by Max Sawdayee


The history of the Jewish community of Iraq dates back to the first Babylonian captivity, that is, to the year 597 B.C., when the Jews were deported to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar from their conquered homeland, which in later centuries became known as Palestine.  Hence it covers over two and a half millenniums.  As a minority, the community passed through many ups and downs, only thatyet the ups were very few and the downs very many.  In spite of the fact that the community considered itself sincerely a part and part of the population of Iraq, and completely identified itself with the nation, so that no Jew in that part of the world felt that he was an alien, yet the Jew never partook in the countless intrigues which punctuated the political history of Iraq in every generation.

The truth is that the Jewish community of Iraq was almost always an oppressed minority; and like other minorities in that country, it quietly suffered its share of trials and tribulations, with only one difference, that its share was far more severe than that of other minorities.  Anyhow, it pulled through, in spite of everything, mainly because it kept its trust in God, and reserved its optimism about a brighter future even in the darkest hours, even when no bright future did appear in the horizon.  It therefore led an existence which dragged on by mere inertia, accentuated by a profound religious feeling and indefatigable industriousness, with a degree of stability according to the character of the times in every generation.

When speaking of stability, however, we have to admit that the country of Iraq as a whole never enjoyed long periods of stability or quiet.  It underwent a motley of diversified methods of government, each of which had to obey the arbitrary wishes or demands of its ruler.  Iraq was probably fortunate enough to be governed from time to time by a wise ruler, but more often than not it had to bleed heavily under despotism, so that if a citizen had the exceptionally good luck to die, let us say, a septuagenarian, he could remember on his death bed that oppression had been the order of the day.  Furthermore, poverty and squalor were rife among the sweeping majority of the population, and very few could afford to live in luxury.

As to the place of the Jewish community in the midst of all this turmoil, it might not have been far different from that of other oppressed minorities in Iraq, but the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine caused that community a special treatment in oppression; and whenever the Jews of Palestine (who in May 1948 declared an independent Israel as their new State after long centuries of exile) made a step forward, the Jews of Iraq had to receive a chastising blow.  Particularly hostile, are those elements that got fed and poisoned by Nazism when it made headway in Europe during the thirties and early forties of this century, or by imperialistic influences designed to satisfy certain foreign interests.  Persecution, associated with political and economic instability, and the grim future that lay ahead, combined to urge Iraqi Jews to emigrate to Israel or any other country that afforded a decent living.  Prior to the large-scale emigration of 1950-51 the community numbered over 150,000.  Shrinking continually, it has dwindled in the past few years to a tiny group.  On the eve of the Six-day War it numbered about 3500, who were held there as helpless hostages, because the sweeping victory of Israel in that war rendered the tiny group a target for ruthless persecution by every irresponsible clique instigated by the government.  Persecution knew no bounds.  Torture, murder, confiscation of property, and even the loss of the minimum of human rights, were meted out to the miserable minority who remained there.

And none was allowed to leave the country, even for the most acceptable reasons. However, the author, with his wife and two daughters, goaded by unusual courage blended with fatalism, planned during the first half of 1970 to escape illegally, as the regime employed every method of tyranny and repression against the people of Iraq, particularly the Jews.  In June 1970 the author and his family put their plan of escape into action.  Their pioneering a successful exit, despite all the difficulties incurred, paved the way for hundreds more to follow suit.  Later on, and in the course of about three years nearly 95% of the community left, most of them illegally (the Iraqi government found itself compelled to permit a few to leave the country legally), so that the number of Jews who are there at present revolves around 250.

The long history of the Jewish community of Iraq made it solidly established until May 1948, when Israel was reborn.  During the many centuries of its existence it accumulated a vast communal property, mainly schools, synagogues, houses and business buildings.  This property could be valued at highly impressive figures.  But it has almost entirely been confiscated and utilised for various purposes by governments and leaders who recently ruled the country, for public or private interests.

As for the cultural heritage of the community, probably nothing will be allowed to remain except what the hands of persecutors cannot demolish.  Chief among its achievements shines the Babylonian Talmud, which is the body of Jewish law and legend, comprising the religious precepts and commentaries as codified by the Elders.

Material property must eventually vanish, but a cultural heritage never does.  The history and culture of the Jewish community of Iraq will continue to be recorded as witness to an important chapter of Jewish chronicle, unhappy in its beginning and unhappy in its end.  But that is how over two and a half millenniums rolled on.  And where the Jews went out from as captives to Babylon, there they finally returned, thus completing a circuit, as though to confirm figuratively the words of Ecclesiastes:  “Unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.”


by S. Benjamin