see spirits; another is said to have been put to death under the last Umayyad caliph, Merwan ibn Mohammed (745–750).

The Umayyad caliph, Umar II. (717–720), persecuted the Jews. He issued orders to his governors: "Tear down no church, synagogue, or fire-temple; but permit no new ones to be built". Isaac Iskawi II (about 800) received from Harun al-Rashid (786–809) confirmation of the right to carry a seal of office. At the court of the mighty Harun appeared an embassy from the emperor Charlemagne, in which a Jew, Isaac, took part. Charles (possibly Charles the Bald) is said to have asked the "king of Babel" to send him a man of royal lineage; and in response the calif dispatched Rabbi Machir to him; this was the first step toward establishing communication between the Jews of Babylonia and European communities. Although it is said that the law requiring Jews to wear a yellow badge upon their clothing originated with Harun, and although the laws of Islam were stringently enforced by him to the detriment of the Jews, the magnificent development which Arabian culture underwent in his time must have benefited the Jews also; so that a scientific tendency began to make itself noticeable among the Babylonian Jews under Harun and his successors, especially under Al-Ma'mun (813–833).

Like the Arabs, the Jews were zealous promoters of knowledge, and by translating Greek and Latin authors, mainly at the House of Wisdom in Bagdad, contributed essentially to their preservation. They took up religio-philosophical studies (the "kalam"), siding generally with the Mutazilites and maintaining the freedom of the human will ("chadr"). The government meanwhile accomplished all it could toward the complete humiliation of the Jews. All non-believers—Magi, Jews, and Christians—were compelled by Al-Mutawakkil to wear a badge; their places of worship were confiscated and turned into mosques; they were excluded from public offices, and compelled to pay to the caliph a tax of one-tenth of the value of their houses. The caliph Al-Mu'tadhel (892–902) ranked the Jews as "state servants."[10]

Mongol period

The Caliphate hastened to its end before the rising power of the Mongol Empire. As Bar Hebræus remarks, these Mongol tribes knew no distinction between heathens, Jews, and Christians; and their Great Khan Kublai Khan showed himself just toward the Jews who served in his army, as reported by Marco Polo. Hulagu, the destroyer of the Caliphate (1258) and the conqueror of Palestine (1260), was tolerant toward Muslims, Jews and Christians; but there can be no doubt that in those days of terrible warfare the Jews must have suffered much with others. Under the Mongolian rulers, the priests of all religions were exempt from the poll-tax. Hulagu's second son, Aḥmed, embraced Islam, but his successor, Arghun (1284–91), hated the Muslims and was friendly to Jews and Christians; his chief counselor was a Jew, Sa'ad al-Daulah, a physician of Baghdad. After the death of the great khan and the murder of his Jewish favorite, the Muslims fell upon the Jews, and Baghdad witnessed a regular battle between them. Gaykhatu also had a Jewish minister of finance, Reshid al-Daulah. The khan Ghazan also became a Muslim, and made the Jews second class citizens. The Egyptian sultan Naṣr, who also ruled over Iraq, reestablished the same law in 1330, and saddled it with new limitations. Mongolian fury once again devastated the localities inhabited by Jews, when, in 1393, Timur captured Baghdad, Wasit, Hilla, Basra, and Tikrit, after obstinate resistance. Many Jews fled to other areas during this time.

The cumulative effect of the Mongol incursions is that most of the pre-existing Jewish community of Baghdad either died or fled, and were later replaced by immigrants from elsewhere in Iraq or from as far away as Aleppo. This is one of the reasons for the discontinuity between the present traditions of Iraqi Jewry and the Babylonian tradition of Talmudic or Geonic times.[11] It remains the case that most Jewish Iraqis are of indigenous Mesopotamian ancestry rather than migrants from Spain as in the case of North Africa and the Levant.

Ottoman rule

Kurdish Jews in Rawanduz, northern Iraq, 1905

After various changes of fortune, Mesopotamia and Iraq came into the hands of the Ottoman Turks, when Sultan Suleiman II in 1534 took Tabriz and Baghdad from the Persians, leading to an improvement in the life of the Jews. The Persian reconquest in 1623 during the Ottoman–Safavid War (1623–39) led to a much worse situation, so that the re-conquest of Iraq by the Turks in 1638 included an army with a large population of Jews, some sources say they made up 10% of the army. The day of the reconquest was even given a holiday, "Yom Nes" (day of miracle).

