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Iraq and the Jewish People: An Ancient Relationship, Lawrence H. Schiffman, COJS.

Iraq MapThe mass emigration of Jews from Iraq in the years 1950 and 1951 brought to an end the existence of a community which had been in the region for millennia. From the very birth of Judaism in what was then Mesopotamia, Jews have been present in or very strongly linked to the area. The emigration from Iraq in the early 1950s caused a tremendous cultural loss for the Jews. It is not within the scope of this paper to fully examine what has been lost; however, it is important to make mention of the great culture which developed over centuries. In discussions of this type, researchers tend to focus on historical fact and neglect those valuable aspects of culture that are now gone.

This paper examines the relationship and interactions between Jews and the region now known as Iraq throughout the ages. The discussion will focus on a number of different periods, most notably-

1. The age of Mesopotamia, the birthplace of Judaism,

2. Assyria and Babylonia and the conquest of Israel and Judea,

3. The rise of the Babylonian community in Talmudic times,

4. The Geonic era, and

5. The Modern era—Ottoman, British, and Iraqi periods.

The question under examination is that of the effect which Iraq (known also as Mesopotamia, Assyria, and Babylonia) had on the Jewish people. The study begins with the very origins of the Jewish nation, moves through major developments for the Jewish community and, at the end, makes reference to the relevance of the discussion for the present day, referring to the problems the Jewish people face today vis-à-vis Iraq and the Arab world.

The review begins with the father of Judaism, Abraham, and his life in Iraq, then known as Mesopotamia.

Mesopotamia- Birthplace of Judaism

Before discussing the life of Abraham, it is important to review the geography and history of the region. On a map of modern Iraq, the southern end, or the Persian Gulf area, was, in ancient times, Sumer. Sumer was, in many ways, the earliest civilization, and the location of Ur of the Chaldees, Abraham’s birthplace. In the center of modern Iraq, where the Tigris and Eu-phrates rivers meet, is the area once known as Babylonia—the city of Babylon and its environs. Further north, where the rivers diverge, is the area that was known in ancient times as Assyria.

This region is one of the key places in which civilization came to be. Stories in the Book of Genesis clearly place the origins of civilization in this region. For example, the Tower of Babel story is clearly designed to convey, and, in fact, actually states, that this is the region from which the human race spread and all of the languages developed. The Bible expresses what has been learned from hundreds of years of archaeological excavations and study of clay tab-lets—that the ancient civilization which began first in Sumer, the area closest to the Gulf, and then spread through the rest of Mesopotamia, was a very advanced one. This civilization was highly developed in terms of subjects such as mathematics and religion (although pagan). Politically, the area was quite advanced as well; to a great extent, the need for irrigation of the territory required government organization early on.

The region being so advanced makes the origins of Judaism in the location understandable. Non-literal interpretation of midrash—namely, the stories in which Abraham comes to recognize the falseness of paganism and the truth of monotheism before the God reveals Himself to him—makes the developments seem almost natural given the circumstances. Abraham, as we know, moved from Ur of the Chaldees—an area which has been excavated and whose where-abouts have been documented—to Haran, in Assyria, and finally to Israel. The heritage which would have come to Israel with Abraham and his family must have been, in some senses, negative, having come from so pagan a region. Biblical accounts include mention of names of members of Abraham’s family whom we know to be connected with the moon cult.

On the other hand, much of what Abraham brought with him must also have been traditional law. On the top of Hammurabi’s Code from 1800 BCE there is an image of the sun god, considered to be the god of justice, handing down the law to his assistants. The assistants were known in Akkadian as Kittu—which in Hebrew is “kenut,” uprightness—and Mesharu—in Hebrew, “mesharim,” honesty or uprightness. These are values which came with Abraham as well. Clearly the pagan religion to which Abraham had been exposed in Ur of the Chaldees was unlike others—for example, the Canaanite religion, which included human sacrifice. Rather, the problem with the pagan religion with which Abraham was familiar was simply in the fact that it was polytheistic and, as such, did not perceive gods as moral figures.

