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Jews of Iraq, A Will To Survive

By: Shlomo Bakhash

I believe that History will judge us on this day. The simple question is…"Are we willing to give up our identity, our culture, our tradition"? The simple answer should be.... No Wait, Not so fast.... Lets face it, we Iraqi people, in general, are not religious people by any means. Our primary goal is to create an environment aimed at preservation, promotion, and continuation of the culture, tradition and identity of the Babylonian Jewish Heritage through religious, social and educational means.... We are here to bear the responsibility to preserve a rich culture that is more than 2700 years old.

Are we going to be the first culture of Jews to become extinct? Extinct? Pardon me but .... How rude .... Are we the last of the Iraqi Jews? Who is to blame for our extinction? Certainly not our forefathers, not our grandparents, not our parents they did what they had to do to preserve our culture. We are to blame it is us who are facing extinction. Jews are not supposed to become extinct, they are survivors. Can a culture this rich, pure, filled with tradition become extinct? I thought only animals can become extinct….If our forefathers could speak from their graves, what would they say? How would the future generation judge us? Shame, Shame on us for even putting ourselves in this position.

But, sadly enough the answer is… Yes ... we can and are becoming extinct unless we as a people decide, today, to stop this force of nature that is destroying our culture .... First goes our language, then goes our traditions, then our culture, then our identity & probably last our delecious Iraqi food its as easy as that .... Are you ready to give it up? No, not so fast

As a result of our long and difficult history, we, the Iraqi people are proud and adaptive people. Pride and adaptivness are elements that helped us survived this long, yet it is the same elements that are now destroying us. We are so adaptive and proud that we are quickly losing our culture; becoming a self destructive community; and funny enough, not as a result of a hostile external force, but by forces within, and worse of all, in a time of peace.

Maybe we have forgotten the rich history of the Iraqi Jews and should take some time to be reminded of it and teach our children a history that is more than 2700 years old.

It all started in 721 BC (more than 2700 years ago) when the Jews were exiled by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians in 586 BC which marked the end of the Kingdom of Judah. Forty thousand (40,000) Jews were exiled into Babylonia. Very much like the Iraqi Jews today, they soon began to adjust to their new environment and prosper.

Then came the Persian Empire, King Cyrus the Great, whom the Jews regarded as God's Messiah. Cyrus issued a proclamation permitting the Jews to return to Palestine and rebuild their temple. A large number of Jews returned, others, mainly the Iraqi Jews, remained in Babylonia, and continued to prosper and extend support to those who lived in Palestine.

We survived in 331 BC when the Babylonians were conquered by the Greeks under the command of Alexander the Great. As usual, we adapted ourselves to the new situation, and even adopted new commercial and accounting methods from the Greeks. Following the decline of the Greeks, the Persians reappeared and ruled Babylon until 226 AD For the Babylonian Jews this was a period of economic and spiritual flourishing, resulting in the outstanding creation of the Talmud, a treasure of legal and folkloristic material, commentaries, science, history and so much more.

We survived the Arab Islamic armies, who invaded Babylon in year 638 and proclaimed Islam as the official religion of the country and even changed the country's name to Iraq. Adaptive as we are, we welcomed Arab rule with mutual recognition between the two religions. We even adopted the Arabic language and no longer used Aramaic. The Jewish population included bankers, physicians, engineers, astronomers, and translators.

It is interesting to note, that at this period a wandering Babylonian rabbi, known as Aharon of Baghdad, introduced the mystic traditions and wisdom of the Babylonian Jewry to his followers in Italy, therefore establishing the nucleus of the Ashkanazi and Hassidic movement.

The story continues.... Baghdad was conquered in year 945 by the Shiite Moslems and then by the Turks in year 1058. This was a bad time for the Iraqi Jews. At that period of time 40,000 Jews lived in Baghdad and possessed 28 magnificent synagogues. Then came the Mongols in year 1258 led by Genghiz Khan’s grandson, then again the Turks in year 1534 which ruled Iraq for 400 years, then the Persians in year 1623 led by Shah Abbas; then again came the Turks, followed by the Man-duks until 183 1, yet we still survived.

