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Jews in Islamic Countries: Iraq

Jewish Population
1948: 150,000   |  2021: 41

One of the longest surviving Jewish communities still lives in Iraq. In 722 B.C.E., the northern tribes of Israel were defeated by Assyria and some Jews were taken to what is now known as Iraq. A larger community was established in 586 B.C.E., when the Babylonians conquered the southern tribes of Israel and enslaved the Jews. These Jews distinguished themselves from Sephardim, referring to themselves as Baylim (Babylonions). In later centuries, the region became more hospitable to Jews and it became the home to some of the world's most prominent scholars who produced the Babylonian Talmud between 500 and 700 C.E.

During these centuries under Muslim rule, the Jewish Community had it’s ups and downs. By World War I, they accounted for one third of Baghdad’s population. In 1922, the British recieved a mandate over Iraq and began transforming it into a modern nation-state.

Iraq became an independent state in 1932. Throughout this period, the authorities drew heavily on the talents of the mall well-educated Jews for their ties outside the country and proficiency in foreign languages. Iraq’s first minister of finance, Yehezkel Sasson, was a Jew. These Jewish communities played a vital role in the development of judicial and postal systems.

In the 1936 Iraq Directory, the “Israelite community” is listed among the various other Iraqi communities, such as Arabs, Kirds, Turkmen, Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and Sabeans, and numbering at about 120,000. Hebrew is also listed as one of Iraq’s six languages.

Group of young Jews who fled Iraq for Eretz Israel following the 1941 Farhud pogrom

Yet, following the end of the British mandate, the 2,700-year-old Iraqi Jewish community suffered horrible persecution, particularly as the Zionist drive for a state intensified. In June 1941, the Mufti-inspired, pro-Nazi coup of Rashid Ali sparked rioting and a pogrom in Baghdad during the Jewish Feast of Shavuot. Armed Iraqi mobs, with the complicity of the police and the army, murdered 180 Jews and wounded almost 1,000 in what became known as the Farhud pogrom. Immediately following, the British Army re-entered Baghdad, and success of the Jewish community resumed. Jews built a broad network of medical facilities, schools and cultural activity. Nearly all of the members of the Baghdad Symphony Orchestra were Jewish. Yet this flourisng environment abruptly ended in 1947, with the partition of Palestine and the fight for Israel’s independence. Outbreaks of anti-Jewish rioting regularly occurred between 1947 and 1949. After the establishment of Israel in 1948, Zionism became a capital crime.

In 1950, Iraqi Jews were permitted to leave the country within a year provided they forfeited their citizenship. A year later, however, the property of Jews who emigrated was frozen and economic restrictions were placed on Jews who chose to remain in the country. From 1949 to 1951, 104,000 Jews were evacuated from Iraq in Operations Ezra & Nechemia (named after the Jewish leaders who took their people back to Jerusalem from exile in Babylonia beginning in 597 B.C.E.); another 20,000 were smuggled out through Iran.2

In 1952, Iraq’s government barred Jews from emigrating and publicly hanged two Jews after falsely charging them with hurling a bomb at the Baghdad office of the U.S. Information Agency.

With the rise of competing Ba’ath factions in 1963, additional restrictions were placed on the remaining Iraqi Jews. The sale of property was forbidden and all Jews were forced to carry yellow identity cards. After the Six Day War, more repressive measures were imposed: Jewish property was expropriated; Jewish bank accounts were frozen; Jews were dismissed from public posts; businesses were shut; trading permits were cancelled and telephones were disconnected. Jews were placed under house arrest for long periods of time or restricted to the cities.