It is for this reason that it is understandable that the Book of Genesis’ account of the creation includes hints rejecting the pagan ideas prominent in the Mesopotamian creation story. For example, in ancient Mesopotamian creation, the god spits into dirt to make a human being; in Genesis, God breathes spirit into a human being. The polemic is quite clearly rejecting elements of Mesopotamian culture; however, there is also a positive heritage adopted from that same culture.

It is also for this reason that parallels between the Mesopotamian heritage and Abraham’s new culture are prevalent—for example, in the legal system, whose external structure has much in common with biblical law, though biblical law has enhanced many principles.

Thus we find that the origins and the ideas of Judaism, while rejecting many aspects of the regional culture, were also made possible by the atmosphere of that very Mesopotamian culture. This first interaction between Jews and Mesopotamia is one which is vital and, in essence, defining for Judaism.

The Era of the Kings in Israel

Moving from the time of Abraham through the age of the patriarchs, the exodus from Egypt (roughly 1250 BCE), and the period of the Judges, Mesopotamia appears in Jewish life once again in the time of the kings.

Egypt, over the course of that period, was the main power in the Land of Israel. This period, the Bronze Age, was, in fact, characterized by the domination of Egypt. However, competition for the land bridge between the region to the north, Mesopotamia, and the region to the south, Egypt, was constant. Egypt had taken control of the territory in the year 2500 BCE. Scholars have noted that one of the reasons that the Israelites did not enter Israel through the Philistine shore, or what is today the Gaza Strip, was the Egyptian garrisons in place. Excavations have revealed these very garrisons.

Mesopotamia wished for control of this region. This finally materialized in the period of the kings. After the death of King Solomon and the division of the empire at the end of the 10th century BCE, Mesopotamia was better positioned to take control.

Biblical stories, while more obviously about religious history, are also accounts of political events. Reading the subtext within the religious history, one can identify the political reality of the time. The political reality during the period of the kings comprised two political parties within the upper crust of the society in northern Israel and in Judea. One group believed in allying with Egypt; the other felt that the best option would be to ally with Mesopotamian powers—at first Assyria and then Babylonia after the fall of the Assyrian empire.

This conflict caused great difficulties for the Jewish people. Assyria, where the drama first unfolded, was a giant empire. The kings of northern Israel were meant to be under its sphere of influence. The earliest power in Mesopotamia was Sumer in the south; however, power had shifted to the north, to Assyria, and the Assyrian empire was ready to consume all others in the cruelest possible fashion. This is evident in texts left to us and in pictures showing how their enemies were treated, much of which can be found in the British Museum and other museums.

Almost inexplicably, the north Israelites did not understand that exerting independence would be impossible given the circumstances. They defied authority to a great extent, rejecting the religion—which had made certain inroads into Israel, as is seen very clearly with King Manasseh—and refusing to pay tribute to Assyria. Assyria invaded in 733 BCE under Tiglath-Pilesar, destroying large amounts of territory and taking some exiles to Iraq.

Assyria and Babylonia- The Jews in Exile

Here was the establishment, in 733 BCE, of the first and longest-lasting exilic community. The exilic community ranged from 733 BCE to 1950 or 1951; one might say that it existed until 1971 when the last Chief Rabbi died. It might even be perceived as lasting until today, as a few dozen Jews may still live there now.

While this deportation was a small one, the Assyrians returned in 721 BCE. At that time, the capital of Samaria fell, leading to the deportation of approximately 27,000 Jews into the Assyrian exile, according to the Bible. These 27,000 Jews are known today as the Ten Lost Tribes. The academic world does not accept the Ten Lost Tribes as they are conventionally under-stood; rather, in academic circles, the loss is viewed as one of tribal identity. In fact, Jews either stayed in the north or were sent to exile. While some of the exiles went to places such as Azerbajan, where it is possible that they were physically lost, the majority are believed to have re-joined the Judean exiles of the year 586 BCE. This first exile, in the year 721 BCE, was in essence the founding of the Jewish community in Iraq, which then stretched toward the north, toward Afghanistan, and to the south, to Fars, which was the original Persia. They were also present in places such as Elam and areas even more distanced from Israel.

