by Max Sawdayee



written in 1974

When the Six-Day War broke out on June 5, 1967 between Israel and its three Arab neighbours (Egypt, Jordan and Syria), Iraq was ruled by the Arab Nationalists, or, as the party was called, the Arab National Socialists Movement.  It was not a well-established political party, but a kind of economic and political formation which embraced personalities from all classes of Iraqi society: lawyers, doctors, engineers, army officers, public and private employees and others.  The Movement came to power by the use of force on the 18th of November 1963, after having ousted its Ba’athist partners, who framed another section of the Ba’athist party of Syria.

Even though the country was governed by a dictatorship, it can be said that those days were an interval of relative calm.  The two major religious sects, the Sunna and the Shi’a, were living in mutual understanding; and an armistice, though shaky and uneasy, between the government and the northern Kurds granted the country a kind of stability greatly needed and desired by both sides.

The Jews, who constituted the smallest minority in the country, had their share of that short-lived calm that preceded a storm, and for a while enjoyed a sort of peaceful and prosperous existence.  Like every minority living in an unfriendly country, the Jews of Iraq had their own quota of a special treatment assigned them by the government and the people.  Financially, the community was in a rather good shape.  Jews still owned some big shops, a number of them worked as managers or employees in public and commercial firms, others were well known commission agents or brokers, and a few enjoyed a high reputation as big contractors dealing with public and private companies or institutions.  There were also some physicians, pharmacists, lawyers and engineers.

It is fair to say that in general all Jews did moderately well.  However, alone they could hardly own or run a commercial or industrial business, and only a partnership with a Muslim or a Christian could entitle them to that privilege.  By no means could they get a job in high government office, or in a political or military quarter, and this had been the case almost since 1948, when Israel was declared an independent Jewish state in Palestine.

Hence the Jewish community of Iraq was compelled to live in a closed circle.  Jews had been forbidden to leave the country since 1964, and could not participate in social or public activities.  They were allowed no part in sports, arts, radio or television.  They could hardly befriend high-placed Muslims openly.  But all those limitations did not hinder them from having a more or less satisfactory social life.  They had their own school, they ran their own sports stadium, they had their own tea, dinner and game parties.  Some of them went out for nice picnics, swam in the Tigris River through the summers, went to movies and nightclubs, and were not infrequently seen in most of the fashionable restaurants of Baghdad.  Yet their circle was almost closed.  They numbered about 3,500 at the time of the Six-Day War, all living in one and the same quarter, but a nice one.  The bitter experiences of the past taught them that in a politically unstable and economically undeveloped country, and with a people of a highly explosive temper, they could always expect the worst in times of serious trouble.  So they did not want to get scattered in several quarters of the city without united help when any emergency might arise.  As the scope of their social life was narrow, and as they could not expect to be in a position to mingle with Muslims and Christians, they preferred to live all together in and around the same district.  It was not unusual that some families found it necessary to pay exorbitant rents or buy houses at grossly excessive prices only to be able to live in or near the Jewish quarter.  This method of living provided them with a sense of unity, a measure of relaxation and, sure enough, an amount of courage to face an atmosphere of hatred and probable harm.

There was a fair quota of religious freedom too.  Jews congregated in four or five synagogues, held their prayers, practised various religious rites and ceremonies, and took much interest in their feasts, when almost everybody dressed well for the occasion.  Even ‘Kosher’ meat was always available in the neighbouring markets, and children studied Hebrew as a compulsory subject in Frank Iny School, the one single school that remained under the community’s management. 

The Jewish community in Iraq had its Chief Rabbi, who also presided over its financial and social as well as religious affairs, handled, clarified or settled major problems with the government.  A council of several members took important decisions, helped the Chief Rabbi in his job, kept constant touch with the entire community in order to understand its problems and tackle them, and saw to it that all decisions were thoroughly and properly executed.  They had a secretary and a few employees to run the routine work.  Funds were available for all administrative requirements, as the community was rich in landed property which had accumulated through the centuries.  Good care was taken as far as possible for the safety of those funds and the financing of all services, such as running the school, helping the sick and needy, maintaining the synagogues and the cemetery, and diverse other items.

Baghdad being the capital, in it were concentrated the majority of Iraqi Jews.  Basra in the south had its tiny community too, which also functioned fairly well.  It had its own rabbi as well, who took care of all services needed.

Very few Jews lived outside these two towns of Baghdad and Basra.  Their affairs were taken care of in Baghdad.

It can be said that one factor held up the Jews of Iraq through every trial period, and that was their hopeful spirit.  This was a most significant phenomenon in the life of the community.  A spirit of optimism prevailed whenever an ominous sign was seen in the offing.  The Jews of Iraq survived countless difficulties in their long and hard history, yet they never completely lost this spirit.  Even when fear and disappointment created a state of real despair, Jews still maintained a degree of optimism which could help them pull through.  And they had a sense of humour left in them even in the darkest of hours.  Behind the clouds they could still trace a ray of sunlight, from which they derived sufficient courage to exist.