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Far From Home

On the eve of the Iraqi elections, the daughter of Iraqi Jews mourns the destruction of Baghdad’s once-vibrant Jewish community

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A Shiite Muslim Iraqi who cares for the shrine of Ezra, near Basra, points to some Hebrew etching on what was once a holy ark. (AFP/Getty Images)
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As Iraq’s March 7 election draws near, I can’t help reflecting on how far the Iraqi nation, now entrenched in factionalism, has departed from the commitment to multiculturalism so vital to its birth. “There is no meaning in the words Jews, Muslims, and Christians in the terminology of patriotism, there is simply a country called Iraq and all are Iraqis,” King Faisal proclaimed in 1921, soon after the British installed him as king. These were fine words, underscored by a constitution that granted all of Iraq’s indigenous minorities equal rights. But Faisal’s valiant experiment in diversity proved short-lived, as I know all too well—my own family was forced into exile in 1951, after the government decided to eject Iraqi Jews en masse from the country.

Actually, it would be more accurate to say my family exploded into exile, atomizing in the process. Some members landed in Israel, some in Iran, and some in North America; my immediate kin escaped first to India and then eventually to the United Kingdom. The dynamite involved was—as is ever the story with Jews—racial hatred, which played itself out in the Iraqi political arena as an inability to resolve escalating tensions between Arab Nationalism and Zionism.

My family was far from alone in being shattered. Iraq’s entire Jewish population—a community with roots in Mesopotamia that pre-date the birth of Islam by a millennium—was unceremoniously ejected from the country between 1950 and 1951. But first the Iraqi government had “denaturalized” the Jews, effectively making them refugees in their own land and rendering them defenseless against marauding gangs eager to harm Jews in a kind of skewed quid pro quo for the displacement of Palestinian Arabs.

The improved security prevailing in Iraq over the last two years has resulted more from the increased deployment of U.S. troops known as “the surge” than from any deep rapprochement between the country’s religious and ethnic factions. Once the Americans leave, the security situation may quickly deteriorate. I am thankful that I managed to make it safely into Iraq and back home to London in 2004. At the time I was researching a memoir about my grandmother’s life in Baghdad. I felt compelled to go there, driven by a determination to visit the land of my ancestors and to find out whether any ghostly traces remained of my family’s past, or of the wider Jewish community that had so hastily departed, leaving jobs, homes, community property, and business concerns to their own uncertain fate.

I knew that Saddam Hussein had gone on a series of vengeful campaigns of property destruction in the 1970s and 1980s and that numerous synagogues had been razed. (Baghdad once boasted 65 synagogues, which were obliged by law to be less conspicuous along the city skyline than Baghdad’s mosques.) I also knew that the houses and riverside villas deserted by fleeing Jews in 1950 and 1951 had long ago been repossessed, bought on the cheap at government auctions held after liquidators had completed their inventories of frozen Jewish assets. Still, I’d heard that in the Old City one could find cigarette-shaped indentations in the doorposts of houses, to which mezuzahs, long ago pilfered for their silver, had once been nailed, and Stars of David ingeniously incorporated into a building’s brickwork: empty spaces and silent traces, hinting at prior occupancy.

I was to be disappointed in my quest for concrete evidence of Jewish habitation. The Old City is shaped like a clenched fist, with narrow streets and alleyways threading round endless turns that invariably lead you back to where you started. Along with my guide, I spent a day fruitlessly exploring; the old city was protective of its secrets. Not one mezuzah tray nor Star of David was in sight. As we hunted, I cursed my ignorance of my ancestral past and chastised myself for not interrogating elderly relatives about their lives in Baghdad when opportunity allowed. Now, of course, I see each spasm of self-reproach as a reminder of history’s propensity to slip from our grasp even as we cling to preserve it.

My day in the Old City was not entirely lost, however, in that my guide managed to locate the old, and now abandoned, Jewish Community Office on River Street, offering the Muslim caretaker a little baksheesh to smooth our way inside. We found two dusty rooms, each filled with a heap of upturned office furniture resembling a bonfire in waiting. Along the walls, bookcases with smashed glass doors housed ledger books documenting community business of various kinds. I pulled out one tattered and dusty volume, bound in peeling red leather, wanting to take a closer look, whereupon my guide explained, heartbreakingly, that the carefully scripted lists I found in its pages were logs of marriages in the community. By now the caretaker was leery of our unexplained presence and insisted that we leave.

What has since become of the ledgers and marriage registers is unclear, since current reports claim that only eight Jews are left in Iraq today, and no one else could conceivably have an interest in preserving them. When I visited in 2004, the Jews numbered 22, and none of them had visited the Community Office since a Palestinian gunman let loose a hail of bullets in the mid-1990s, killing two Jews and two Muslims before escaping into the crowded streets of the Old City.