In northern Israel, independent cult sites had been set up to compete with the official religious practice in Jerusalem. In 621 BCE, many Judeans were drawn to the south, primarily by the great reformer King Josiah, who rid Israel of pseudo-pagan practices.

At the same time, Mesopotamia underwent major changes. Some of the city-states of Babylon asserted themselves, and, eventually, Babylonia became the major power in the region instead of Assyria. The locus of control shifted to the area that would eventually become Baghdad. It was not long before King Nebuchadnezzar had his designs on the remaining Judean state, hoping the citizens would pay a tribute to him, as they had once paid tribute to Assyria.

However, a series of Israeli kings did not act according to expectations. The first was Jehoiachin, who refused to pay taxes, believing that Egypt would act as a savior. His refusal was, in essence, a revolt, leading to his exile in 597 BCE along with many leaders and skilled crafts-men. According to the Bible, he “ate bread,” or received a ration. The ration tablets of King Je-hoiachin and his five sons, listing their daily and weekly allotments, have been found in ancient Mesopotamia.

King Jehoiachin was replaced by Zedekiah, who also felt that an alliance with other kings, along with the help of Egypt, would enable him to free his country of Babylonian rule. This was surprising, given the fact that King Josiah had been killed in battle supporting Egypt against Babylonia. The kings consistently refused to learn that Babylonian power was too great and that they would be better served paying the tribute and being left to live and worship in peace. While the Bible focuses on the religious aspect of the destruction—that is, the unwill-ingness of the people to listen to prophets like Jeremiah—this narrative is mirrored by the political reality in which the pro-Babylonian party, whose members included Jeremiah, was ignored by the masses. The revolt was provoked and the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, exiling unknown numbers of Judeans to Babylonia in 586 BCE. Another inde-pendent ruler, Gedaliah ben Ahikam, was appointed governor and subsequently assassinated, and Judean independence ended.

The Growth and Development of the Jewish Community

The Mesopotamian Jewish community at the time, however, was growing. Jeremiah wrote to the community, knowing the exile would last at least 70 years, urging the Jews to organize themselves, build houses and live there—literally, go into business and become established. The prophet Ezekiel was also in Mesopotamia, having been exiled in 597 BCE, and he attested to advanced religious activity in the region.

At this time, there is evidence that the exiled Jews were also searching for employment. Psalms 137 says- “There we sat, and also cried, remembering Zion … How can we sing the song of the Lord on this foreign land?” The exiles felt unable to sing when the Temple had been destroyed. They quickly established themselves in other professions.

It appears that the exiles were sent to settle ruins of cities. Most of the cities they occupied had names such as “Tel Aviv.” A tel is the name for an area built on the remains of a previous city. (The original Tel Aviv was in Mesopotamia; the exiles used the name when they resettled Israel.) The Jews revived the ruins in Mesopotamia with economic and agricultural activity, settling many tels and creating new cities.

Although there is a tremendous debate on this point, many scholars believe that the well-known banking house in Mesopotamia called Murashu was a Jewish one. The Encyclopedia Judaica, for instance, states that as fact. Those who claim that it was Jewish rely on the fact that the names ended in what is translated from Akkadian as “ia”—names such as Yeshaya, Yirmiyah—which are Jewish-sounding names. However, the authoritative scholarly volume which discusses the Murashu bankers uses the word “Jews” three times in total, clearly indicating that the author did not agree with this theory. For our purposes, it is important to note that the biggest banking house in Mesopotamia in this period is believed by some to have been con-trolled by a Jewish family.

Regardless of the religious affiliations of the bankers, the documents they left behind are evidence that the banking business in Mesopotamia at the time was quite advanced and included borrowing, letters of credit to transfer capital, and loans. Once again, it is apparent that, aside from the developing agriculture of the time, the economic system was complex and advanced; it is safe to assume that Jews in the region were involved in some of these endeavors.

