The Iraqi Jews – The Oldest Diaspora, Now Safe in Israel

by Norman Berdichevsky (February 2012)


In the December issue of NER, I wrote the first article (on the Yemenites) of a planned 8 part series to examine that segment of Israeli Jewish society that is often neglected or misrepresented – the Oriental or Eastern communities, sometimes referred to as the Mizrahim and Sephardim, constituting at least 50% of the total Jewish population (as they do in France as well) in contrast to less than 5% in the United States (see Edot Hamizrach” Israel’s Oriental Jewish Communities, New English Review, August, 2009). The simple consequence of this, is that many American Jewish spokespersons when commenting on what they believe are traditional “Jewish” customs, values, traditions, social mores, political behavior, food, music, dress, humor, language, and heritage are often remote from the realities they find when visiting Israel.

During my eleven years residence in Israel, I did my Ph.D. research on the community of Sha’arayim, a Yemenite ethnic neighborhood in the town of Rehovot (The Yemenites New English Review, December, 2011) tracing the changes it underwent due to the transformation of the original Zionist agricultural settlement to a thriving town. For much of my time in Israel, I worked for a translation agency located in Ramat-Gan in what is considered a predominantly “Iraqi” area where one can still hear the older generation speak a distinctive ‘Jewish Arabic’ that was once the daily jargon of a large part of Baghdad (more than 25% Jewish in 1945).

Like the overwhelming majority of the large Jewish population of approximately 800,000 Jews living in the Middle East in 1948 outside of Palestine, they are gone, the casualties of modern Arab nationalism and religious extremism in its Iraqi version under two notorious dictators, Abdul Karim Kassem (many variant spellings) and Saddam Hussein. The great majority of the Iraqi Jewish community fled the country in 1948-52 after numerous show trials and executions of Jews convicted of espionage during the reign of the last king, Feisal and the much reduced remnant served as a favorite whipping boy for the despotic regimes of Kassem and Hussein.      

The Jews of Iraq constituted the second largest Mizrahi community in 1948 with a population of 130,000, equivalent to that of Algeria and second only to Morocco’s 245,000. They are however, unequivocally the oldest diaspora community going back to the Babylonian captivity after the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE. They can also claim to be the original Zionists, following the call of Ezra the Scribe to return to the land of their fathers in Judea.

Until the rise of Islam, the Jewish community of what is today Iraq (the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers - Mesopotamia) was also the leading center of Jewish learning where the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli) was compiled, yet ironically, the Jews of Iraq formed the most westernized community in the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and took an active role in the creation of a modern independent Iraqi state.

A further paradox awaited them however. More than any other Jewish community in the Middle East, they responded to the appeal of the Zionist movement and were able to create pathways of illegal emigration, a vibrant youth movement and carried out strategic operations to aid the nascent state of Israel, including smuggling the seeds of date palm trees and helping to establish one of the leading agricultural export industries of Israel.


Origins

The origins of Iraq’s Jewish community go back to the Old Testament, books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel. They describe in detail the campaign of Babylonian despot Nebuchadnezzar against the Kingdom of Judah. The Judean kings faced disaster by relying on the hope of Egyptian intervention instead of God’s divine aid. Three times, leading members of the priestly class and prominent tribal leaders were exiled in retaliation for failing to pay tribute. This is the story developed by the great Italian composer Verdi in his magnificent opera Nabucco, that became a symbol of heroic national resistance among many Italians in the 19th century who were inspired by the Jewish story of captivity.

Nebuchadnezzer placed a Jewish puppet king, Zedekiah, on the throne from 586 BCE who was able to enforce his master’s will, culminating in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and further deportation to Babylon.

Following Babylon fall to Persian forces as foretold by Daniel and memorialized in art by Rembrandt’s portrait of “Belshazzar’s Feast” with God’s threatening handwriting on the wall, King Cyrus gave permission to the Jews to return to their homeland in 537 BCE and according to the Bible 40,000 did so.

Philo wrote of the large number of Babylonian Jews, including the exiles who had fled after the failure of the great revolt against the Romans in 70 CE, when Jerusalem was utterly destroyed by Hadrian’s army.