In 1743 there was a plague in which many of the Jews of Baghdad, including all the rabbis, died. The remaining Baghdad community asked the community of Aleppo to send them a new Chief Rabbi, leading to the appointment of Rabbi Sadka Bekhor Hussein.[12] One effect of this was a further assimilation of Iraqi Judaism to the general Sephardic mode of observance.

Over time, the centralized Turkish control over the region deteriorated and the situation of the Jews worsened, but the population continued to grow. An example of this deterioration are the persecutions of Dawud Pasha, which caused many members of the Jewish community, such as David Sassoon to flee. In 1884 there were 30,000 Jews in Baghdad and by 1900, 50,000, comprising over a quarter of the city's total population. The community also produced great rabbis, such as Joseph Hayyim ben Eliahu Mazal-Tov, known as the Ben Ish Chai (1834–1909).

Modern Iraq

Jewish weaver in Ramadi, Iraq, 1918
Mass grave for the victims of the Farhud, 1946.

The state of Iraq

Sociologist Philip Mendes asserts that before the anti-Jewish actions of the 1930s and 1940s, overall Iraqi Jews "viewed themselves as Arabs of the Jewish faith, rather than as a separate race or nationality."[13] Additionally, early Labor Zionism mostly concentrated on the Jews of Europe, skipping Iraqi Jews because of their lack of interest in agriculture. The result was that "Until World War II, Zionism made little headway because few Iraqi Jews were interested in the socialist ideal of manual labor in Palestine."[14]

During the British Mandate, beginning in 1920,[15] and in the early days after independence in 1932, well-educated Jews played an important role in civic life. Iraq's first minister of finance, Sir Sassoon Eskell, was a Jew, and Jews were important in developing the judicial and postal systems. Records from the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce show that 10 out of its 19 members in 1947 were Jews and the first musical band formed for Baghdad's nascent radio in the 1930s consisted mainly of Jews. Jews were represented in the Iraqi parliament, and many Jews held significant positions in the bureaucracy, which often led to resentment by the Muslim population.

Embedon of Sassoon Kadoorie

Organized Zionist activity began in Iraq in the 1920s. The Jewish population was generally sympathetic toward the movement, although not at that time as a solution for Iraqi Jews.[16] The Zionist organization in Baghdad was initially granted a permit by the British, in March 1921, but in the following year, under the government of King Faisal I, was unable to renew it. Nevertheless, its activities were tolerated until 1929. In that year, after conflict and bloodshed in Palestine triggered anti-Zionist demonstrations, Zionist activities were banned and teachers from Palestine, who had taught Hebrew and Jewish history, were forced to leave.[16]

In the 1930s, the situation of the Jews in Iraq deteriorated. Previously, the growing Iraqi Arab nationalist sentiment included Iraqi Jews as fellow Arabs,[17] but these views changed with the introduction of Nazi propaganda and the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian Mandate. Despite protestations of their loyalty to Iraq, Iraqi Jews were increasingly subject to discrimination and anti-Jewish actions. In September 1934, following the appointment of Arshad al-Umari as the new minister of economics and communications, tens of Jews were dismissed from their posts in that ministry; and, subsequently, there were unofficial quotas of Jews that could be appointed in the civil service or admitted to secondary schools and colleges.[18] Zionist activity had continued covertly even after 1929, but in 1935 the last two Palestinian Jewish teachers were deported, and the president of the Zionist organization was put on trial and ultimately required to leave the country.[19]

Following the collapse of Rashid Ali's pro-Axis coup, the Farhud ("violent dispossession") pogrom of June 1 and 2, 1941, broke out in Baghdad in which approximately 200 Jews were murdered (some sources put the number higher[20]), and up to 2,000 injured—damages to property were estimated at $3 million (US$ 48 million in 2016). There was also looting in many other cities at around the same time. Afterwards, Zionist emissaries from Palestine were sent to teach Iraqi Jews self-defense, which they were eager to learn.[14]