Persecution was at its worst at the end of 1968. Scores were jailed upon the discovery of a local “spy ring” composed of Jewish businessmen. Fourteen men, eleven of them Jews, were sentenced to death in staged trials and hanged in the public squares of Baghdad; others died of torture. On January 27, 1969, Baghdad Radio called upon Iraqis to “come and enjoy the feast.” Some 500,000 men, women and children paraded and danced past the scaffolds where the bodies of the hanged Jews swung; the mob rhythmically chanted “Death to Israel” and “Death to all traitors.” This display brought a world-wide public outcry that Radio Baghdad dismissed by declaring: “We hanged spies, but the Jews crucified Christ.”3 Jews remained under constant surveillance by the Iraqi government. An Iraqi Jew (who later escaped) wrote in his diary in February 1970:

Ulcers, heart attacks, and breakdowns are increasingly prevalent among the Jews...The dehumanization of the Jewish personality resulting from continuous humiliation and torment...have dragged us down to the lowest level of our physical and mental faculties, and deprived us of the power to recover.4

In response to international pressure, the Baghdad government quietly allowed most of the remaining Jews to emigrate in the early 1970’s, even while leaving other restrictions in force. Most of Iraq’s remaining Jews were too old to leave. They were pressured by the government to turn over title, without compensation, to more than $200 million worth of Jewish community property.5

The government also engaged in anti-Semitic rhetoric. One statement issued by the government in 2000 referred to Jews as “descendents of monkeys and pigs, and worshippers of the infidel tyrant.” 6

In 1991, prior to the Gulf War, the State Department said “there is no recent evidence of overt persecution of Jews, but the regime restricts travel (particularly to Israel) and contacts with Jewish groups abroad.”

A Jerusalem Post report in 1997 noted that 75 Jews have fled Iraq in the past five years, most relocating to Holland or England. About 20 emigrated to Israel.7

In 1985, one synagogue continued to function in Iraq, “a crumbling buff-colored building tucked away in an alleyway” in Bataween, once Baghdad’s main Jewish neighborhood. According to the synagogue’s administrator, “there are few children to be bar-mitzvahed, or couples to be married. Jews can practice their religion but are not allowed to hold jobs in state enterprises or join the army.”8 The rabbi died in 1996 and none of the remaining Jews could perform the liturgy and only a couple knew Hebrew. The last Jewish wedding was held in 1980.9

The Iraqi government refurbished the tombs of Ezekiel the Prophet and Ezra the Scribe, which are also considered sacred by Muslims. Jonah the Prophet’s tomb has also been renovated. Saddam Hussein also assigned guards to protect the holy places during his reign. Each year, hundreds of Muslim pilgrims flock to the holy sites to pay hommage to these prophets.

In 2004, approximately 35 Jews were living in Baghdad, but by 2008, the once-thriving community of Jews living in the Iraqi capital had dwindled to below 10, not enough to hold a minyan (the requesite 10 men needed for most religious rituals), and a handful more in the Kurdish-controlled northern parts of Iraq.10 The community still lived in fear, scared even to publicize the exact numbers of Jews remaining in Baghdad, but the Jewish Agency estimated it at about seven. Most of those in Baghdad are elderly, poor and lacking basic needs such as clothing, medication and food, but some remaining are middle class, including two doctors. The one synagogue, the Meir Taweig Synagogue, was closed in 2003, after it became too dangerous to gather out in the open. Among the remaining Jews, one fearful man then in his early 40s described himself as “the rabbi, slaughterer and one of the leaders of the Jewish community in Iraq.”11

Most traces of Jews living in Iraq are now gone, except for the Prat and Hidekel rivers, the Hebrew names for the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Baghdad’s Jewish quarter, in Taht al-Takia, no longer exists. The end of Saddam Hussein’s regime created hopes of an improvement in the living conditions of Jews, and the return of some of the émigrés. Some hope also existed for rapprochement with Israel. In reality, the instability and sectarian killings in Iraq made the dozen or so remaining Jews there the most vulnerable and terrified group in the country. Most Jews rarely left their homes for fear of being kidnapped or executed.12

The Kurdish Parliament passed new laws in May 2015 which established government departments dealing with seven religious minorities in their region, including the Baha’i, Zoroastrians, Yazidis, and Jews. Sherzad Omer Mamsani was named the Jewish Affairs Representative in Kurdistan in late 2015, with the job of showing hospitality to local Jews and fostering positive relations with Israel and Jewish people worldwide. Mamsani was placed in charge of all Jews of Kurdish origin, whom number close to 300,000 and mostly reside in Israel.