Babylonia became the undisputed center of Judaism from 219 to 1050. The learned rabbis Abba Arika, founder of the Sura Academy and Samuel in Nehardea (later removed to Pumbedita, the modern city of ill fame, Fallujah) were acknowledged throughout the Diaspora as the most renowned commentators of the Talmud. They were sought out as the primary arbiters of weighty religious questions. Their successes continued to enjoy similar esteem during the ascendancy of the Persian Empire, until the advent of Islam.

Subsequent Moslem Arab rule and in particular the Mongol invasions and conquest of Baghdad wreaked havoc on much of Mesopotamia. In his memoirs, Marco Polo described the readiness of Jews to join forces with the Mongols, an act for which they were never forgiven by Moslem rulers once the Mongols had withdrawn.

Imposition of Ottoman rule in 1638 resulted in a substantial improvement for the Jews who were granted recognition as an official community (Millet) and their legal status and practice was even somewhat better than for the autonomous Christian population, although severe persecution by the local Arab administrator Daoud Pasha in 1817 and 1831 caused a flight to Persia and India. 

Further reforms in 1839 and 1855 abolished the head tax paid by minorities (jizya). The British conquest in 1917 opened a new era with full recognition of equal rights for Jews and Christians.


The Mandate and Modern Iraqi State 1920-Today

Jews made substantial progress and entered many professions during the first decade of the British mandatory government but were suspicious of the new Iraqi state slated for independence in 1932. Serious anti-Christian sentiments reached the stage of violent genocidal attacks against the Assyrian-Chaldean Christian minority in 1931. They had been loyal to the British authorities and helped them win control of the northern region of the country during World War I and their fate boded ill for the future course of Arab nationalisma Pan-Arab ideology that had previously been largely devoid of Muslim religious sentiments. It was the local form of national identity in Iraq that initially proved attractive to many Jews. 

Assurances had been given to the Assyrian Christians in Iraq that Britain would guarantee their wellbeing and/or seek to have them return to the area in Turkey where they had lived before 1918. The Council of the League of Nations accepted the proposals for the protection of minority rights and Iraq issued a declaration guaranteeing the protection of minorities on May 30, 1932; accordingly, Iraq was accepted into the League of Nations on October 3, 1932. More than 3,000 Assyrians in northern Iraq were massacred shortly after the Kingdom of Iraq became independent. Assyrian units in the British army that maintained bases in the country refused to sign a declaration of loyalty to King Faisal

These events were not lost on Iraqi Jews and later to the Jews of Palestine in 1948 when they debated whether to accept postponing their demands for independence or whether to place their trust in a future U.N. administered solution guaranteeing minority rights.

By 1948, 11,000 Iraqi Jews had already made their way to Palestine. These included the majority from Baghdad and the Kurdish Jews, a quite separate group, many of whom still spoke an Aramaic dialect, much more rural and engaged in primary occupations and generally lived on good terms with their Kurdish neighbors in Iraq, Persia and Syria.


The Jews of Kurdistan and Historical Cordial Kurdish-Jewish Relations

An ancient tradition of friendship and cordial relations between the Jews of Kurdistan and their neighbors extending more than a thousand years before the advent of Islam and continued after the establishment of the State of Israel. In what is the most outstanding example of real tolerance on the part of a people who are nominally Sunni Muslims toward the Jews, yet no one among the many sanctimonious advocates of peace today will mention the historical ties of Kurdish-Jewish friendship. The Kurds, in their opposition to the Iraqi state threatened the sacred cause of the Arab League and its contrived notions of the Brotherhood of all Muslims (Freedom for Kurdistan - An Authentic Nation, New English Review, February, 2010).

Jewish immigration from Kurdistan to Palestine began in the 16th century, with the first immigrants settling in Safed. More Jews arrived in the 1920s and 1930s, and by the year 1948 there were some 8000 Kurdish Jews in Israel. When the State of Israel was established, a large religious revival and “aliyah” to Israel followed.

Today, the Kurdish Jewish population in Israel is over 100,000; their largest concentration can be found around Jerusalem whereas most of the Iraqi olim from Baghdad and Basra settled in the greater Tel-Aviv metropolitan area in Ramat-Gan, Kiriyat-Ono and Or-Yehuda. Kurdish immigrants have kept alive much of their cultural heritage of Jewish Kurdistan through their distinctive cuisine, music, and traditions.


