by Aaron Feigenbaum
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept…” – Tehilim 137:1
With the recent takeover of large portions of Iraq by the ISIS terrorist army and the possibility that Iraq will no longer exist as a nation, it’s worth stepping back and marveling at the millenia of incredibly rich and beautiful Jewish history that was all but lost within the span of less than a century. Indeed, it almost defies the imagination to think that Iraq, a country now plagued by violence and sectarianism, has a Jewish history stretching back to Biblical times.
The history starts in 722 B.C.E. when a large portion of Jews in northern Israel were exiled to Babylonia by the invading Assyrian army. The Babylonian exile officially started in 586 B.C.E. at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar II and his destruction of the First Temple. Some 50 years later the Persians took over Babylonia and King Cyrus gave the Jews permission to return to their homeland. In subsequent centuries, Babylonia would be conquered first by the Greeks under Alexander the Great and then the Persians again (known at that time as the Parthian Empire).
After the destruction of the Second Temple, Babylonia became the epicenter of Jewish life and learning. It was in the Babylonian academies of Sura and Pumbedita that what we now know as the Babylonian Talmud was compiled. Like Yavneh in Eretz Yisrael, Sura and Pumbedita became guiding lights to the Jewish nation and helped found Rabbinic Judaism.
Babylonia is also important to ancient Jewish history in that it contains a number of burial sites of Jewish prophets. For example, the tomb of Ezekiel is believed to be located in Al-Kifl. Nahum is buried in the shul in Alqosh and Ezra is buried in the town of Al-Uzair on the shore of the Euphrates river.
In 661, the Muslim Arab empire conquered Babylonia from the Sassanid Persians and treated the Jews as dhimmis or “people of the book.” In practical terms, this meant that Jews would have to pay a poll/protection tax or jizya in exchange for religious autonomy and the right to be exempted from military service. Except for relatively brief periods of persecution, Jewish life in Muslim imperial Iraq was stable and anti-Semitism never reached the levels seen in medieval Europe. As the traveler Rabbi Pethahiah of Regensburg wrote on his trip to Iraq in the late 1100‘s, “… Babylonia is an entirely different world, their occupation consisting of Torah study and the fear of heaven, even the Ishmaelites are trustworthy … in Babylon there are 30 synagogues in addition to that of Daniel …” (Sibbuv Rabbi Petahyah (1905), 8, 24).
All this would change with the Mongol invasion of 1258 when Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike faced widespread destruction of their communities. While at first it appeared that the Mongols, having appointed several Jews to high positions, might treat the Jewish community fairly, they soon proved to be have little regard for Jewish property or life or anyone else’s for that matter.
After the Ottoman Turks conquered Baghdad in 1534, life began to improve for Iraqi Jews. The Ottoman authorities instituted a moderate poll tax and allowed for a great deal of religious freedom. Except for occasional outbreaks of discrimination on the part of anti-Semitic leaders, Iraqi Jews enjoyed an enormous degree of stability from 1534 to the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution in 1917.
Life got even better under British occupation (1917-1921). The UK granted Iraqi Jews full and equal rights, and Jews were crucial to the British colonial enterprise in Iraq with many helping to develop the judicial and postal systems. Britain’s favorable policies towards the Jews continued under the British-appointed King Faisal whose reign lasted from 1921 to the independence of Iraq in 1932. One of the most prominent figures of this time was the Jew Sassoon Eskell who would become Iraq’s first finance minister. A thriving Zionist underground began to emerge and, along with it, an Arab anti-Zionist reaction.
With the death of King Faisal and the establishment of Iraq as a sovereign state, the situation for Iraqi Jews began to spiral downwards. Nazi propaganda filtered into the country via the German ambassador F. Grobba and calls for violence against Jews increased. These calls weren’t put into action until the Arab revolt in Palestine in 1936. The reaction to the revolt in Iraq was immediately felt as a four-week campaign of terror began leaving three Jews dead and several wounded. A public statement by the head of the Baghdad Jewish community affirming his support of the Palestinian cause didn’t do much to alleviate the dire situation.
In 1941, the pro-Nazi sympathizer Rashid Ali took over in a coup and his government went to war with British troops stationed in Iraq to rid the country of British influence. Ali’s forces were beaten back by the British and he was removed on May 29 after only two months in power. On Shavuos (June 1), Ali’s supporters perpetrated one of the most traumatic events in the history of the modern Jewish Middle East. In what’s known as the Farhud scores of civilians and soldiers began a pogrom in Baghdad that resulted in the murder of 180 Jews, the looting of hundreds of businesses and homes, and scores wounded. The bloodbath was stopped on June 2nd by the deaths of hundreds of rioters at the hands of forces loyal to the pro-British Regent Abdullah.
According to many scholars, this event marks a turning point for Iraq’s Jews as the impetus to emigrate was now clear. Yet, the mass emigration that was expected didn’t happen until the great Jewish exodus from Arab lands of 1948-1951.
After the end of WWII, Zionism was outlawed and restrictions were imposed on the Jewish community such as on travel and property usage. Many Jewish civil servants were removed from office and anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist propaganda was broadcast by official state media.
The Iraqi Parliament passed a bill in 1950 allowing Jews to leave so long as they renounce their citizenship, sell their home, and take no more than a certain amount of cash and valuables with them. 120,000 Jews were air-lifted from Iraq to Israel in the period of 1949-1951 as part of Operation Ezra & Nehemiah.
The Jews who stayed in Iraq soon found themselves in another dire predicament. The Parliament changed its mind and banned Jewish emigration in 1952 leaving Jews once again hostages in their own country. After the rise of the Ba’ath party in 1963 and the Six Day War of 1967, Jews were placed under even more severe restrictions culminating in the Soviet-style anti-Semitic purges of 1968 in which 11 Jews were publicly hung for “spying.” Some Jews were allowed to leave in the 1970‘s, but the state-sponsored terror against them continued into Saddam Hussein’s rule.
A New York Times article from November 2013 reports only 5 Jews, all too old to emigrate, that remain in the country.This is sharply down from the 150,000 Jews living in Iraq in 1948. The once mighty Jewish civilization that produced the Talmud and contributed so much to every government that ruled Iraq is now effectively gone from that country. Yet, even in the violence and chaos of contemporary Iraq there are still traces of that legacy which remain.
A PBS report from a few months ago shows a trove of almost 3,000 priceless Jewish texts, including an 18th century Talmud and Torah scroll, that were discovered in the flooded basement of Saddam’s intelligence headquarters at the start of the war. There’s a profound Jewish lesson to be learned in that: The more our persecutors try to bury our past and identity in the basement, the stronger the Jewish people become. The history of the Iraqi Jews, perhaps more than that of any other national Jewish group, has profoundly impacted Judaism and shaped the course of Jewish history as a whole. Their single greatest contribution, the Babylonian Talmud, is their legacy to the world and one that remains with us to this day.
(Sources: Jewish Virtual Library, New York Times, PBS, A Nostalgic Trip into the History of the Jews of Iraq by Rizq and Ghanimah)