In May 2013, American military forces in Baghdad discovered a large archive of thousands of documents, photos, and books pertaining to Iraq’s Jewish community in the basement of a government building. Although most items were in poor condition and mildewed, the U.S. military was granted permission to take the archives to restore and copy them.  Little-by-little the items were sent to the National Archives in Washington, DC for restoration, on the condition that they be returned to Iraq once restored. In September 2017, the decision was officially made to begin returning the archives to Iraq, causing protest from much of the international Jewish Community. 13

Iraqi law provides constitutional guarantees for the reinstatement of citizenship to individuals who gave up their citizenship for political or sectarian reasons; however, this law does not apply to Jews who emigrated and gave up their citizenship under a 1950 law.

In 2020, the U.S. State Department reported that as of 2019, there are fewer than six adult members in the Baghdad Jewish community. It was estimated there were 70 to 80 Jewish families in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. There are possibly more, but some Jewish families are afraid to publicly acknowledge their religion for fear of persecution and practice their faith in secret. Other Jews may have converted to Islam.

Many Jewish homes were seized by the Iraqi state before 2003, and Jewish schools, shops and synagogues across the country are mostly crumbling from lack of maintenance.

In Al-Qosh, the Jewish prophet Nahum’s tomb was being restored in 2020 thanks to a $1-million grant from the U.S., local authorities, and private donations. 14

In March 2021, Thafer Fuad Elyahou, believed to be the last Jewish physician in Iraq, died in Baghdad. He was buried in the Habibiya Jewish cemetery.

Edwin Shuker, a leader of British Jews who was born in Baghdad, said his death “is an immense blow to administrating the affairs of the community’s remaining assets, including cemeteries, shrines, synagogues, and legacies.” Elyahou had assumed some of those duties from Sit Marcelle, who died in 2020. His death “will rapidly lead to the total extinction of a presence that lasted 2,600 years,” Shuker lamented.

According to the Times of Israel, only four Jews now remain in Iraq.15 Iraqi National Security Adviser, Qassem Al-Araji, also said, “there are four Jewish people in Baghdad, as well as in other provinces and also in the Kurdistan Region, but they feel fear in declaring their Jewishness, so they say they are Christians.” He added, “We must deal with the Iraqi citizen in terms of rights and duties, regardless of his or her nationality or religion.”16

At least 68 of 297 of Iraq’s known Jewish heritage sites have been lost, the London-based Jewish Cultural Heritage Initiative reported last year.17

1Salam Faraj and Sarah Benhaida, “On Passover 2021, Iraq’s Jewish community dwindles to fewer than five,” Times of Israel, (March 28, 2021)..
2Jerusalem Post, (Dec. 13, 1997); Arieh Avneri, The Claim of Dispossession, (Tel Aviv: Hidekel Press, 1984), p. 274; Maurice Roumani, The Case of the Jews from Arab Countries: A Neglected Issue, (Tel Aviv: World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, 1977), pp. 29-30; Norman Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times, (NY: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), pp. 117-119; Howard Sachar, A History of Israel, (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), p. 399.
3Judith Miller and Laurie Mylroie, Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf, (NY: Random House, 1990), p. 34.
4Max Sawadayee, All Waiting to be Hanged, (Tel Aviv: Levanda Press, 1974), p. 115.
5The New York Times, (February 18, 1973).
6U.S. State Department Report on Human Rights Practices for 1997.
7The Jerusalem Post (Dec. 13, 1997).
8New York Times Magazine, (February 3, 1985).
9Associated Press, (March 28, 1998).
10The Jerusalem Post (September 28, 2002).
11Stephen Farrell. “Baghdad Jews Have Become a Fearful Few.” The New York Times (June 1, 2008).
12The Washington Post, (October 3, 2006).
13Edy Cohen. “Iraqi Jewish archive must not be returned.” Israel Hayom (September 17, 2017).
14“Iraq's Jews fled long ago, heritage struggles on,” AFP, (September 6, 2020).
15Faraj and Benhaida.
16“Iraqi National Security reveals the number of Jews in Baghdad,” NRT, (September 13, 2021).
17, “Iraq’s last Jewish doctor dies of heart failure at 60,” JTA, (March 19, 2021).

Photos: Jews escaping Iraq: Moshe Baruch, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Jews arriving in Israel from the National Photo Collection.