Persecution by Iraqi authorities

Before the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine vote, Iraq's prime minister Nuri al-Said told British diplomats that if the United Nations solution was not "satisfactory", "severe measures should [would?] be taken against all Jews in Arab countries".[21] In a speech at the General Assembly Hall at Flushing Meadow, New York, on Friday, 28 November 1947, Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Fadel Jamall, included the following statement:

Partition imposed against the will of the majority of the people will jeopardize peace and harmony in the Middle East. Not only the uprising of the Arabs of Palestine is to be expected, but the masses in the Arab world cannot be restrained. The Arab-Jewish relationship in the Arab world will greatly deteriorate. There are more Jews in the Arab world outside of Palestine than there are in Palestine. In Iraq alone, we have about one hundred and fifty thousand Jews who share with Moslems and Christians all the advantages of political and economic rights. Harmony prevails among Moslems, Christians and Jews. But any injustice imposed upon the Arabs of Palestine will disturb the harmony among Jews and non-Jews in Iraq; it will breed inter-religious prejudice and hatred.[22]

In 1948, Iraqi Kingdom was placed under martial law, and the penalties for Zionism were increased. Courts martial were used to intimidate wealthy Jews, Jews were again dismissed from civil service, quotas were placed on university positions, Jewish businesses were boycotted (E. Black, p. 347) and Shafiq Ades (one of the most important anti-Zionist Jewish businessmen in the country) was arrested and publicly hanged for allegedly selling goods to Israel, shocking the community (Tripp, 123). The Jewish community general sentiment was that if a man as well connected and powerful as Shafiq Ades could be eliminated by the state, other Jews would not be protected any longer.[23] Additionally, like most Arab League states, Iraq forbade any legal emigration of its Jews on the grounds that they might go to Israel and could strengthen that state. At the same time, increasing government oppression of the Jews fueled by anti-Israeli sentiment together with public expressions of antisemitism created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.

1948, the year of Israel's independence was a rough year for the Jews of Iraq:

"With very few exceptions, only Jews wore watches. On spotting one that looked expensive, a policeman had approached the owner as if to ask the hour. Once assured the man was Jewish, he relieved him of the timepiece and took him into custody. The watch, he told the judge, contained a tiny wireless; he'd caught the Jew, he claimed, sending military secrets to the Zionists in Palestine. Without examining the "evidence" or asking any questions, the judge pronounced his sentence. The "traitor" went to prison, the watch to the policeman as reward." (Haddad, p. 176).[25]

On 19 February 1949 , Nuri al-Said acknowledged the bad treatment that the Jews had been victims of in Iraq during the recent months. He warned that unless Israel behaved itself, events might take place concerning the Iraqi Jews.[26]

Operation Ezra and Nehemiah

By 1949, the Iraqi Zionist underground had become well-established (despite many arrests), and they were smuggling Iraqi Jews out of the country illegally at a rate of 1,000 a month.[27] Hoping to stem the flow of assets from the country, in March 1950 Iraq passed a law of one year duration allowing Jews to emigrate on condition of relinquishing their Iraqi citizenship. They were motivated, according to Ian Black, by "economic considerations, chief of which was that almost all the property of departing Jews reverted to the state treasury" and also that "Jews were seen as a restive and potentially troublesome minority that the country was best rid of." (p. 91) Iraqi politicians candidly admitted that they wanted to expel their Jewish population for reasons of their own.[28] Israel was initially reluctant to absorb so many immigrants, (Hillel, 1987) but eventually mounted an airlift in March 1951 called "Operation Ezra and Nehemiah" to bring as many of the Iraqi Jews as possible to Israel, and sent agents to Iraq to urge the Jews to register for immigration as soon as possible. Between 1948 and 1951 121,633 Jews left the country, leaving 15,000 behind.[29]

Rabbi Moshe Gabail; in 1951 petitioning President Zvi to help his Zacho, Iraq, community

