Sermons and Parsha'iot                             The Jews of Iraq                                                      
 
Abraham Spoke Hebrew with a Babylonian Accent

The Book of Jubilees, written probably in about 125 BCE, relates that, when he was fourteen years of age, Abraham left his father, and prayed to God to save him from the errors of men. Once, on the night of Rosh Hashanah, while - in good Babylonian fashion - Abraham was watching the stars to forecast the year's fertility, the revelation came to him that, in view of God's omnipotent will, all astrological predictions were valueless:

    Abram sat up throughout the night … to observe the stars from the evening to the morning, in order to see what would be the character of the year with regard to the rains, and he was alone as he sat and observed. And a word came into his heart and he said: "All the signs of the stars, and the signs of the moon and of the sun are all in the hand of the Lord. Why do I search them out? If God desires, God causes it to rain, morning and evening; And if God desires, God withholds it, And all things are in God's hand." … And behold the word of the Lord was sent to him … saying: "Get up from your country, and from your kindred and from the house of your father unto a land which I will show you, and I shall make you a great and numerous nation. And I will bless you. And I will make your name great, And you shall be blessed in the earth, And in you shall all families of the earth be blessed, And I will bless them that bless you, And curse them that curse you. And I will be a God to you and your son, and to your son's son, and to all your seed. Fear not, from henceforth and unto all generations of the earth I am your God."

    And the Lord God said [to the "Angel of the Presence"]: "Open his mouth and his ears, that he may hear and speak with his mouth, with the language which has been revealed," for it had ceased from the mouths of all the children of men from the day of the overthrow of Babel. And [the angel] opened his mouth, and his ears and his lips, and … began to speak with him in Hebrew, in the tongue of the creation. And Abram took the books of his ancestors, and these were written in Hebrew, and he transcribed them, and he began from henceforth to study them, and [the angel] made known to him that which he could not understand, and Abram studied them during the six rainy months. …

The Golden Age of Bavel

While it is not clear whether or not Abraham was an historical character, the book of Genesis is full of allusions to Babylonian mythology and references to Mesopotamian law. What is also clear is that the Jewish community of what is now called Iraq was not only among the wealthiest and most respected of the ancient world, it was also among the oldest. Its members were descended from the Judahites who were taken into exile by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, in three great waves beginning in 597 BCE. Among the captives who sat down and wept by the rivers of Babylon was the prophet Ezekiel, who wrote home to Jerusalem that he was living in "a land of traffic" filled with "fruitful fields." Like modern-day American Zionists, Ezekiel had difficulty convincing his fellow Jews to leave the prosperity of a "goldene medina" and brave the privations and dangers of life in Eretz Yisrael.

The first synagogue in the world was built, it seems, in Babylon. There is no accurate information in this regard, except for the legend connected with the founding of the Shef ve-Yativ (literally: the "moved and settled") Synagogue in Nehardea. The legend tells us that King Yehoyachin who was exiled in the first Diaspora to Babylon (597 BCE), brought with him earth from Israel, or more accurately bricks, which he used in its building. (Baghdadi Jews believed that the Great Synagogue in their city should enjoy that honour although the city of Baghdad was not founded until the Moslem period.)

By the 10th century the major Babylonian institutions, including the great talmudic yeshivahs of Sura and Pumbedita and the court of the Exilarch, had all relocated to Baghdad in order to be closer to the seat of the Islamic Caliphate, which was the most powerful political force in the western world. It was through their official recognition by the Baghdadi Caliphs that the Babylonian Jews were able to impose their religious leadership and their Talmud upon most of the Jewish world. During the zenith of Iraqi-Jewish dominance it was inconceivable to many Jews that Baghdad had not always been a major Jewish center, and some talmudic sources were rewritten to reflect that perception. The Babylonian Jews who immigrated to Eretz Yisrael, Syria, Egypt and other countries also built Babylonian synagogues and rabbinical courts of law in every important city they inhabited: in Aleppo, Damascus, Cairo (the ancient Fustat) and in Alexandria. The importance of the Babylonian synagogues exceeded that of the local Jewish communities. Under both Persian and Muslim rule, a class of Jewish merchants arose who were involved in international trade, and in particular the silk trade between China and the Mediterranean world.

Similarly, under the Ottoman Turks, who ruled Iraq from 1535 to 1917, Jews worked in commerce and crafts, achieved high public office and, as dhimmis (a protected but decidedly inferior minority under Islam) enjoyed complete freedom of worship. When the British occupied Baghdad in 1917, Jews represented well over a third of the city's inhabitants. The main city markets were dominated by Jews, and they were all closed on Saturday. The Jewish community was made up of a small number of rich bankers and merchants; a middle class of doctors, lawyers, engineers, small traders and retailers, and government employees; a large poor class of artisans; and a group of professional beggars. Baghdadi Jews spoke Arabic with a distinct accent, and among themselves they spoke a Judeo-Arabic dialect that contained many Persian words.

The British Mandate and After

Relations between Jews and Muslims became strained under the British Mandate, however, when many Jews asked for British citizenship; and they deteriorated rapidly after 1932 when Iraq became independent. In June 1941, during the festival of Shavuot, a pro-Nazi coup - carried out under the inspiration of the mufti of Jerusalem and with the connivance of the German embassy - sparked rioting and a pogrom in Baghdad. Armed Iraqi mobs, with the complicity of the police and the army, murdered 180 Jews and wounded almost 1,000. Property damage amounted to some 3 million dollars.

By 1945 anti-Jewish propaganda in Iraq intensified. Zionism became an unforgivable crime. Sale of land to Jews was forbidden. The government of Iraq called the Jews of Iraq "hostages," and imposed restrictions on the exit of Jews. During 1947 Iraq suffered a drought and the population was threatened by famine. The government diverted public's attention by directing its anger against the Jews. In May 1947 Jews were accused of giving Arab children poisoned candy and were accused of contaminating the drinking water with cholera bacteria.