Battered by years of persecution, followed by war, then sanctions, then more war, the Jews I found surviving in Baghdad were not the kind of people to mobilize and regroup, to insist on their rights, or to call to account the powers that be. They were anxious only to keep their heads down, so as not to attract unwanted attention, and to go about their business as quietly as possible. That business—insofar as it related to their faith—was to maintain religious observations at Baghdad’s last standing synagogue, the Meir Tweg Synagogue in Betaween, and to tend the Jewish cemetery in Sadr City, which had suffered bomb and fire damage in the fighting of 2003.

I visited both the synagogue and the cemetery when I was in Iraq. The former turned out to be a stupendously grand edifice; two stories high and occupying a full housing block; it had clearly been built to hold a substantial congregation. The central chamber, containing the ark and bimah, was hung with giant chandeliers, while thick Persian rugs lay on the pews. The ark once held the sum of Baghdad’s Torahs, each encased in carved silver, but on my visit there were only 13 scrolls left. The rest had been stolen in an impromptu raid by the secret police in the 1980s and most likely ended up among the haul of Jewish artifacts found by the allies in 2003—artifacts that had been left to languish in a sewage-filled basement at secret-police headquarters.

The cemetery was where I felt most at home in Iraq, surrounded by the silent and comforting presence of my ancestors. The brick tombs were being repaired with funds that came, circuitously, from the Jewish Agency, and their Hebrew engravings, many of which had been badly eroded, were being airbrushed, chemically fixed, and preserved. I presumed that my grandfather was likely buried there, though I quickly gave up trying to find his grave after I recalled that the Jews used to bury several bodies in vertical graves. Instead, I sat down beside an anonymous grave and wondered at the miracle that allowed a fragment of my heritage to remain.

The remaining Jews of Baghdad could not be said to constitute a community. They were merely a tiny remnant of a once-great people, and they now find themselves marooned in a sea of anti-Jewish hostility—isolated, frightened, and largely forgotten. Meeting and talking with them, I found it difficult to believe that Jewish people had joyfully thrived in Iraq. Even in the middle of the last century, when their number had fallen from an historic high of several million to just 150,000, Jews still made up one-third of the population of Baghdad.

The first half of the 20th century witnessed a Golden Age for Jews in Iraq, beginning when statehood granted them full citizenship instead of second-class, or dhimmi, status. Iraq’s Jews clamored to contribute to the country’s early political and cultural flowering. They took up seats in Parliament and advised Arab ministers. They populated the officer class in the army, served in the judiciary, and were particularly active members of Baghdad’s café society. The community produced novelists and poets who wrote in Arabic, founded literary magazines, and established intellectual salons. Iraqi Jews invented the classic musical form known as the Maqaam. They formed several orchestras. One of Iraq’s most popular singers, Selima Murad, was a Jew.

The tragedy is that, in the end, none of this history counted for anything. Up against a powerfully antagonistic political milieu, the community collapsed. The injury that compounds the tragedy is that even now Iraqis are engaged in erasing Jewish history, as if determined to pretend it never happened. Since 2003, Iraqi authorities have repeatedly promised to preserve and maintain the nation’s many Jewish shrines, including the tombs of Ezekiel, Ezra, Daniel, Nehemiah, Nahum, and Jonah. Yet nothing has been done. As for the most magnificent of these sacred sites, the carved tower that marks the tomb of Ezekiel at Al-Kifl, the Antiquities and Heritage Authority has announced that a huge mosque is to built there, and already Hebrew inscriptions and ornaments are being removed from the site as part of the “renovations.”

When I talked to Samir Shahrabani, one of Baghdad’s last Jews, he reflected soberly. “We have high tower in the desert,” he said. “Each day this tower sinks, one inch by one inch. One day we will have nothing. This is how we are.” He was talking metaphorically, of course, but in light of the plans to “renovate” the shrine of Ezekiel his words take on a sharper meaning. Today there are eight Jews left in Iraq. One day, in the not too distant future, there won’t be any.

Marina Benjamin, a journalist living in London, is the author of Last Days in Babylon, a memoir about her Iraqi grandmother and the lost Jewish community of Baghdad.

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Marty Janner says:

How unfortunate and sad that a community with it’s long time history within a country can be erased, like magic. Poof and your gone! The remaining few are living in an environment that must be horrendous,however they remain, which in itself is a tribute to their forbearance.

We, in the diaspora must make every effort to make our presence known by being a productive and positive element in our respective communities. Of course, their is always the argument, what about Germany! Unfortunately there is no definitive answer. However we must never permit ourselves to believe assimilation is the answer! We must be proud of our identity and perhaps people of the planet will come to their senses and we can live together..

Mr Mel says:

When we finally pull our troops out of Iraq it will revert to the only form of government that can rule. A foot on the back of their necks, total dictatorship. Corruption is their creed.

