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Jews of Iraq

by: Mitchell Bard - Last updated: 2004-07-01

Iraqi Jewish music band early 1900s

Jewish music band

One of the longest surviving Jewish communities still lives in Iraq. Over the years it has dropped from a population of 150,000 in 1948 to less than 40 today.

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. 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.

Iraq became an independent state in 1932. The 2,700-year-old Iraqi Jewish community has suffered horrible persecution since that time, 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. Armed Iraqi mobs, with the complicity of the police and the army, murdered 180 Jews and wounded almost 1,000. Additional outbreaks of anti-Jewish rioting occurred between 1946-49. 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, 104,000 Jews were evacuated from Iraq in Operations Ezra & Nechemia; 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; 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. 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.

The government also engaged in anti-Semitic rhetoric. One statement issued by the government in 2000 referred to Jews as "descendents of monkeys and pigs, and worshippers of the infidel tyrant."

In 1991, prior to the Gulf War, the US State Department said "there is no recent evidence of overt persecution of Jews, but the regime restricts travel, (particularly to Israel) and contacts with Jewish groups abroad."

A Jerusalem Post report noted that 75 Jews have fled Iraq in the past five years, most relocating to Holland or England. About 20 emigrated to Israel.

Only one synagogue continues to function in Iraq, "a crumbling buff-colored building tucked away in an alleyway" in Bataween, once Baghdad's main 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 hold jobs in state enterprises or join the army."

The rabbi died in 1996 and none of the remaining Jews can perform the liturgy and only a couple know Hebrew. The last wedding was held in 1980.

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.

At one time, Baghdad was one-fifth Jewish; other communities were first established 2,500 years ago. Today, approximately 38 Jews live in Baghdad, and a handful more in the Kurdish-controlled northern parts of Iraq.

Related links:

Jewish Virtual Library
Babylon Jewry


This article copyright American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, Reprinted with permission.