At the beginning of the 20th century the Jewish population reached 80,000, two thirds of whom lived in Baghdad.

As the Turkish Empire reached its final days,, policies towards the Jews turned hostile and the Jews experienced an economic recession. We survived the outbreak of World War I in 1914 which brought a worsening of the treatment of Jews by the Turkish rulers. The British conquest of Iraq started a new beginning for the Iraqi Jews. In his book "The Heart of the Middle East", Richard Coke in 1925 writes about the Iraqi Jews of the time.

"I quote." There are a large number of non-Moslem minorities in Iraq. The most important of these minorities is the great community of the Jews, who number some 90,000. The importance of the modern Jewish community in the country is based on commercial power...It would seem that the Jews are by far the wealthiest of the various communities ... Until the recent arrival of the European bank, they controlled all banking activities in the country, and a large proportion of the import and export business has always been in their hands... They also control an appreciable proportion of the retail trade of the country ... the Baghdad Jew has become far more Europeanized than any other portion of the population ... His knowledge is frequently very broad...

By 1920 The British declared the establishment of a constitutional democratic state in Iraq and Faisal was declared King. King Faisal, a moderate ruler, was sympathetic to the Jews. They, in turn, served his kingdom faithfully. Relations between Jews and Moslems were excellent. Following his death in 1933, King Faisal was succeeded by his son Ghazi who had less favorable attitude towards the Jews. He gave a free rein to the extreme elements in the country which invited anti-semitism and Nazi propagandist, stimulating hatred of the Jews. These developments caused a decline in the economic condition of the Jews in Iraq, In 1939, King Ghazi was killed in a mysterious traffic accident. In 1941, the pogrom and riots began against the Jews lasting two day where more than 300 Jews were killed in the streets of Baghdad, 2118 people wounded and 6558 homes damaged. The pogrom of 1941 shook the Jews of Iraq, shattering their hopes for a future in that country, yet ... we still survived.

These events rekindled the ancient attachment to Palestine. The Zionist movement was revitalized. The society set itself three objectives: the study of the Hebrew language, self-defense, and the organization of immigration to Israel. Several movements like the Halutz and the Hashura were formed to meet these objectives. The largest phase of the illegal emigration took place between 1948 and 195 1, where more than 15,000 Jews, including most of our parents, crossed into Iran.

By 1945 anti-propaganda in Iraq intensified. Zionism became an unforgivable crime. Sale of land to Jews was forbidden. The government of Iraq called the Jews of Iraq "hostages", and imposed restrictions on the exit of Jews. During 1947 Iraq suffered a drought and the population was threatened by famine. The government diverted public's attention by directing its anger against the Jews. In May 1947 Jews were accused of giving Arab children poisoned candy and were accused of contaminating the drinking water with the colera bacteria. It was a very difficult time, yet we still survived.

On November 1947, the General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish State. The Arab population was outraged and called for jihad (holy war). Demonstrations were encouraged against the Jews. On May 14, 1948 - the eve of the official declaration of the State of Israel - the headlines in Iraq read the fate of the Jews will be either the grave or the sea." The prime minister of Iraq announced the participation of the Iraqi army in war against Israel, aimed at destruction of Israel. Zionism was added to article 51 of the Criminal Code in Iraq with death as the punishment. Many Jews were falsely arrested, tortured and killed. Homes of the Jews were confiscated. Jews were forbidden to engage in foreign trade, and their business's boycotted. At this time there were almost 1500 Iraqi Jews in prison. yet, we still survived....

Finally, on March 2, 1950 the Minister of Interior, introduced a Bill that allowed Jewish citizens to leave the country on condition that they renounced their Iraqi citizenship. By the end of three months the total number who registered to leave had reached some 90,000 out of a total Jewish population of 130,000, known as operation Ezra and Nehen-fia ... The Jews of Iraq were ecstatic they were not ready to give it up...

Now, After all this rich history I ask you Are you willing to give it all up"? No Way, not so fast .... not without yelling, kicking and screaming.


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