How Eden became hell for Iraq's Jews

A festival in Tiberias celebrating Iraqi Jewry. Thousands of Iraq's Jews sought refuge in Israel during the 1950s

A festival in Tiberias celebrating Iraqi Jewry. Thousands of Iraq's Jews sought refuge in Israel during the 1950s

The Last Jews of Iraq
Radio 4, ★★★★✩

On The Road With An Orthodox Rabbi
BBC News Channel, ★★★✩✩

Of course I knew that there had been Jews in Iraq and I also knew that there had been a continuous Jewish presence there since biblical times. However, until I listened to Alan Yentob's poignant portrait of the death of the community his parents were born into, I had no idea that their presence was so influential in Baghdad or that on Shabbat the souks of the city were almost silent.

And while I knew that, during the middle part of the century, most of the Jews fled, I certainly had no idea of the scale of the persecution those who remained endured and the murderous attacks to which they were subjected.

Yentob's interviewees, some of them family members and friends, recalled a golden age when Jews and Arabs lived side-by-side in peace. As golden ages go, it was a long one, lasting from 597 BCE until the 1930s. In 1907, Jews made up a third of the population of Iraq and, at the end of the First World War, there were 80,000 in Baghdad alone.

As with their counterparts in Europe, few saw the problems that awaited them.

These came following the translation of Mein Kampf into Arabic in the 1930s and the growth of the Jewish population in Palestine. Suddenly Iraqi Jews became objects of suspicion. One woman recalled having acid thrown on to her back. Others remembered the government of Nazi sympathisers that incited hatred and pogroms, such as the one in 1941 which killed 180 people.

With Israel's independence, the writing was on the wall. Iraq declared war not only on the new state but on its own Jews. Between 1949 and 1951, attacks became commonplace.

The government made it possible for Jews to renounce their nationality and leave the country (as long as they also left their wealth) and 90 per cent departed, either for the cold of post-war austerity in London, like Yentob's parents, or for a tented refugee camp and unfamiliar hard labour in the fields in Israel.

The few who stayed behind lived to regret it. Following the 1967 Six-Day War, they were forced to carry yellow identification cards. Some were kidnapped, others were tried and hanged, with a noose and a "Jew" sign around their necks.

Now only seven Jews remain, their existence compromised by the cynical release by Wikileaks of a US Embassy document revealing their names and addresses.

Yentob gave the final word to Andrew White, an Anglican priest and a student of the Iraqi-Jewish community. "There is," he said sadly, "an understanding here that all Jews are evil."

It appears that few Iraqis will ever get the opportunity that we had to learn something about the massive contribution the Jews have made to their country, and the shameful treatment they received from their erstwhile friends.

Meanwhile, on the BBC News Channel, we had a chance to follow Golders Green rabbi, Harvey Belovski, for the day in the company of friendly but persistent interviewer Matthew Stadlen, who kept the questions coming thick and fast.

Did Belovski believe in God? Why were there no women at the morning service? What would he do if it were proved that God did not exist? Did he think kosher methods of slaughter were cruel? What was his attitude towards Israel?

Belovski managed to answer all the questions courteously and with a smile on his face.

While this programme was aimed at a curious non-Jewish audience, there were some entertaining moments, the best of them when the rabbi informed his bemused inquisitor that he was off for his afternoon shluff.

Last updated: 11:50am, December 2 2011