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Basra, Iraq

BASRA, port in southern Iraq, on the Shaṭṭ al-Arab, the outlet into the Persian Gulf of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. Jews settled there under the *Umayyad regime and one of the nine canals near the town is called Nahr al-Yahūd ("River of the Jews"). Jews also settled in Ubulla, then the port of the town of Basra and now the site of Basra. Toward the end of the Umayyad caliphate, Māsarjawayh, a Jewish physician from Basra, gained fame for his Arabic translations of Greek medical books. In the first generation of *Abbasid rule, the court astrologer was the Jew Misha b. Abra, called Māshāallah. Besides many artisans and merchants, the Basra Jewish community comprised many religious scholars, including Simeon Kayyara of Ṣabkha (suburb of Basra), who wrote Halakhot Gedolot about 825 C.E. The sages of Basra were in close contact with the academy of *Sura , to which the community sent an annual contribution of 300 dinars. In the tenth century, when the academy closed, the last Gaon, Joseph b. Jacob, settled in Basra. But until about 1150 the Jews of Basra continued to direct their questions on religious matters to the heads of the yeshivah in Baghdad, and especially to *Sherira Gaon and his son *Hai Gaon . From these questions, it appears that the Jews of Basra had close commercial ties with the Jews of Baghdad. Both a Rabbanite and a *Karaite community existed in Basra. A Karaite, Israel b. Simḥah b. Saadiah b. Ephraim, dedicated a *Ben-Asher version of the Bible to the Karaite community of Jerusalem. In the 11th century, Basra was gradually abandoned as a result of civil wars in Mesopotamia; and many of its Jews emigrated. Solomon b. Judah (d. 1051), head of the Jerusalem yeshivah, mentions religious scholars and physicians from Basra in Palestine and Egypt.

However, throughout the Middle Ages there remained an important community in Basra. *Benjamin of Tudela (c. 1170) reports that approximately 10,000 Jews, including many wealthy men and religious scholars, lived in the town. He also mentions the grave north of the town, believed to be that of *Ezra and also venerated by the Muslims. According to an early 13th century letter by Daniel b. Eleazar b. Nethanel Ḥibat Allah, head of the Baghdad yeshivah, there was also a synagogue in the town named for Ezra. When the *Mongols conquered Iraq in the mid-13th century, Basra surrendered and was not severely damaged. However, when Tamerlane conquered Mesopotamia in 1393, many Jews were killed and all the synagogues in the town were destroyed. Nevertheless, a small community continued to exist.

The community regained its importance during the 18th century. Its wealth increased; rich landowners in the community liberally distributed alms and even sent contributions to Ereẓ Israel. The liturgical poem Megillat Paras ("Persian Scroll") by the emissary from Hebron, Jacob Elyashar, describes the siege of Basra by the Persians and the town's deliverance in 1775, when the Jewish minister of finance, Jacob b. Aaron, who had been captured, was released. Afterward, Nisan 2nd – the day on which the siege was lifted – was celebrated in Basra as the "Day of the Miracle." Jews played such a vital role in the commercial life of Basra that in 1793 the representative of the East India Company was forced to live in Kuwait for nearly two years, because he had quarreled with the Jewish merchants. In 1824 David d'Beth Hillel reported 300 Jewish households belonging to merchants and artisans in Basra and a Jewish finance minister. During the persecutions of Jews which took place under the rule of Daʾūd Pasha in the early 19th century, several wealthy members of the Basra community emigrated to India. The traveler, Benjamin II, mentions that in 1848, he found about 300 Jewish families in Basra. But in 1860 Jehiel Fischel, an emissary of the rabbis of Safed, reports 40 Jewish families in the town out of a population of 12,000. After the British occupation in 1914, the number of Jews increased from 1,500 to 9,921 in 1947, when Jews constituted 9.8% of the total population. Most of the Jews were traders and many worked in the administration service of the railroads, the airport, and the seaport. The legal status of the community was regulated by a 1931 law, according to which a president and a chief rabbi were assigned to head it. A boys' school was founded by the Alliance Israélite Universelle in 1903, and later became a high school. In 1950 it had 450 pupils. In 1913 an Alliance Israélite Universelle girls' school was founded, and attended in 1930 by 303 pupils. All schools were under the supervision of the community committee. In the 1930s, a theosophical group was formed and headed by the Jew Kadduri Elijah 'Aani (who went to Palestine in 1945 and died in Jerusalem). The community excommunicated this group, and its Jewish members were forced to establish their own synagogue, cemetery, and slaughter-house. A Zionist association, formed in Basra in 1921, was not allowed freedom of action.

[Eliyahu Ashtor]

Modern Period

In May 1941, under the pro-Nazi regime of Rashīd ʿĀlī al-Kailānī, Jewish shops were looted by an incited mob. In 1942 the newly founded Zionist movement of Basra trained Jewish youngsters to use arms in anticipation of further attacks and organized groups for *aliyah . After a few years of relative calm, the Jews were again in danger. In 1948, with the declaration of the State of Israel, a military regime was declared in Iraq and many Jews were arrested and accused of cooperating with Israel. In September 1948, Shafiq Adas, a Jewish millionaire, was accused of selling arms to Israel via Italy. In fact he dealt with scrap metal left behind by the British forces. He was sentenced to death and fined L5 million; he was then hanged in front of his home in Basra. As the wave of arrests continued, thousands of Jews tried to leave Iraq and reach Israel using clandestine routes. Most of them arrived in Basra, and in 1949–50, the city served as a center for the flight of Jews to Iran, on their way to Israel, with the Jewish population rising to 13,000. Thousands were helped by smugglers to cross the Shatt al-ʿArab to the Iranian shore. Under ʿAbd al-Karīm Qāsim's military regime (1958–63), the Jews were given some freedom and civil rights, but after the Baʿathist counterrevolution, they were again persecuted. In 1969, many of Basra's Jews were arrested and transferred to *Baghdad . Nine of them were hanged. In 1968 fewer than 300 Jews were living in Basra. After American and British forces entered Iraq in 2003 and put an end to Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, the few remaining Jews in Basra and Baghdad emigrated to Israel, with the help of Jewish organizations.

[David M. Sagiv (2nd ed.)]


Sassoon, in: JQR, 17 (1926/27), 407–69; A. Ben-Yaacov, Yehudei Bavel (1965), index (Bibliography: 388–415); S. Landshut, Jewish Communities in the Muslim Countries of the Middle East (1950), 44–45, passim; Y.F. Kestelman, Masʿot Sheli'aḥ Ẓefat be-Arẓot ha-Mizraḥ (1942), 56–58; H.J. Cohen, Ha-Pe'ilut ha-Ẓiyyonit be-Irak (1969), index. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: H.J. Cohen, Ha-Yehudim be-Arẓot ha-Mizraḥ ha-Tikhon be-Yameinu (1972); M. Sawdayee, All Waiting to be Hanged (1974); N. Rejwan, The Jews of Iraq (1985), index; Y. Meir, Hitpatḥut Ḥevratit-Tarbutit shel Yehudei Irak me-az 1830 ve-ad Yameinu (1989); M. Ben-Porat, Le-Bagdad ve-Ḥazarah (1996); N. Kazzaz, Sofah shel Golah (2002), index; D.M. Sagiv, Yahadut be-Mifgash ha-Naharayim (2004).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.