The Farhud (Arabic: ???????) June 1-2, 1941

A second bitter experience was not long coming when rioters committed wanton acts of violent aggression against the Jewish population of Baghdad as a reaction to the fall of the pro-Axis regime hoping to oust the British army units still in the country. Before British and Transjordanian forces arrived, almost 200 Jews had been killed and 1,000 injured. Looting of Jewish property was widespread. Approximately 900 Jewish homes were destroyed. This was the beginning of the end for Iraq’s Jews although later in Israel many would look back nostalgically at the “good times” and resent their displacement that brought with it a realignment of their place in society from midway or higher up on the social scale in Iraq to a place near the bottom in Israel.


Iraqi Participation in the 1948 War Against a Jewish State in Palestine

Iraqi strongman, Nuri as-Said who had been an ally of the British during world War II desired to bring the entire Fertile Crescent under Iraqi leadership and use the family ties between the Hussein family on the throne of Transjordan and the heir apparent to the Iraqi throne, Faisal II (under a regent from 1939 at the age of 4 and officially King from 1953). Nuri as-Said ordered Iraqi units to participate in the Arab invasion of Palestine to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state less Transjordan’s ruler, Abdullah, get all the credit. Iraq’s Jews were put under surveillance to prevent any effort at aiding “the enemy.”

In 1948, Iraqi armed forces consisted of an army of 21,000 men in 12 brigades and a British trained airforce of 100 planes. Initially the Iraqis committed around 3,000 men to the invasion of Palestine, including four infantry brigades, one armored battalion and support personnel. These forces were sent to cooperate with the Jordanian Legion and during the first truce, were increased to about 10,000. By the end of hostilities about 15,000 men had been sent to the front. The first Iraqi forces to be deployed reached Jordan in April, 1948 under the command of Gen. Nur ad-Din Mahmud and in May, they constructed a pontoon bridge across the Jordan River and attacked the Israeli settlement of Gesher where they were halted and turned back. Following this defeat, Iraqi forces moved into the Nablus-Jenin-Tulkarm area where they suffered heavy casualties in an Israeli attack which began on June 3, after which they refrained from any further combat activity. At home, news of the defeat embarrassed the regime that moved to whip up sentiment against the country’s Jewish population for their lack of patriotic loyalty.


The Controversy About the Bombs

The 1941 farhoud had led to increased Jewish action to provide for self-defense in cooperation with Zionist agents and the establishment of an underground in Baghdad, Basra, Amara, Hillah, Diwaneia, Abril and Karkouk. Arab sentiment already fanned by their growing opposition to the monarchy and continued British military presence in the country and the defeat of their forces in Palestine focused attention on the readily available scapegoat of a prominent, highly visible and prosperous Jewish minority particularly in the main urban centers. When the Iraqi government signed a new treaty of friendship with London in January 1948, riots broke out all over the country, the treaty was abandoned and the Iraqi government insisting on removal of the British military mission that had run Iraq's army for 27 years. In May, 1948 after the declaration of Israeli independence, Iraq closed the pipeline that fed its oil to Haifa's refinery. Scores of young Jewish men were arrested for collaboration with the Israelis, held incommunicado and tortured.

Six months later on March 19, 1950-a bomb went off at the American Cultural Center and Library in Baghdad a favorite meeting place for young Jews and this was followed at short intervals by bomb and grenade throwing incidents directly against Jews at cafes and at Jewish owned companies accompanied by leaflets demanding that Jews leave the country. In January 1951, similar attacks were carried out against a major synagogue. These events led to a mass emigration that left behind only 6,000 Jews by 1954.

Although it is almost certain that these incidents were committed by Arabs, the official line of Iraqi and other Arab sources is that Zionist agents intentionally provoked these attacks to stampede Jewish emigration to Israel, a view that is absurd given past events of the massacre of the Assyrians and the farhoud. It can hardly explain the continued hard line of the Iraqi authorities in the 1960s and 1970s when a number of Iraqi Jews were publicly hanged for treason and a new mass emigration was provoked. Today’s Iraq is a land without Jews.


The New Social and Political Scene in Israel

Upon their arrival in Israel, more Iraqi Jews than other Mizrahim fought back at the centralized authorities’ determination to order their new lives in every detail and resisted being sent off to work in agriculture in the peripheral areas of the Negev or the Galilee. A large proportion settled in the greater Tel Aviv metropolitan area.