From the start of the emigration law in March 1950 until the end of the year, 60,000 Jews registered to leave Iraq. In addition to continuing arrests and the dismissal of Jews from their jobs, this exodus was encouraged by a series of bombings starting in April 1950 that resulted in a number of injuries and a few deaths. Two months before the expiration of the law, by which time about 85,000 Jews had registered, another bomb at the Masuda Shemtov synagogue killed 3 or 5 Jews and injured many others. Nuri al-Said, the Iraqi prime minister, was determined to drive the Jews out of his country as quickly as possible,[28][30][31] and on August 21, 1950 he threatened to revoke the license of the company transporting the Jewish exodus if it did not fulfill its daily quota of 500 Jews. On September 18, 1950, Nuri al-Said summoned a representative of the Jewish community and claimed Israel was behind the emigration delay, threatening to "take them to the borders" and forcibly expel the Jews[28][28] The law expired in March 1951 but was later extended after the Iraqi government froze the assets of departing Jews, including those who had already left. During the next few months, all but a few thousand of the remaining Jews registered for emigration, spurred on by a sequence of further bombings that caused few casualties but had great psychological impact. In Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, some 120,000 Jews were airlifted to Israel via Iran and Cyprus.

In 1952, emigration to Israel was again banned, and the Iraqi government publicly hanged two Jews who had been falsely charged with throwing a bomb at the Baghdad office of the U.S. Information Agency.[32]

According to Palestinian politician Aref al-Aref, the pro-British Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Sa'id had attempted to justify allowing the exodus by explaining to him that: ”The Jews have always been a source of evil and harm to Iraq. They are spies. They have sold their property in Iraq, they have no land among us that they can cultivate. How therefore can they live? What will they do if they stay in Iraq? No, no my friend, it is better for us to be rid of them as long as we are able to do so."[33]

Iraqi Jews left behind them extensive property, often located in the heart of Iraq's major cities. A relatively high number found themselves in refugee camps in Israel known as Ma'abarot before being given permanent housing.

Behind the synagogues bombing

The true identity and objective of the masterminds behind the bombings has been the subject of controversy. A secret Israeli inquiry in 1960 found no evidence that they were ordered by Israel or any motive that would have explained the attack, though it did find out that most of the witnesses believed that Jews had been responsible for the bombings.[34] The issue remains unresolved: Iraqi activists still regularly charge that Israel used violence to engineer the exodus, while Israeli officials of the time vehemently deny it.[35] Historian Moshe Gat reports that "the belief that the bombs had been thrown by Zionist agents was shared by those Iraqi Jews who had just reached Israel".[36] Sociologist Phillip Mendes backs Gat's claims, and further attributes the allegations to have been influenced and distorted by feelings of discrimination.[13]

Journalist 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 a number of anti-Zionist authors, including the Israeli Black Panthers (1975), David Hirst (1977), Wilbur Crane Eveland (1980), Uri Avnery (1988), Ella Shohat (1986), Abbas Shiblak (1986), 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".

The affair has also been the subject of a libel lawsuit by Mordechai Ben Porat, which was settled in an out-of-court compromise with an apology of the journalist who described the charges as true.

Iraqi authorities eventually charged three members of the Zionist underground with perpetrating some of the explosions. Two of those charged, Shalom Salah Shalom and Yosef Ibrahim Basri, were subsequently found guilty and executed, whilst the third was sentenced to a lengthy jail term. Salah Shalom claimed in his trial that he was tortured into confessing, and Yosef Basri maintained his innocence throughout.

Gat reports that much of the previous literature "reflects the universal conviction that the bombings had a tremendous impact on the large-scale exodus of the Jews... To be more precise it is suggested that the Zionist emissaries committed these brutal acts in order to uproot the prosperous Iraqi Jewish community and bring it to Israel".[37] However, Gat argues that both claims are contrary to the evidence. As summarized by Mendes:

