How They Got Here and How They Have Flourished

By Zachary Rath

For many years, Canada has been a second home for immigrants looking to build better lives for themselves and their families. When it comes to foreign Jewish communities worldwide, Montreal has welcomed those who have fled their homelands with open arms. As the Montreal Jewish community is so tightly knit, many are aware of the storied arrivals of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, but few know the tales of Iraqi Jews who arrived in our backyards between the 1950s and the 1970s. To understand how Iraqis settled in Montreal, we must first understand where they came from.

For 2500 years, Jews thrived and prospered in Iraq while making their community one of the oldest in the world. Then, after 25 centuries in which 150,000 Jews and their neighbours lived together in harmony, treatment towards people of the Hebrew faith changed drastically. The late 1930s brought the Mufti of Jerusalem to Iraq who instigated much hatred towards the Jews. In 1941, the people of Baghdad were encouraged by the pro-Nazi government and went on a murderous rampage in the Jewish Quarter. This tragic period, called the Farhud, would change the face of Iraq forever. Many cases followed where Jews were falsely accused of spying and treason, ultimately a clear realization that Jews were now considered the enemy. After 140,000 Jews applied for permits to leave the country, the government ruled that every Jewish person fleeing was given a one-way pass, eternally giving up their right to return to their native land and denied them of all their properties. In 1948, Iraq suffered a harsh defeat at war and used the Jews as their scapegoat. The Ba’ath Party arrived in 1962 and their first priority was an ethnic cleansing of Iraqi Jews. After the Six-Day War, only 3,000 Jews were left as Iraqi Jews scattered across the world.

Canada became home to several thousand Iraqi Jews as 1,500 landed in Montreal. One fact worthy of pointing out is that those who came to Canada did not receive refugee status or privileges. Iraqis came as immigrants and began by working hard, paying their taxes, and enjoying the freedom that Canada offered. Iraqi Jews first arrived in Montreal in the 1950s with only one suitcase per person. More and more came in the late 1960s and early 1970s, putting an end to an Iraqi community in the Middle East whose roots reached far back into antiquity. The largely Orthodox Montreal Iraqi community showcased a successful adaptation into Canadian lifestyle. Many changed their names right away, figuring it would be easier to integrate with their host culture while trying to retain pieces of their traditions and heritage. Iraqi Jews were culturally distinct and, therefore, could not be categorized as Ashkenazim or Sephardim. Instead, Iraqis following Judaism in Montreal were known as the community of Babylonian Jews. 1963 saw the Iraqis unite and rent a hall near Outremont before bringing their membership to the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Today, they represent significant numbers at this synagogue and are considered to be an integral part of the congregation. Many of them live in the Town of Mount Royal and have earned a high level status amongst their peers.

Another impressive aspect about Jewish Iraqis is the professions they hold of engineers, doctors, lawyers, and businesspeople. They were successful back home and continue to achieve great accomplishments here. Overall, they are an educated, elite group of citizens who feel very strongly about their identity but are not that ritually active. As mentioned, Iraqis stand out culturally, but are happy to be part of the Montreal Jewish community and a city that offers a chance at new beginnings.

The Shashouas were one of the many families that immigrated from Iraq to Montreal. Their daughter, Lisette Shashoua, who still lives in Montreal was a major contributor to this article.