More information about the exiled community in Mesopotamia exists from some 70 years later, as the return to Israel unfolded. Cyrus the Great from Iran conquered Medes, Mesopotamia, Israel, and Egypt, and many other countries, and Jews were permitted to return to Israel. However, most Jews chose not to return, indicating that the economy where they had settled was so developed that they were hesitant to leave. It also appears that Jews had risen to high positions in exile. In 540 BCE some Jews returned to Israel and were presented with Temple objects by Cyrus, in accordance with his policy of letting each of the nations build its own society. The situation in Israel at the time was not easy; Nehemiah received a report from his brother, Hanani, who had gone to visit. Nehemiah, in exile, was well-respected; he is named in the Bible as the cupbearer of the king, a position that was exceptionally important—he was relied upon not to poison the king. Economically and politically, Jews appear to have been comfortable in exile.

Nehemiah was named governor of Judea and returned to Judea with rights given by the king to rebuild. The king them sent Ezra, a scribe, to make Torah the law of the land and create a religious revival to accompany the social and political revival, ensuring the future of the province. This went on while Jews were also significant in the Mesopotamian exile.

But it was this very development that proved to be the undoing of the Jewish community in exile. The role that the Jews played, due to their reputation as trustworthy, was one of intermediary between the local ruler and the native population, and proved a problematic one.

The Persians ruled the land of Mesopotamia from approximately 540 BCE until the Moslem conquest in 638/640 CE. During the majority of the period that Jews were in Mesopotamia, Persia ruled from their capital, Ctesiphon. Indeed, even following the Moslem conquest, Persian patterns of administration as well as cultural elements remained prominent.

The Babylonian Community

The Parthian Empire, an empire which originated in northeast Iran, came into being in 247 BCE and conquered Babylonia in 126 BCE. Little is known of Jewish life in Mesopotamia until the time of the Babylonian tannaim.

The tannaim, also known as the Pharisees, were the teachers of Mishnah, which had begun to develop earlier but gained momentum and volume around the time of Hillel and Shammai, roughly between 40 BCE and the year 0. All that is known is that at the time there were some rabbis in Babylonia, although little information exists about Babylonian academies. It is clear that by the second century there were rabbis in Babylonia.

Although Hillel is knows as “the Babylonian,” it is difficult to prove that he was trained in Babylonia. It is possible that he came to Israel as a youth. However, the idea that a man trained in Babylonia was able to convince the rabbinic leaders of the time, the Bnei Batera—who were themselves from an area that bordered on Syria, beyond the Golan heights—of his interpretation of halachic matters such as Pesach and the sacrifice is quite difficult to accept. The significance of the name “the Babylonian” is also questionable. (In modern times, last names generally reflect a characteristic from the past; for instance, Jews called Ashkenazi were only in the very distant past from Germany and were named as such because they were more recently living in a Sephardic region where their heritage was an exception.)

By the second century CE, there were a number of cities in exile documented as having rabbis; one was named Netzivim, and existed in what had once been Assyria. Rabbis in these cities sent the annual half-sheqel tax which was collected from the Babylonian Jewish communities and were in contact with the rabbis in Israel. In a few cases, the Babylonian rabbis were assumed to have authoritative opinions on halachic matters. It is clear that the Babylonian Jewish community had shifted from a simplistic, Bible-based community to being part of the intellectual development that we know as Mishnaic Judaism. There is no question that, in some fashion, the Mishnah was brought to Babylonia (the debate over whether orally or in writing is one that began in the Middle Ages and continues today). Al-though there were variations in the Mishnah as it existed in Babylonia, it obviously existed in the exile and it was there that the Talmud originated.

The development of the Talmud extended from the year 200 to 500. The Talmud exists in two parallel versions- the Talmud of the land of Israel, called the Jerusalemite Talmud despite the fact that it was developed primarily in Tiberias and the Galilee; and the Babylonian Talmud, developed in cities such as Nehardea, Sura, Pumbedita, Mata Mechasyah, and Machoza, major centers of Jewish life.

The Jewish population in Babylonia had unexpectedly increased. Based on evidence from the Islamic period a few centuries later, it is clear that the Jewish community was exceptionally large in Babylonia. The rate of reproduction cannot account for the entire increase; it appears that many non-Jews had converted to Judaism. This theory is supported by the admixture of pagan names in the community. The sizable population meant that Jews were also dominant in political life.

