Will oldest diaspora be lost?
Ten years on from the invasion of Iraq, what has become of the Jewish community? In 2003, aid workers found 35 mainly elderly and impoverished Jews in Baghdad, where they were once the largest single ethnic group. The Meir Tweg synagogue was shuttered and there was no communal life to speak of. In 10 years, all but six have died or departed.
Beset by bombings, terror and abductions, the new Iraq has brought little security to its inhabitants. Two years after the fall of arch-dictator Saddam Hussein, tragedy struck the last Jewish couple to marry. Fresh from his honeymoon, the husband, a jeweller, was abducted. Although the Sephardi community raised a ransom in London for information, the 33-year-old is believed to have been murdered by his captors.
Antisemitism is worse than ever: when the 2009 Wikileaks scandal revealed their names and addresses, the few Jews trembled for their lives. Their unofficial protector, vicar of Baghdad, Canon Andrew White, tried in vain to persuade them to leave. He employs in his clinic the abductee’s widow, a dentist. She has sworn never to leave her Iraqi homeland .
The elation diaspora Iraqi Jews might have felt at the 2003 Chanucah celebrations in Saddam’s palace has long since given way to cynicism. Baghdad is too unsafe to visit.
However, Kurdish Jews from Israel have been on organised tours of less risky northern Iraq. Israeli companies have discreetly been doing business there. The Kurdish president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, is reputedly well- disposed towards the Jews, but public expressions of sympathy with Israel are suspect. Last June, Mawlud Afand, the editor of the Israel-Kurd magazine founded since the US invasion, is believed to have been abducted by Iranian agents.
Although Judaism was born in Iraq it is not recognised today
Jewish exiles have not managed to achieve closure with the Iraqi government. The commission set up to compensate victims of Saddam’s Baathist regime has yet to compensate a single Jewish claimant. It deliberately excluded the vast majority of potential claimants — the 130,000 Jews whose property was frozen when they were airlifted to Israel in the 1950s. Jews of Iraqi origin were allowed to vote in Iraq’s elections, but Jews in general are a “sensitive and dangerous” issue. Although Judaism was born in biblical Iraq, the new constitution does not recognise it as an official religion.
The scars of Saddam’s terror have still not healed for the recently constituted World Organisation of Jews from Iraq, based in New York. It has repeatedly written for information on the 60-odd Jews abducted under Saddam, but its pleas have gone unanswered. The organisation also worries about what will happen to Iraq’s Jewish communal assets when the last Jew has died.
As for Iraq’s Jewish heritage, the country has been waging a bitter battle to recover the so-called “Jewish archive” of manuscripts and precious artefacts found in the flooded basement of the secret police headquarters. The Americans shipped the archive to Washington for restoration and promised to return it. Iraq claims the Jewish archive as its national heritage, But it was seized from Jewish homes and synagogues in the late 1960s and should be restored to the Iraqi Jewish community, now transplanted to Israel. The fate of 365 Torah scrolls discovered in the rat-infested basement of the Iraq National Museum by Canon White is also uncertain.
Despite assurances to Canon White that the Jewish character of shrines like Ezekiel’s tomb will be preserved, it is probably only a matter of time before they are turned into mosques.
On the positive side, Iraqis have been freer to express what they think. They have shown resurgent interest, and some nostalgia, in the Jews’ commercial, musical and cultural contribution to modern Iraq.
Ex-MP Mithal al Alusi has called for relations to be established between Iraq and Israel; writer Jabbar Jamal al-Din has written effusive Judeophilic poetry; Nabil al-Hadairy has risked his life to stand up for Jewish rights to citizenship and representation.
Despite the valiant efforts of these men, the past 10 years have done nothing to reverse, and everything to hasten, the extinction of the oldest Jewish diaspora.