Historian Moshe Gat argues that there was little direct connection between the bombings and exodus. He demonstrates that the frantic and massive Jewish registration for denaturalisation and departure was driven by knowledge that the denaturalisation law was due to expire in March 1951. He also notes the influence of further pressures including the property-freezing law, and continued anti-Jewish disturbances which raised the fear of large-scale pogroms. In addition, it is highly unlikely the Israelis would have taken such measures to accelerate the Jewish evacuation given that they were already struggling to cope with the existing level of Jewish immigration. Gat also raises serious doubts about the guilt of the alleged Jewish bombthrowers. Firstly, a Christian officer in the Iraqi army known for his anti-Jewish views, was arrested, but apparently not charged, with the offences. A number of explosive devices similar to those used in the attack on the Jewish synagogue were found in his home. In addition, there was a long history of anti-Jewish bomb-throwing incidents in Iraq. Secondly, the prosecution was not able to produce even one eyewitness who had seen the bombs thrown. Thirdly, the Jewish defendant Shalom Salah indicated in court that he had been severely tortured in order to procure a confession. It therefore remains an open question as to who was responsible for the bombings, although Gat argues that the most likely perpetrators were members of the anti-Jewish Istiqlal Party.[38] Certainly memories and interpretations of the events have further been influenced and distorted by the unfortunate discrimination which many Iraqi Jews experienced on their arrival in Israel.[13][39]

Many years later, the Zionist emissary Yehuda Tager stated that while the main bombings were carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood, later smaller attacks were staged by Yosef Beit-Halahmi, on his own initiative, in an attempt to make it seem as if the activists on trial were not the perpetrators.[40]


Memorial in Or Yehuda, Israel to the 9 Jews executed in the 1969 Baghdad hangings

Most of the 10,000 Jews remaining after Operation Ezra and Nehemiah stayed through the Abdul Karim Qassim era when conditions improved, but anti-Semitism increased during the rule of the Aref brothers.

With the rise of the Ba'ath Party to power in 1963, restrictions were placed on the remaining Iraqi Jews. Sale of property was banned, and Jews had to carry yellow identity cards.

After the 1967 Six-Day War, Jewish property was expropriated, bank accounts were frozen, Jews were dismissed from public posts, their businesses were closed, trading permits owned by Jews were cancelled, they were not allowed to use telephones, were placed under house arrest for extended periods of time, and were under constant surveillance and restricted to the cities. In late 1968, scores of Jews were jailed on charges of spying for Israel, culminating in the 1969 public hanging of 14 men, 9 of them Jews, who were falsely accused of spying for Israel. Other suspected spies for Israel died under torture. After Baghdad Radio invited Iraqi citizens to "come and enjoy the feast", half a million people paraded and danced past the scaffolds where the men were hanged, which resulted in international criticism. An Iraqi Jew who later left wrote that the stress of persecution caused ulcers, heart attacks, and breakdowns to become increasingly prevalent in the Jewish community. In the early 1970s, bowing to international pressure, the Iraqi government allowed most of the remaining Jews to emigrate.[32] [A 1] [A 2] [A 3]

Immediately prior to the Gulf War, the U.S. State Department noted that while there was no recent evidence of overt persecution of Jews, but travel, particularly to Israel, was restricted, as was contact with Jewish groups abroad. In 1997, the Jerusalem Post reported that in the past five years, some 75 Jews had fled Iraq, of whom about 20 moved to Israel and the rest mostly went to the United Kingdom and Netherlands.[32] In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Jewish Agency launched an effort to track down all of the remaining Iraqi Jews to present them with an opportunity to emigrate to Israel, and found a total of 34 Jews. Six chose to emigrate, among them Ezra Levy, the father of Emad Levy, Baghdad's last rabbi.[44]

After the defeat of the Ba'ath regime, the process of establishing a new democratic government began. Among the subjects for debate over the Iraqi constitution was whether Jews should be considered a minority group, or left out of the constitution altogether.[45]

In October 2006, Rabbi Emad Levy announced that he was leaving for Israel and compared his life to "living in a prison". He reported that most Iraqi Jews stay in their homes "out of fear of kidnapping or execution" due to sectarian violence.[46]

Present estimates of the Jewish population in Baghdad are eight (2007),[47] seven (2008)[48] and five (2013) . Among the American forces stationed in Iraq, there were only three Jewish chaplains.[49]

See also


  1. Not shown on the map as maritime borders are not displayed "The situation of the remaining 6,000 Jews became increasingly precarious. Many were arrested on charges of spying for Israel, nine being sentenced to death and hanged publicly for this alleged offense".[41]
  2. "In 1969, Saddam and his mentor, al-Bakr, staged a show-trial of nine Jewish Iraqis who were later hanged in public for 'spying for Israel'".[42]
  3. "."A show trial culminated in the public hanging of twelve Jews on fabricated charges of spying for Israel in January 1969" [43]