Sassanian Rule and the Exilarchate

Parthian rule in the region ended in the year 227, roughly at the same time that the Mishnah was edited in Israel. The Babylonian Talmud, therefore, was developed under Sassanian rule, the successor to Parthian rule. During the Hellenistic period, there were considerable attempts to Hellenize the area. Both the Aramean nation, a pagan group, and the Jews were set against the Hellenizing forces. Ctesiphon, the seat of the Sassanian rulers, was not Hellenized.

The Sassanians dominated the city of Ctesiphon until the Moslem Conquest. Thus the Jews lived under the Sassanian Empire, which ruled over Iraq and Iran as we know them today from Iraq. (Some would even include Iraq of the Talmudic period as part of Iran, as it was dominated by Persian forces.)

The society was a highly developed one. In the year 200 the exilarchate came into effect. It was a form of self-government under which Jews were dealt with as a community. The exilarch collected taxes, controlled the system of justice, and regulated all of the Jews’ activities.

The exilarch, known in Hebrew as the Resh Galuta, had a complex relationship with the rabbis. At this time, the Mishnah had already reached the region. A whole class of rabbis was spreading rabbinic Judaism. While mention is made of some elements of oral law in the Prophets and other books, it is unclear what the state of the oral law was in Biblical times; however, it is clear that the biblical Judaism that had once existed was, at this time, becoming “rabbinicized.”

By the year 200, the rabbis were a major force. Twice a year, a study event called the “yarchei kallah” was held, extending an entire month. Babylonian agricultural activity was regulated by seasons, and irrigation came from the rivers. Talmudic law pertains to water rights and distribution, swamps and land, clearly dealing with questions prevalent in Babylonia at the time.

Jews entered all professions; they dealt in international trade and were tenant farmers on the land of rich Jews and non-Jews. It is clear that Jews interacted with their non-Jewish neighbors, based on mentions made of Babylonian superstitions and culture. However, Jews were the main population in the Babylonian area. Estimates of the Jewish population are as high as a million and a half.

A balance of power existed between the exilarch and the rabbis. The rabbis provided the judges who were appointed by the exilarch. Often the exilarch and rabbis disagreed on how far to bend politically and religiously toward the Sassanian rulers. Some rabbis were close with the Sassanian rulers, such as Shmuel and Shapur I, known as Shvur Malkah in the Talmud (not to be confused with Shapur II and Shapur III).

Anti-Semitism and the Moslem Conquest

Anti-Semitism was almost non-existent in the region until roughly the year 500. The cause for the anti-Semitism that existed was the Zoroastrians, also known as the Magians. Their religion was at odds with Judaism, but, for a long time, the Sassanian rulers kept the conflict from exploding. Potential conflict with Christians in Assyria was also prevented. Occasional anti-Semitic outbreaks generally centered around specific occurrences—for example, Magians believed that it was forbidden to bury humans in the ground and attempted to outlaw burial; they were also fire-worshipers and banned the lighting of candles for Shabbat.

The end of work on the Babylonian Talmud, roughly around the year 500, came approximately at the same time that occurrences of anti-Semitism began to increase. The Talmud makes mention of a few occurrences. The rise of anti-Semitism was connected with the decline of the Sassanian Empire which eventually ended in the Moslem Conquest.

Arabs had been moving up the Arabian Peninsula into Mesopotamia. The ruler of Palmyra in Syria, known as Papa ben Netzer in the Talmud, destroyed the area in 261, and the Jews suffered.

Over the course of the last century of Sassanian Empire, anti-Semitism—as well as anti-Christianism—rose. An entire Christian village was eradicated, causing the Jews to fear for their lives as well.

In the years 638–40, Mesopotamia was conquered by the Moslems. Following a century of declining Sassanian rule and anti-Semitism, the Jews welcomed the new rulers—somewhat ironically, as earlier Moslem activity on the Arabian Peninsula seemed quite anti-Semitic. The Mos-lems established themselves, maintaining the Sassanian administrative system and elements of Persian culture. The tension between the Sassanian system and the Persian culture was good for the Jews for a limited period of time. It is interesting to note that between the year 644 and 647, a Jewish messianic uprising took place in Fallujah. The uprising was quashed and the messianists killed by Moslem troops.