For many of them, the Arabic language, music, arts and culture were as much theirs as the Muslim Arabs in Iraq. Many, especially professional people felt that the Ashkenazi (East European Jewish) establishment in Israel would prefer to see them as simply the hewers of wood and drawers of water. A number of politically active young people had been members of the Communist Party and were doubly charged by the paranoid nationalist regime in Iraq under both the monarchy and the subsequent dictators as “communist-Zionists.”

Even such culturally valuable manifestations as music by the Eastern communities were frowned upon as “Arab” and regarded as transitory and of less worth than popular American music including blues and rock and roll. Professor Sammy Smoocha of Iraqi origin is the Dean of Social Sciences at Haifa University. He is one of the foremost authorities on ethnic relations in Israel and has investigated both the real and imagined problems of Mizrahi Jews and Arabs and the problems of successfully integrating both groups into the national framework. He is a distinguished sociologist, demographer and social geographer whose subject also incorporates his own life experience.

He was born in Baghdad and his father was a middle ranking railway official who arrived in Israel penniless and with little knowledge of Hebrew and became an “unemployed nobody.” The family lived on relief in a Jerusalem immigrant shantytown (ma’abara) like hundreds of thousands of other Mizrahi “olim” (immigrants). In his words…"We suffered a terrible loss of identity.”

Nevertheless, although still one of the government’s most prominent critics, Prof. Smoocha has reached the conclusion that ethnic conflict among Jews in Israel unlike the situation of other minorities throughout the Middle East is not intensive and that there is nothing today resembling “latent manifestations of ideological rejection of the regime, biological racism, legal discrimination, violent disturbances and severe alienation which are all common in deeply divided societies.”

Nevertheless, some Mizrahi intellectuals continue to bear a grudge, particularly those whose education and economic status among the Iraqi Jews is far above the average of their own community but feel left out, slighted or discriminated against, especially regarding academic appointments in the limited number of Israeli universities.

It is particularly galling to the older generation that the country of their birth that had been for many centuries the center of the Jewish world had been, in the course of just a few years, completely liquidated. The bitterness was in a few cases deflected on Ashkenazi attitudes of cultural superiority. A few extreme voices among émigrés who left Israel subscribed to the Arab propaganda thesis that their removal from Iraq was provoked by Zionist intrigues.

In 1948, the Mizrahi-Sephardi component of the Jewish population in Israel was no more than 15% and in 1956, many of the new immigrants from Asia and Africa were still in temporary transit camps (ma’abarot) and not fully integrated into Israeli society or the armed forces. In the military campaigns of the Six Day War (1967) and the Yom Kippur War (1973), a blood covenant was established that erased much of the negative preconceptions held by many Ashkenazim.

The Oriental Jews fought on all fronts with distinction and a return to the old paternalistic attitude of many Ashkenazi politicians was unthinkable. By no means did much of the still considerable economic, educational and social distinctions between communities disappear, but the result of the war experiences was a watershed after which the diverse Jewish populations began to assimilate much of what had previously been the hoped-for Zionist ideals of Kibbutz uMizug haGaluyot (Ingathering and Mixing of the Exiles).

In spite of the constant tensions and threats of terrorism and war, Israelis have learned to live together and to rely less and less on simply being tagged with a label whether ethnic, racial or cultural. Much remains to be done and to find a formula to better integrate approximately a million non-Jews but no other state in the region has progressed as far and Israel is unique in what it has achieved in enabling people of so many diverse backgrounds to live and work together.

The cultural situation today in Israel embraces every part of the population’s diversity, East and West, Arab and Jewish, Sephardi, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi. Writers such as Shimon Ballas, Sami Michael (who successfully made the transition from an Arabic author to a Hebrew one) and Eli Amir, all born in Iraq are among Israel’s most prominent cultural figures. In the important political and military areas, Mizrahim have reached the highest levels including Commander of the Air-force, Dan Halutz whose parents came from Iran and Iraq, and Defense Minister, Benjamin Ben-Elizar, who is an Iraqi. The Babylonian Jewish Heritage Center in Or-Yehuda preserves the memories and traditions of 2,500 years of a community that is not gone, but transplanted.

 

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Norman Berdichevsky contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all his contributions, on which comments are welcome.



 

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