  1. Ben-Yaacob, Abraham, et al. (2007). "Iraq." Encyclopaedia Judaica. 2nd ed. Vol. 10 (pp. 14-24). Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. p. 16. Estimate based on the 1947 census, amounting to 2.6% of the total population. Ben-Yaacob et al. note that some studies suggest that the total population of Iraqi Jews "in the late 1940s" could have been as high as 135,000, given that 123,500 were estimated to have immigrated to Israel between 1948 and 1951, and that 6,000 still remained in Iraq after the mass immigration.
  2. http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P1-73357609.html About 600,000 Iraqi Jews left the country after Israel was established.
  3. "Arab American Demographics". Arab American Institute. Retrieved 2010-12-10.
  4. The Tower of Babel and Babylon, Gilgamesh, Ningizzida, Gudea
  5. Nehardea Magazine
  6. "Conference asks: Iraqi Israeli, Arab Jew or Mizrahi Jew?", Haaretz
  7. "Israelis from Iraq remember Babylon", BBC.
  8. Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq, (1964) 1972 pp. 344–45
  9. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/rise-judaism.html
  10. "Babylonia" (1906). In Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk and Wagnalls. Online version. Retrieved 2015-05-17.
  11. For example, Iraqi Jews use the Tiberian vowel symbols and a form of the Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew, somewhat influenced by the local Arabic dialect: see Mizrahi Hebrew. The previous Babylonian system was quite different, being more akin to the Yemenite customs. Their dialect of Arabic, also, is akin to that of Mosul rather than to that of their Muslim neighbours. However, one reason for this is the immigration of Bedouins to Lower Mesopotamia after the Mongol invasion, which changed the cultural, ethnic and linguistic landscape of the region. The old Judeo-Arabic dialect of Lower Mesopotamia in cities such as Fallujah, Baghdad, Karbala, Basra and Ramadi, and to a lesser extent the dialect of Iraqi Christians, preserve features of the older medieval language of Iraq.
  12. "Ties between the Jews of Aleppo and of Iraq in the 18th century" (2000). The Scribe: Journal of Babylonian Jewry. Issue 73, p. 11. Abridged from Zvi Yehuda's article of the same title, in Nehardea: Journal of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, no. 12, autumn 1999.
  13. 1 2 3 Mendes, Philip (posted 5 March 2007). "The Forgotten Refugees: the Causes of the Post-1948 Jewish Exodus from Arab Countries." Paper presented at the 14th Jewish Studies Conference, Melbourne, March 2002. Palestine Remembered. Retrieved 15 May 2015.
  14. 1 2 Simon, Laskier & Reguer 2013, p. 364
  15. Tripp, Charles (2002). A History of Iraq. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2nd edition. p. 41.
  16. 1 2 Meir-Glitzenstein, Esther (2009). "Jews in Iraq and Zionism." In M. A. Ehrlich (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora (Vol. 2, pp. 771-776). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. p. 771.
  17. Batatu, Hanna (2004). The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq. Saqi Books. p. 258. ISBN 0-86356-520-4. It is not without significance that, in their earliest phase and when they were still under the influence of racial theories, Arab nationalists or, at least some of them, considered the Jews of the Arab countries as an indivisible part of the Arab "race." 'Arabs of the Christian and Jewish faith,' appealed a Manifesto by the Arab Revolutionary Committee in 1915, two years before the Balfour Declaration, 'join ranks with your Moslem brethren. Do not listen to those who say that they prefer the Turks without religion to Arabs of different beliefs; they are ignorant people who have no understanding of the vital interests of the race.'
  18. Cohen, Hayyim J. (1966). "The Anti-Jewish 'Farhud' in Baghdad, 1941." Middle Eastern Studies, 3(1), 2-17; here: p. 5.
  19. Cohen (1966), p. 4-5.
  20. Levin 2001, p. 6