The Geonic Era

The period known as the Geonic Era ranged from 650 to approximately 1050. The leaders of the great yeshivas of the time, such as Sura and Pumbedita, were called Geonim. The Geonim began to gain power in this period and the exilarchs became less powerful, in essence becoming secular leaders of the people while the Geonim led.

During the first century of Moslem rule, there was a centralized caliphate, and the Jews found themselves living in the center of Islamic life. This was especially true after the year 750, when Baghdad was established as capital and the yeshivas moved to the area. The Jews were thus able to use the political power they accrued living in the capital to disseminate Judaism as they understood it—the Judaism of the Babylonian Talmud—to the Jewish world under Islamic domination. The dissemination of Judaism continued after the breakup of the Islamic period. Though the Arab Empire had begun to deteriorate, the rabbis in Baghdad were still permitted to send responsa all over the world and to collect money for yeshivas, remaining the central location of Jewish learning.

During the Geonic period, the Babylonian Talmud was established as authority. It was communicated to the Jewish world, and Jewish thought and philosophy developed under the influence of Islam. Amram Gaon (856–74) edited the first siddur; Saadia Gaon, who lived from 882 until 942, edited a siddur soon afterwards. Saadia Gaon wrote his famous philosophical work having learned Greek philosophy from Arabic translations and commentaries, making the first attempt at creating a philosophic synthesis. Saadia Gaon was also involved in writing systematic works of Hebrew grammar and translating the Bible into Arabic. Rav Sherira Gaon (d. 1005) wrote a history of the period in the year 987 in which he listed all Geonim, heads of the two yeshivas, from the Mishnah’s earliest stages until his time.

All of this intellectual activity was stimulated by the open environment in which Islam had Hellenized. Judaism, a protected minority under Islam, grew and developed intellectually, physically, and economically. The Moslems in the region helped to usher in a golden age in which Jews could attain high political and economic positions.

This ground to a halt with the decline of Iraq. The combination of the breakup of the Islamic Empire into warring states and the subsequent economic and political decline affected the development of the Jews. The Mongols destroyed the area in 1258 ending what was known as the Abbasid caliphate. Jewish officials and citizens were killed in riots.

The Modern Era

In 1405, Turkish tribes conquered the region; the Safavids had control of the region from 1508 to 1534, when the Ottomans replaced them. The Ottoman rulers brought with them the dawn of a new day for Jewish community in the region. Sulaiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman sultan, entered Baghdad in 1534. The Jewish community in the area had deteriorated significantly over the previous centuries and stood at roughly 3,000. We can only speculate as to the reasons for this.

This new era was a positive one for the Jewish community. The ruler appointed to Baghdad in 1705 was quite benevolent and began to modernize Baghdad. Documentation exists which proves that in 1733 Baghdad’s Jews fought on the side of the Ottomans against Persian invaders. Unfortunately, plagues throughout this period (1743–1831) reduced the population.

Beginning in 1780, the Ottomans assigned good rulers to Iraq. In the middle of the 19th century, Jews in Islamic-dominated areas began to modernize, due to internal forces and the Alliance Israélite Universelle, which set up modern schools in the region. This led to Jews being fully involved in economic and even political leadership. Jews, as a modernized people, worked with the European powers and connected with the colonialists. The Jews then found themselves in an awkward position with the rise of local and Arab nationalism. In most places, following the Jews’ modernization and establishment in high positions, their communities fell apart with the rise of Nazism and the establishment of the state of Israel. This was true in all districts but Iran and Morocco.

In Iraq, a similar pattern emerged. The first modern Talmud Torah school was established in Iraq in 1832 and a modern yeshiva was established in 1840. By 1864, the modernizing Jews had written to the Alliance Israélite Universelle and asked to establish a school, reflecting a split in the community between the old-fashioned “yeshiva” demographic and the modern “Alliance” group. Unlike in Europe, all Jews in Iraq were mem-bers of Orthodox synagogue and practiced traditional Judaism. The Talmud Torah grew to have 3,000 students in Baghdad alone (with other similar schools in communities such as Basra and Kufa). After the establishment of the Alliance school in 1864, a school for girls was opened in Baghdad in 1890, another modern school was established in Baghdad, an Alliance school in Basra opened in 1893, and schools continued to open. Both types of schools were in essence creating a new Jew- an educated professional, destined to rise to the top in secular society.

