Iraqi Jewish Traditions Becoming Lost to History

Commentary from our Community [edited]

History will judge us.  The simple question is, “Are we willing to give up our identity, our culture, our tradition”?

The answer should be — no way!  Lets face it, we Iraqi people, in general, are not religious people — by any means. Nevertheless, our primary responsibility remains to create practices, and an environment, aimed at preservation, promotion, and continuation of the culture, tradition and identity of the rich Babylonian Jewish Heritage,  through religious, social and educational means.  We are here and we 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 we 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 could 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.

Sadly enough, the answer is yes, we can and are becoming lost to history.  Unless we as a people decide, today, to stop this quick decay and loss.  First goes our language, then goes our traditions, then our culture, then our identity & probably last our delicious Iraqi food — its as easy as that.  Are you ready to give it all up?  No?  How are you making our rich history available and meaningful to your children and their children.  

As a result of our long and difficult history, we, the Iraqi people are proud and adaptive people. Pride and adaptability are elements that helped us survived this long, yet it is these same elements that are now contributing to our destruction. We are so adaptive and proud that we are quickly losing our culture, and giving up millennia of our own inheritance. Oddly  enough, not as a result of a hostile external force, but through internal forces, and worse of all, casually and quietly in a time of peace.  We just let it all go, and reabsorb back into communities in Israel, England, The United States, Canada, and elsewhere, as if we have nothing to bring with us after surviving and thriving through the Babylonian exile until now.

Maybe we have forgotten the rich history of the Iraqi Jews; maybe we should take some time to be reminded of it, and teach our children that history and show them what they have inherited from 2700 years of Jewish generations who are their progenitors.

It all started during the Iron Age, in  721 BCE, when we Jews were exiled by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, which marked the end of the Kingdom of Judah. Forty thousand (40,000) Jews were exiled into Babylon. Very much like the modern Iraqi Jews, they soon began to adapt to their new environment and prosper.

Then came the Persian Empire, King Cyrus the Great, whom we had great regard for. Cyrus issued a proclamation permitting the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild their temple. Many Jews returned; others, mainly those who we now call Iraqi Jews, remained in Babylon and continued to prosper and extend support to those who lived in Israel and elsewhere in the Diaspora.

We survived in 331 BCE when the Babylonians were conquered by the Greeks under the command of Alexander the Great.  Again, we adapted to the new circumstances, 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 CE.  For our ancestors, the Babylonian Jews, this was a period of economic and spiritual flourishing which resulted in the remarkable  creation of the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud), a treasure of legal material, commentaries, science, history and so much more.

We survived the Arab Islamic armies, who invaded Babylon in year 638 CE 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, despite that it was not ideal and Jews were not treated as equals. We even adopted the Arabic language and created a new language of our own — Judaeo-Arabic.  The Jewish population would grow to include bankers, physicians, engineers, astronomers, and translators, and world-renowned and sought after scholars.

It is interesting to note that at this period a wandering Babylonian rabbi, Abu Aharon of Baghdad, introduced the mystic traditions and wisdom of Babylonian Jewry to his followers in Italy, and thus established the nucleus of the Ashkanazi and Hassidic movements.

Baghdad was conquered in year 945 CE by the Shiite Muslims and then by the Turks in year 1058 CE. This was a bad time for the Iraqi Jews. Still, during this period of time 40,000 Jews lived in Baghdad and had already built 28 magnificent synagogues.  Then came the Mongols in year 1258 CE, led by Genghis Khan’s grandson, and nearly three hundred years later the Turks,  in year 1534 CE who would rule Iraq for several hundred years — Ottomans ruled Iraq from  1534 CE to 1704 CE and 1831 CE until 1920 CE, interrupted only by Mamluk rule.  All of this, up through the British Mandate and the independent Kingdom of Iraq.  Through it all, we survived.

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

As the Ottoman Empire reached its final days, policies towards the Jews turned hostile and Iraqi 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 1925 book The Heart of the Middle East, Richard Coke writes about the Iraqi Jews of the time.

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 Iraqi Jews. They, in turn, served his kingdom faithfully. Relations between Jews and Muslims were arguably better than in Europe between Jews and Christians / secular Europe. Following his death in 1933, King Faisal was succeeded by his son Ghazi,  who had a considerably less favorable attitude towards Iraqi Jews.  He gave a free rein to the extreme elements in the country which invited antisemitism and embraced Nazi propaganda — stimulating hatred of Jews. These developments contributed to a decline in the economic condition of the Jews in Iraq. In 1939, King Ghazi was killed in a “mysterious” traffic accident.  1941 saw the Farhud (الفرهود), a pogrom and riots against Iraqi Jews, lasting two days, where more than 300 Jews were killed in the streets of Baghdad, 2118 people were wounded and 6558 homes damaged. This Farhud shook the Jews of Iraq, and largely shattered their hopes for a future in that country — yet we still survived.

These events rekindled the ancient attachment to Israel. The Zionist movement was revitalized. There were movements within Jewish society that gave themselves three objectives: the study of the Hebrew language, self-defense, and the organization of immigration to Israel.  Among the better known were Halutz and the Hashura who were formed to meet these objectives. The largest phase of the illegal emigration took place between 1948 and 1951, where more than 15,000 Iraqi Jews, including some who would become part of our community, crossed into Iran.

By 1945 anti-propaganda in Iraq intensified. Zionism became a 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 out of Iraq. In 1947 Iraq suffered a drought and the population was threatened by famine, so the government diverted the public’s attention and focused their anger on the Jews. In May 1947 Jews were accused of giving Arab children poisoned candy and were accused of contaminating the drinking water with the cholera. 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 world, including Iraq, was outraged and was calling for jihad.  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 waging war against Israel, aimed at the destruction of Israel. Zionism was added to article 51 of the Criminal Code in Iraq, punishable by death. Many Iraqi Jews were falsely arrested, tortured and killed. Homes of Iraqi Jews were confiscated. Iraqi Jews were forbidden to engage in foreign trade, and their business’s were boycotted. There were nearly 1500 Iraqi Jews in Iraq prisons. Yet, we still survived.

On 2 March  1950, the Minister of Interior introduced a Bill that permit for a period of one year any Iraqi Jewish citizen to leave Iraq on condition that they renounced their Iraqi citizenship, walked away from their homes, their synagogues, and their life’s savings. Within three months the total number of Iraqi Jews who registered to leave had reached 90,000 of the total population of 130,000.   Known as operation Ezra and Nehemia, by the end nearly 120,000 Iraqi Jews had been airlifted out of Iraq and back to Israel.  The Jews of Iraq had to leave their worldly belongings, and return to Israel, and more than anything they were not ready to give it up.

After all this rich and storied history, we must ask — each one of us —  are you willing to let all that those Iraqi Jews, our parents and grandparents, brought with them be lost to history?  If not, what are you going to do to make sure that doesn’t happen.