Maintaining the Link – World Organization of Iraqi Jewry

 by Ambassador Zvi Gabay

A new reality is dawning on the Jewish people, and particularly Iraqi Jewry, as it becomes evident that in the third millennium there will be no noticeable Jewish presence in the land of Naharayyim-Iraq. This long-lived Diaspora community, which thrived and contributed immensely to world Jewry, is now being relegated to the annals of history, no longer a living presence.

The descendants of the Jews, who had been exiled to Babylonia in the wake of the destruction of the First Temple, witnessed the demise of the ancient Jewish Diaspora in Iraq, after the expropriation of their properties and assets by the then Iraqi government. Following the collapse of the regime of the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, the sad state of the remnants of what was once the glorious Iraqi Jewry has come to light.

Although, no longer part of an identified community in the Diaspora, the spiritual heritage of Iraqi Jewry, which played an important role in the preservation of the Jewish identity, is still very much alive. From the time they established the great Yeshivot of Sura, Nehardea and Pumbedita and codified the immortal Babylonian Talmud, up until the period of high economic and cultural status in the 20th century, the Jews of Iraq always clung to their Jewish tradition.Teaching Judaism was a sacred task between parents and children. It is this Jewish heritage which enabled Babylonian Jewry to establish thriving communities throughout Babylonia and beyond, to live through prosperous times and survive troubled times.

Existential physical threats forced this chapter in history to an abrupt halt. With the rise of Arab nationalism, which was expressed vividly in the physical attack on Jewish life and property on Shavuot of 1941 (known as “Farhoud”), Jews did not feel safe anymore in Iraq and began escaping, particularly when the “Question of Palestine” was discussed at the UN in 1947. The inflammatory threats by the Arab delegates, including the Iraqi Foreign Minister Fadel El Jamali, warning that the partition of Palestine would jeopardize the lives of Jews in Arab countries, coupled with secret trails, torture, public executions, deprivation of human rights and property that followed, led the Jews to leave Iraq and the rest of the Arab countries.

Most of the Jews of Iraq (137,000) left Iraq in the years 1950-1952 and immigrated to Israel, but some immigrated to the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and elsewhere. Wherever they went, they became integrated and well-established in their new homes. Nowadays, there are approximately 240,000 Jews of Iraqi origin living in Israel and about 40,000 in other countries.

In Israel, we are blessed with the existence of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or-Yehuda, founded and chaired by Mr. Mordechai Ben Porat, who has been active in promoting linkage between the old and the new generation. However it is equally vital for Babylonian Jews outside Israel to engage in preserving the tradition and the heritage of their ancestors, and thus maintaining a strong link to Judaism and Israel.

Today, the remnants of the community in Iraq, about 10 Jews, is about to disappear. There is a real danger that the Jewish community’s total disappearance will enable the Iraqi   government to take over the communal properties and assets of Iraqi Jewry.

Therefore, we are presented now with a great challenge: will we allow the end of this community’s presence in Iraq to threaten the survival of this unique heritage, as well? It is becoming all too clear that a long history in Babylon is about to end, and with it a great tradition, rich with customs and culture. Therefore, Iraqi Jews, and perhaps others as well, are faced with the important task of trying to preserve and maintain their long and valuable history of traditions.

In light of this situation, Mr. Mordechai Ben-Porat, Chairman of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, together with Attorney Moshe Shahal, Mr. Arieh Shemesh – Vice-Chairman of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, and the undersigned decided to bring about the establishment of a WORLD ORGANIZATION OF IRAQI JEWRY. The aims of this organization were discussed at a number of meetings held in Israel, within the framework of the Executive Committee of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, as well as in a number of sessions held outside of Israel, together with representatives and community leaders of New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Montreal, England, the Netherlands, Sweden and France.

It was agreed that the organization would serve as the official representative of Jews of Iraqi origin in matters concerning the community as a whole. It would promote the heritage of Babylonian Jewry, and submit an official claim to the community property in Iraq. The organization would aim to preserve the Tombs of the Prophets Ezekiel, Ezra, Jonah, Daniel and Nahum, and the Tomb of Joshua the High Priest. It would also attempt to salvage the Registries of Marriage, Deaths and Properties, which are currently kept in the community’s offices in Baghdad, as well as the Torah scrolls scattered in synagogues, government offices, and community offices in Iraq and outside of Iraq, particularly in the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) in Washington. Another important aim of this organization would be to locate the bodies of the Jews, who were executed during the regimes of Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr and Saddam Hussein, and grant them a proper Jewish burial.

We have in our possession lists of the community’s assets in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. As soon as a stable government is set up in Iraq and the security situation improves, the organization will update the lists and present them to the governments of Iraq, the United States and Great Britain. Copies of the lists will also be submitted to international organizations.

During the preliminary discussions on the establishment of this organization, it was agreed to set up a General Assembly of one-hundred-and-twenty members, eighty of which will represent the Iraqi community in Israel, and forty will represent the Jews of Iraqi origin living outside of Israel (twelve representatives from the United States, ten from England, six from Canada, two from Australia, two from India, two from Singapore, two from France, one from the Netherlands, Sweden and Geneva, and four representatives will be allocated to other communities of Jews of Iraqi origin living elsewhere). The General Assembly will meet in London or in Washington, elect an executive committee, and define the organization’s tasks. It will also elect the organization’s President and Executive Committee, and decide upon an appropriate budget to fund the organization’s activities.

In the near future a steering committee consisting of representatives from Israel and abroad will meet in order to agree on the date for convening the General Assembly and to determine its agenda. Before the convening of the first session of the General Assembly, a team of attorneys will prepare a draft constitution for the organization to be approved by the Assembly.

Jews of Iraqi origin around the world have responded very favorably to the idea of this organization. There is a consensus that it should be established as soon as possible, in order to promote unity, help preserve the glorious heritage of Iraqi-Babylonian Jewry, and save the considerable Jewish property left in Iraq. I strongly urge all Jews of Iraqi origin to take part in this very important task of setting up the organization. The recent end of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein provides us with a unique opportunity, which should enable us to reclaim our rights to Jewish property and assets in Iraq, as well as repossess artifacts and records of considerable historical value. In order for this organization to be able to achieve its objective, the participation of the representatives in the organization and the financial support of as many Jews of Iraqi origin are required. Preserving the most influential Jewish Community in the world is historically important for our generation as well as the coming generations.

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* Zvi Gabay is a former Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, and he is a member of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center’s Executive Committee, and in charge of its foreign relations.