Political events of the time were significant as well. The 1876 Ottoman constitution included Jewish representatives in the Ottoman parliament; the 1908 constitution set forth in Istanbul declared equal rights for all religious groups. Modernized Jews were engaged in professional careers, such as business and trading, occupying a central role in the society’s economic life.

However, the Ottoman Empire fought the Axis Powers and fell to British forces in 1917. At the same time, Zionist activity began to develop in Iraq—first with a small group, then expanding to a Jewish literary society in 1920. When the British introduced their puppet government in Iraq in 1920, a Jew—Sasson Hezkel—was head of the Finance Ministry. By 1921, the British Mandate was established in Iraq, and it was clear that the new Iraqi king would be coming from Arabia.

Zionism Under the British Mandate

The Jews petitioned for Iraqi citizenship. The should have paid a high price for this immedi-ately, if not for the fact that King Faisal (of the Faisal-Weizmann agreement) did not hold it against them. From 1920 or 1921 until King Faisal’s death in 1933 the Jews enjoyed a period of prosperity and became increasingly important.

However, immediately following King Faisal’s death, things took a downward turn for the Jews. The Mandate had ended in 1932. Iraq had been admitted to the League of Nations, and, in 1934, anti-Jewish harassment started, as the new government was motivated by Arab na-tionalism. In the Arab nationalist environment, Jewish life was impossible, as Arab national-ism differs from traditional Islamic shariya (law) and does not allow for the existence of Juda-ism. This was not altogether clear at first; Jews were even represented in the original parlia-ment in 1925. (This, incidentally, is the irony of present-day Iran. Between 20 and 25,000 Jews remain in Iran, practicing religion, praying in synagogues, and eating in kosher restaurants. This is due to the fact that the country follows Islamic law and, as such, although they declare their hatred for Israel, they are bound to allow Jews to practice their religion.)

The 1930s, however, made clear the true nature of the country. The Committee for the Defense of Palestine accused the Jews of Iraq of supporting the Zionists in 1936. The Chief Rabbi re-acted by making anti-Zionist statements. Three Jews were nevertheless assassinated in the streets and bombs were thrown into synagogues. Meanwhile Nazi propaganda intensified. Emir Haj Amir al-Huseini was exiled from Jerusalem and arrived in Iraq, where he spread Nazi propaganda. In 1940, a military coup took place in Iraq (which had always had British bases), leading to the forming of a pro-German government which declared war on Britain. The Jews of Iraq suddenly found themselves living in a Nazi state.

The year 1941 was the year of the “Farhud,” or pogrom. The pro-Nazi regime was in power. On Shavuot, with the British at the gates of Baghdad, an anti-Semitic pogrom broke out. The British took no action whatsoever, so as not to appear as though they had conquered the city, preferring that the pro-British citizens rise up and fight the pro-German elements. Roughly 170–180 Jews were killed over the courses of the pogrom, along with numerous Moslems who tried to save Jews; much property was destroyed. This was, for Iraqi Jewry, the true end.

Thus Zionist activity intensified in Iraq beginning in 1942. By 1946, the Arab League was demanding steps against Zionism. It was small, but the He-halutz movement which emphasized self-defense, teaching of Hebrew, and illegal immigration, was there when it was needed.

In 1948, with the declaration of the State of Israel, Iraq joined the war. The Iraqi army was uniquely unsuccessful; the Arab and, indeed, Iraqi defeat were great. A Jewish leader was publicly hanged.

When the Iraqi forces returned in 1949 the government announced martial law and required that Jews not leave their homes. A riot ensued; the Chief Rabbi was dragged from his home, beaten, and had to resign, as he was perceived as a collaborator.

