From Iraq to exodus: the flight of a country’s Jewish community

| כ״ב בתמוז ה׳תש״פ (14/07/2020) | 0 Comments

by Holly Johnston

Worshipper Tawfiq Safeer prepares for prayer in Baghdad’s Meir Tweig synagogue on March 21, 1998. File photo: Jassim Mohammed / AP

ERBIL, Kurdistan Region —  Bertha Bekhor was 15 years old when a man knocked frantically at the door of her Baghdad home, on a warm June evening in 1941. Violence was sweeping across Iraq’s capital, targeted at one group – the Jews.

“A man came to the house, banging on the door to be let in. He was a Jew, and was pale and trembling. He said he’d been on a bus and rioters began pulling Jews off the bus. He told them he was a Christian and ran as fast as his legs could carry him,” Bertha’s daughter Lyn Julius told Rudaw English.

The experience left Bertha’s family “traumatised”, her father applying for passports the very next day so that they could leave the country they called home.

The Farhud, Arabic for ‘to dispose of something with violence,’ saw upwards of 100 Jewish people killed on the first two days of June 1941, in bloody mob brutality that “broke the trust” between the Jews – then numbering up to 150,000 – and Iraq’s Muslim majority.

Violence targeted at Iraq’s Jewish community by no means began with the Farhud. Bertha, now 94, told her daughter of “frequent disturbances” throughout her childhood – including being hid from mobs brandishing tarred clubs on an anniversary of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, a British government statement declaring support for a national homeland for the Jews in Palestine.

But the Farhud did kickstart a new, deadlier wave of anti-Semitic violence that would see the country virtually emptied of its Jewish community by the end of the twentieth century.

Bertha and her husband fled Iraq in 1950 for the United Kingdom, where Lyn was born and raised. Lyn now runs Harif – an organization dedicated to educating people about the struggle of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, where Jewish communities are all but extinct in most countries across the region.

Bertha “was happy to leave, although it was very hard for her,” Lyn told Rudaw English via telephone. “I’ve often asked her about it, and she has no nostalgia at all.”

‘Relative ease’ to exodus 

Iraq’s Jewish community dates back more than two millennia. Shrines dedicated to Jewish prophets are spread across the country, from the Tomb of Ezekiel in al-Kifl near Najaf, to the shrine of Prophet Nahum in al-Qosh, just north of Mosul.

In northern, Kurdish areas of Iraq, Jews lived in urbane Erbil and Duhok province villages alike. Mordechai Zaken, a leading scholar on Kurdish Jewry, writes that Jews were integrated into Kurdish village life and lived in the mountains “with relative ease.” The largest communities lived in Basra and in Baghdad, where they made up around one-third of the capital city’s population.  

Before the escalation in targeted violence, Baghdad’s Jewish community was an integral part of the city’s social fabric. Its members found and ran several hospitals, and a school for blind children – then the only one of its kind in the city. Jews were at the heart of Iraq’s successful music industry, and numerous Jewish schools were dotted across Baghdad. Iraq’s first finance minister, Sassoon Eskell, was born into a prominent Baghdadi Jewish family and held in high regard.

While violence abated following the Farhud, anti-Jewish violence rose once more upon the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948, when Jews began to be dismissed from government and civil service positions, state schools and access to public services. The vast majority of Iraq’s Jews left in the late 1940s and early 1950s,  with many airlifted to Israel in exchange for renouncing their Iraqi citizenship.

Baghdad was home to sixty synagogues in 1950. Seventy years later, Meir Taweig – believed to be the only still-functioning synagogue in the city – lies in decay, paint peeling from walls that shelter relics from the nation’s other, derelict sites of Jewish worship.

A minyan, or quorum of ten men are needed to hold a synagogue service. With as few as five Jews said to be left in Iraq, the community has virtually vanished. Those who remain do so in the shadows.

“Jews keep a really low-profile. There is no communal life to speak of,” Lyn said of the country’s present Jewish community.

Home on the ‘first flight back’

Activist Niran Bassoon and her family did not leave Baghdad until 1973. Born to prominent Iraqi journalist Selim Basoon, she told Rudaw English that anti-Semitism was not a feature of her life in Iraq. In a 2019 interview, she described a peaceful, almost idyllic childhood in 1960s Baghdad.

But the shrunken Jewish community she belonged to lived in growing fear. The 1967 Six-Day War against Israel, in which Iraq fought alongside Jordan, Syria and Egypt, led to the Israeli takeover of Palestinian territories in what is now the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Defeated, the Iraqi government began a renewed campaign of persecution of Jews, under the pretence of stomping out Zionism. Niran noticed a distinct change in the city she grew up in.

“The first time I felt different was in 1967…my parents were under a lot of stress, listening to the news. We started being treated differently,” she told Jewish outlet Sephardi Voices. Aged just nine in 1967, Niran was banned from her swimming club along with her sister because of her religion.

In 1969, nine Jewish men were hanged in Baghdad on suspicion of spying for Israel. Upwards of 50,000 crowded into Tahrir Square as bodies hung from the gallows, with Baghdad Radio telling locals to “come and enjoy the feast.”

Lyn also spoke of piqued violence in the aftermath of the 1967 war. “Jews were being arrested, taken to prisons and never heard from again. Fifty Jews went missing, which was massive given that there were only 3,000 at the time.”  

Unlike Bertha, Niran’s mother Maryam always held out hope of returning home. Her parents were reluctant to go abroad, only applying for passports to leave Iraq when their youngest son, who had fled to the United Kingdom, threatened to cut off contact if the other siblings did not follow suit and leave.

“She always said that she would fly on the first flight back,” Niran told Rudaw English.

‘Losing our heritage’

Israel is now home to the third-highest Iraqi diaspora, and the largest Iraqi Jewish diaspora community in the world. Iraqi Jews are largely found in Jerusalem and Ramat Gan, west of Tel Aviv, where a memorial commemorating the Farhud can be found encircled by high-rise blocks.

Descendants of Iraq’s Jews in Israel still cling to their roots. Well-known singer and actor Idan Amedi, born and raised in the “Kurdish quarter” of Jerusalem, told Rudaw last month of a thriving Kurdish community in Israel that meets once a year to celebrate the Seharane festival, a uniquely Kurdish-Jewish affair.

The grandchild of Iraqi Jews who settled in Israel, young historian Jenny Kadori grew up listening to tales of Iraq from her maternal grandfather and grandmother. Her grandfather Daoud left Baghdad for Israel in 1962, after the government began to seize family property, and settled in the coastal city of Haifa.

“In the Iraqi mentality, Jews were an obstacle for the country to have its own identity,” Jenny told Rudaw English last month.

Now based in South Africa, Jenny still speaks with her grandparents in their native tongue of Arabic. At the age of 20, she began to delve through national archives and historical records to piece together the past of Middle Eastern Jews.

“Our stories aren’t told very often and people don’t really know about us. New generations, mine included, are losing our heritage. We have thousands of years of history, and it would be sad to forget it.”

Jenny’s great-uncle was executed by the Baath regime in 1969, buried without his family present. Burial in the absence of his loved ones was dubbed an act of “treason” by her grandfather, who has bittersweet memories of his home.

“He really longs for the country, especially Baghdad. He misses the country a lot because he felt like he was someone important, whereas my grandmother felt better in Israel,” Jenny said. “He still has a hard time identifying as Israeli.” 

“He misses everything, his home, his school, his friends, the cafes he used to go to. But he feels like the country has stabbed him in the back…he knows he can’t go back.” 

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Category: Heritage, Iraq, Personal History

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