The clock cannot simply be turned back for Iraq's Jews

By Lyn Julius, January 10, 2013
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Reading the interview with Iraqi Muslim academic Nabil al-Hadari last week, I was torn between admiration for his courage and a sense that his efforts are misdirected.

Mr al-Hadari, who fled Saddam Hussein's regime for the UK 30 years ago, has taken it upon himself to champion the rights of Iraqi Jews. At a November conference on the defence of religions and sects in Suleimaniya, northern Iraq, sponsored by Iraq's president, he bravely defied all attempts to stifle discussion of this "sensitive and dangerous" topic.

Jews had worked wonders for Iraq, he told the conference. In the 1920s, Iraq's oldest minority had comprised a third of all Baghdad residents. Jews were the backbone of the Iraqi economy between the wars. The Baghdad market closed down on Shabbat. Culturally, too, they were influential: one in four Iraqi writers was Jewish.

In Suleimaniya, Mr al-Hadari raised three main issues: the rights of citizenship, parliamentary seats and the right of Jews to get back the property and money that was stolen from them. He says he has received personal assurances from judges and officials. The Iraqi constitution could be amended accordingly.

He deserves praise for raising a taboo subject

He deserves praise for raising a taboo subject. Many in the Arab world deny that Jews ever lived there, let alone suffered terrible abuse and fled as refugees. Many deny that Arab states perpetrated mass ethnic cleansing. Any initiative that acknowledges the massive injustice perpetrated against innocent Jews is to be welcomed.

But the Jewish horse has bolted from Iraq: not a single member or descendant of the Iraqi-Jewish diaspora is clamouring to get their citizenship back. Out of a 1948 population of 137,000, the six remaining in Iraq are too afraid even to identify themselves as Jews. In 1950, following a reign of terror, the great majority of Iraq's Jews were stripped of their citizenship as a condition of their being allowed to leave. Some 120,000 were airlifted to Israel. In 1951, the Iraqi parliament passed a law freezing their property.

Personal assurances or not, the Iraqi government has shown no inclination to repeal the 1951 law. Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a property claims commission was set up to grant restitution to post-1968 victims of Saddam's regime. As far as we know, not a single Jewish claimant has been compensated.

Since Mr al-Hadari's intervention at the conference, a now disgraced senior official of the Muslim Brotherhood called for Egyptian Jews to return. This week, a video surfaced apparently showing Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shi'a militia leader, called on Jews to come back and join the rebuilding of their Iraqi homeland. Never mind that these are viciously antisemitic countries where a Jew's safety is not assured.

The abiding Jewish sense of hurt and humiliation is not being addressed either. "Mother told me, with grief in her eyes, They've wronged us in Iraq," wrote the poet and author Shmuel Moreh. If Iraq wants reconciliation with its Jews, it needs to swallow its pride and issue an official apology for their mistreatment. Instead of deluding himself that the clock could be turned back, Mr al-Hadari should urge Iraq to repair bridges with the 90 per cent of Iraqi Jews and their descendants now permanently settled in Israel. Jews have moved on, rebuilt and are now productive citizens of their adopted countries. But it still seems "sorry" is the hardest word, and the thought of dealing with Israel unbearable.

A peace settlement must be built on the recognition that an irreversible exchange of refugees took place between Jews and Palestinians in the region. If one group cannot return, neither should the other. It is too late for either group to be resettled other than where they are now.

Contrary to prevailing notions, the Israeli-Arab conflict is a symptom of the root cause: the failure to tolerate the non-Muslim or heretical "Other". The ethnic cleansing of Jews from the Muslim Middle East should be seen in the context of the oppression and expulsion of all minorities - Assyrians, Mandaeans, Yazidis, Copts. This is particularly true of Iraq, where a delicate ecosystem of indigenous sects and pre-Islamic religions is on the verge of extinction. If the Arab Spring ever becomes serious about defending the rights of religions and sects, it needs to jettison its narrow Islamist agenda and embrace the rights of all its citizens. Sadly, this seems unlikely to happen any time soon.

Lyn Julius co-founded Harif, a UK group representing Jews from the Middle East and North Africa

Last updated: 4:53pm, January 10 2013