In 1950, the Iraqi Government passed a law allowing those who surrendered citizenship and money to leave the country. By that time, about 10,000 Jews had left illegally through Iran, and it was generally assumed that another 10,000 Jews would leave. However, things did not develop according to plan. The Zionist movement—though comprising only about 3,000 members—was poised for action. There was an initial sign-up of 86,000 people to immigrate to Israel, with no plan delineating how they would leave. In 1951, a bomb was thrown into a synagogue where Jews were registering to immigrate to Israel and five people were killed. The Ar-abs claimed that a Zionist had thrown the bomb. It is difficult to accept that Zionists would have killed Jews in order to convince them to immigrate to Israel. After the incidence, an additional 30,000 Jews enrolled to immigrate. At that point, 107,603 Jews were airlifted to Israel and an additional 16,000 reached Israel by other means. By the end of 1951, only 6,000 Jews remained in Iraq.

A controversy related to this lingers. Some Iraqi Jews, as well as books on the subject, assume that the community in Iraq would still remain were it not for the Zionists. It was a very wealthy community—roughly 400 million pounds sterling was left behind by the community—and some members and descendants harbor resentment about the emigration. However, it seems clear that Arab nationalism would never have allowed a Jewish community of any kind to exist in peace.

Based on consultation with major leaders, it is clear to me that a true decision to end the Jewish community in a given location can only be made by Jewish leadership. For example, the leadership made plans to remove the Argentine Jewish community during the Argentine crisis, although the plans were never executed. One might argue that it was done in Ethiopia, even given the debate about the Falash Mura. In these cases, individuals are not given the opportunity to make their own decisions. In Iran, during the crisis when 13 Jews were arrested, the organized community considered doing the same things. The argument in Iraq remains- Was the airlift necessary? I submit that the answer is yes.

Six thousand Jews remained in Iraq following the emigration. Iraq fought in all wars against Israel but never distinguished itself. In 1968 the situation further deteriorated. Various revolutions, the rise of the Baath Party, and other developments changed the nature of the country. In 1969 there was a public hanging of 14 people, 11 of whom were Jews; the crisis was com-pounded by the execution of three other Jews—making clear that Jewish existence would not be part of Iraq’s future. In the 1970s, almost all of the remaining Jews were permitted to leave. The last Chief Rabbi died in 1971. The last Jewish wedding in the last synagogue was held in 1980, and most of the remaining Jews were evacuated early in the Gulf War in 2004. At present, Jewish practice in Iraq is limited to American servicemen and a very small community.

Conclusion

The region once known as Mesopotamia hosted the oldest Diaspora community that existed. It is hard to say whether the existence of the community has ended entirely. If the success of the Jewish community was related to the openness of the rulers—the Sassanians, the Moslems, and, again, ironically, the Moslems of the Ottoman Empire—then there is the chance that, were Iraq to develop into an open Islamic state, like Turkey, the Jewish community could return—somewhat like the unlikely boom of the Jewish community in Germany. The conditions of the region—natural resources, agriculture, location—make it possible for Iraq to be a great empire. Great empires tend to attract Jews.

The community’s decline is directly related to the failures of the British and the Mandate. In fact, the British Mandate was a failure everywhere (as, one might argue, was the French Man-date in Syria and Lebanon); it seems clear that the region still suffers from the mistakes of the British Mandate and its lack of understanding regarding the correct ways to build a society.

While it is impossible to prophesy the future, it is important to note that Jewish communities which at times have appeared dead have bounced back. Iraq’s present governing council has not excluded the possibility of the return of Jews. And there may once again be movement be-tween Iran and Iraq if Iran liberalizes, as the U.S. government seems to feel might happen.

It seems that the story of Iraq and the story of Israel have been eternally joined by circumstances which exist even today. These include military challenges and perhaps a common type of enemy. Just as the fates of the U.S. and Israel are eternally linked, it appears that the eventual fate of Iraq and the fate of the State of Israel are linked, because the establishment of a safe and reasonable government in Iraq would rid Israel of the threat of the whole Eastern Front. That Eastern Front causes the U.S., Israel, and Jordan to be in agreement that Israel must re-main in the Jordan Valley. And this fact means, in one fashion or another, that Israel is now—as a result of the fall of the Baathist regime in Iraq—much safer. So that is the final component of the age-old story of the interaction of Iraq and the Jewish people- that the fall of that regime in Iraq has made Israel a safer place.

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