Jessica says:

A sad story, but one that is not unknown to our people.. Europe and the FSU are skeletons of the Jewish life that preceded the Shoah. Nothing is really left.

At the very least, the Jews of Iraq were allowed to leave with their lives and not slaughtered en masse during ’50-’51, though there was some bloodshed, seems that most escaped.

The lesson of the Iraqi/Babylonian community is especially apt for American Jews who seem to think that our 200 or so years here (really 120 since large-scale immigration) and our current vibrant democracy makes us immune to something like this happening. It can happen, and probably will… might take several hundred years or several thousand –but Jewish history is a tale of being truly “home” one place in the world – Israel. Let’s not forget it.

Makes me realize that Jews should always “have our bags packed” because we are not immune to this type of xenophobia even in the most hospitable countries in which we’ve thrived. Perhaps our chosen-ness has more to do with our tremendous ability to adapt rapidly to a new culture. What’s still so astonishing is that even in this century our species is not very tolerant of peaceable differences within our culture; differences that invariably do more to enrich a nation than divide it.

ikke says:

Guys seriously,
None of you think maybe, just maybe, the establishment of Israel and the atrocities towards Palestinians that followed might have had something to create the hatred and intolerance towards the Iraqi Jews, or Jews living in other Muslim lands? Seriously, that just does not cross your mind at all? What do you think that the friggin shkotzim bastards, no matter how long you live with them side by side will wake up one morning and just go: ”You know what, I think it’s time to get rid of the Jews.” Seriously? This is not legitimisation of what happened to Iraqi Jews (or Yemeni Jews which is a HUGE, HUGE shame) but this attitude of ”they will always hate us anyway” is-not-reproductive! It leads to self fulfilling prophecy.

What the Israeli government has done (is still doing, and will probably do for a much longer time) to Palestinians is the number one reason that people do not trust/like Jews in the Muslim world. The fact that Israel’s self-proclaimed ”we speak for/represent the whole world Jewry” is not helping either and they know this very well but have to fuel the hate to keep the support coming. ”So the Iraqi Jewish culture of a few thousand of years gets erased, who cares? These arsim are in bad need of an Ashkenazim remake anyway.” Right?

Peter D says:

“The injury that compounds the tragedy is that even now Iraqis are engaged in erasing Jewish history, as if determined to pretend it never happened.”

What a hide you have. What about the Iraqi history that has been stolen or bombed to smithereens by the Americans, with the full support of Jews worldwide? What about the millions of dead Iraqis – dead as a result of US sanctions, bullets and bombs?

Dan T says:

The atrocities toward Iraqi Jews began before the establishment of the State of Israel and was part of an ethnic cleansing process that included the other original minorities that inhabited Iraq.

ikke- –brush up on your history and let go of the rhetoric–

ikke says:

Nan- brush up on your discussion skills and let go of the Yoda-style advices.

ikke says:

”Many Zionists have deluded themselves into thinking that they saved Sephardi Jews from the harsh rule of Arab captors. They also purposely fail to make the connection between the creation of the State of Israel, and the response to the Palestinian refugee crisis which ensued as a result. Had Arab countries not felt the need to avenge the Palestinians by punishing their Jews, how many Jews from Northern Africa, Iraq and Iran would have made their way to Israel? The author documents that in Algeria, when it was time for Jews to pick up and leave, 95% headed to France, not Israel.”

Sounds familiar?
(Article on Rachel Shabi’s book ”We Look Like the Enemy” by Aimée Kligman.)

Andrew says:

Ikke, it is clear you have an unbending worldview where Jewish self-determination is, perversely, responsible for other people’s atrocities towards them.

Regarding Iraq, the 40’s witnessed Nazi inspire farhud pograms, the beginning of a process of state-sponsored terrorism that lead to the ethnic cleansing of Iraq.

Regarding Algeria, it is no surprise that they went to France considering the heavy colonization and “Frenchification” of Algeria. They spoke French, had opportunities in France, and more importantly, when the revolution targeted the largely neutral Jewish community and set ablaze the Grand Synagogue of Algiers, they left where all the other boats were going with refugees and Pied-Noirs: to France.

Plus, no one ever said anything to debase the Mizrahim so don’t call them Arsim and don’t that we say that.

I really like the stuff you put in here. Very relevant information. Consider yourself bookmarked.

What’s Happening i’m new to this, I stumbled upon this I have found It absolutely helpful and it has helped me out loads. I hope to contribute & assist other users like its helped me. Good job.

He or she composed this particular first volume in 1951 along with, the book commences with a new london picture through which time,… Within the maroon brickwork of the medieval ends :…Brickwork in London


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Far From Home

On the eve of the Iraqi elections, the daughter of Iraqi Jews mourns the destruction of Baghdad’s once-vibrant Jewish community

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