These events rekindled the ancient attachment to the land of Israel. Even though article 51 of the Criminal Code made Zionism a capital crime, the Zionist movement was revitalized. The various Zionist groups set three objectives for themselves: the study of the Hebrew language, self-defense, and the organization of clandestine immigration to Israel. The largest phase of the illegal emigration took place between 1948 and 1949, where more than 15,000 Jews crossed into Iran. Finally, on March 2, 1951 the Minister of Interior, introduced a Bill that allowed Jewish citizens to leave the country on condition that they renounced their Iraqi citizenship. By the end of three months some 90,000 out of a total Jewish population of 130,000 had registered to leave. (Thirty thousand more followed them over the next year and a half.) Almost a half century later, this exodus - known as "operation Ezra and Nehemiah" - still ranks as one of the largest airlift operation ever in the history of population transfers. A year later, however, the property of the Jews who had emigrated was frozen, and economic restrictions were placed on Jews who chose to remain in the country. In 1952, Iraq's government again 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.

Under Ba'ath Party Rule

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 canceled; 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." Following are extracts of a statement to the Maariv newspaper in Tel-Aviv in March 1991 made by Mrs. Selima Gubbay, widow of Fuad Gubbay one of the martyrs:

    Fuad and I were so happy when suddenly our lives were torn apart. One day four Iraqi officers in a blue Volkswagen drove into our home in Basra. They went straight to the air conditioners and pulled out the transformers. "These are transmitters," they shouted, "you are spying for Israel." Fuad was roughed up when he protested. Our younger son, David, was picked up and thrown against the railings when he tried to kiss his father. He cut himself, and his face was full of blood. The blood was an evil omen of the future. It was 1968 and I was four months pregnant. Fuad was taken away to a jail in Baghdad. Eventually, he was put on trial with other Jews, all accused of spying for Israel. The trial was broadcast live on radio and television. Fuad pleaded not guilty. I traveled from Basra to Baghdad to see him in prison. When I got there they pushed me into a room beat me up and kicked me out. In the next room, separated only by a thin wall, the warders were telling Fuad, "your wife is on the other side of the wall. She's pregnant. If you don't admit your guilt, we're going to rape her, and afterwards open her stomach and cut up the child."

    The next day during the broadcast of the trial, I heard Fuad pleading guilty, admitting that on such and such days, he was here and there, sending secrets to Israel. When I checked the dates, I realized that Fuad had been with me and the children all of those times. He had made up the story in order to save us. On the morning of January 27, 1969, the streets of Baghdad were even more noisy and crowded than usual. It was the day of the hangings. A day of national celebration. I could hear the neighbours shouting enthusiastically, "Hang the Israeli spies." Dancers were brought from far and wide to dance under the gallows. There were free rides on the buses and trams so that people could come and celebrate under the corpses. And what was all the celebration about? The Iraqi nation was taking its collective revenge for defeat of a division on the Jordan front in the Six Day War, and that is how Iraqi television was broadcasting pictures of 9 hanging Jewish corpses, among them my husband Fuad, all innocent people. The loudspeakers announced that from 4 o'clock that afternoon, the bodies would be brought down so that the mob could deal with them in the streets. I returned to Basra and people, including Jews, avoided me for fear of being linked with my husband's so-called activities.

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 are now too old to leave. They have been pressured by the government to turn over title, without compensation, to more than $200 million worth of Jewish community property. The government also engages in anti-Semitic rhetoric. One statement issued by the government in 2000 referred to Jews as "descendants of monkeys and pigs, and worshipers of the infidel tyrant."

The Situation Today

Mordechai Ben-Porat, chairman of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda, Israel, estimates that there are only some 38 Jews in Baghdad, and a handful in the Kurdish-controlled northern areas of the country. The average age of the community is about 50 years old, with just two or three young people left, he said. The last two Jews who lived in the southern city of Basra left for Baghdad two years ago, he added. Many of the Baghdad community are elderly. The last marriage was in 1980 and there are currently no children to be bar-mitzvahed. None of the 38 can perform the liturgy, just two know Hebrew, and the rest can barely understand the prayers. Only one synagogue continues to function in Iraq, a crumbling buff-colored building tucked away in an alleyway in Bataween, once Baghdad's main Jewish neighborhood.

In October, 2002, with the threat of conflict looming, anti-Zionist banners appearing on public buildings, and high-placed Iraqis increasingly unnerved by Washington's talk of regime change, Ian Cobain of The Times of London reported on Baghdad's dwindling Jewish community. He found them terrified of what the future might hold. In particular he reported on a conversation with Ibrahim Youssef Saleh, a doleful 80-year-old man who has been the leader of the Baghdad community since the last rabbi died in 1996, and the president of the synagogue left to join his family in London four years later. "I'm sorry, but I can't possibly talk to you. You must have written permission from the Ministry of Information before I can talk to you, and then they will send one of their minders to sit in on the interview." Then, trembling visibly, Mr. Saleh opened the door of his small office, where a small number of Hebrew texts had been slipped between the Arabic volumes on the bookshelves, and where the obligatory portrait of Saddam gazed down from the wall. "Will you please leave now?" he begged. When Cobain went to the ministry, bemused officials refused permission, and some even insisted that the synagogue had closed down years ago.

On the other hand, the Iraqi government has refurbished the tombs of Ezekiel the Prophet and Ezra the Scribe; Jonah the Prophet's tomb has also been renovated. Saddam Hussein has also assigned guards to protect the holy places, which are also considered sacred by Muslims.