  21. Morris 2008, p. 412
  22. U.N General Assembly ,A/PV.126,28 November 1947,discussion on the Palestinian question, retrieved 2013-10-15
  23. Orit Bashkin (12 September 2012). New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq. Stanford University Press. p. 90. ISBN 978-0-8047-8201-2. the general sentiment was chat if a man as well connected and powerful as Adas could he eliminated by the state, other Jews would not be protected any longer.
  24. Anderson, H. D. (1951). The Arab refugee problem: How it can be solved; proposals submitted to the General Assembly of the United Nations. n.p. pgs 101–102
  25. Howard Adelman; Elazar Barkan (13 August 2013). No Return, No Refuge: Rites and Rights in Minority Repatriation. Columbia University Press. pp. 237–. ISBN 978-0-231-52690-6.
  26. UNITED NATIONS CONCILIATION COMMISSION FOR PALESTINE ,A/AC.25/SR/G/9, 19 February 1949,MEETING BETWEEN THE CONCILIATION COMMISSION AND NURI ES SAID, PRIME MINISTER OF IRAQ, retrieved 2013-10-15, It would also be necessary to put an end to the bad treatment that the Jews had been victims of in Iraq during the recent months. The Prime Minister referred to the increasing difficulty of assuring the protection of the Jews resident in Iraq, under the present circumstances. In answer to an observation by Mr. de Boisanger, who wondered whether Tel Aviv was interested in the fate of the Jews of Iraq, the Prime Minister explained that he was not thinking in terms of persecution; he did not wish the Commission to receive a false impression with regard to his personal sentiments towards the Jews. But if the Jews continued to show the bad faith that they had demonstrated until the present moment, events might take place. (The Prime Minister did not clarify this warning)
  27. Simon, Laskier & Reguer 2013, p. 365
  28. 1 2 3 4 Howard Adelman; Elazar Barkan (13 August 2013). No Return, No Refuge: Rites and Rights in Minority Repatriation. Columbia University Press. pp. 365–. ISBN 978-0-231-52690-6. At times, Iraqi politicians candidly acknowledged that they wanted to expel their Jewish population for reasons of their own, having nothing to do with the palestinian exodus...Nuri Said described a plan to expel Jews from Iraq ...head of Jordanian government
  29. Anderson, 1951 p. 100
  30. Esther Meir-Glitzenstein (2 August 2004). Zionism in an Arab Country: Jews in Iraq in the 1940s. Routledge. p. 205. ISBN 978-1-135-76862-1. in mid September 1950, Nuri al-Said replaced...as prime minister. Nuri was determined to drive the Jews out of his country as quickly as...
  31. Orit Bashkin (12 September 2012). New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq. Stanford University Press. p. 277. ISBN 978-0-8047-8201-2.
  32. 1 2 3 Bard 2013
  33. A. al-Arif, p. 893
  34. Morris and Black, p. 93; Gat, p. 186–187.
  35. Morris and Black; Gat; passim
  36. Gat, p. 177
  37. Gat, p. 179
  38. Mendes cites two references from Moshe Gat: The Jewish Exodus from Iraq 1948–1951 (London: Frank Cass, 1997), p. 187f; and "Between Terror and Emigration: The Case of Iraqi Jewry," Israel Affairs 7(1), p. 1–24, specifically, p. 20.
  39. Rayyan Al-Shawaf (2006), in a review of Abbas Shiblak's book Iraqi Jews: A History of Mass Exodus (Saqui, 2005), notes that Gat "argues that the attacks, which he presumes were the work of Iraqis of extreme nationalist persuasion, did not spur the exodus" (p. 67). Dissent, Democratiya 7, Winter issue, p. 63-81. Retrieved 15 May 2015.
  40. Tom Segev, Now it can be told, Haaretz, April 6, 2006.
  41. Gale 2005, p. 38
  42. Kalpakian 2004, p. 134
  43. Rejwan & Beinin 2010, p. p. xix
  44. Murphy 2003
  45. Jerusalem Post
  46. Baghdad's last rabbi to leave Iraq, Haaretz
  47. "The Last Jews of Baghdad". Time. July 27, 2007.
  48. Baghdad Jews Have Become a Fearful Few, New York Times
  49. American Soldiers in Iraq Enlist in a Different Kind of Service - Forward.com"

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