Iraqi Jews who were forced to leave their homes under Saddam Hussein’s regime may now be able to reclaim their property and citizenship after the intervention of a UK-based specialist in Islamic studies.
Academic Nabil Al-Haidari, who lives in London, was invited to speak at Iraq’s first government-backed conference for the defence of religions and sects, which was held in Suleimanya, north Iraq. He was asked on condition that he did not mention the Jewish community, which constituted one-third of Baghdad’s population in 1918 but dwindled to 6,000 in the 1960s. Today only six remain.
But Mr Al-Haidari, who had not returned to Iraq for more than 30 years since he openly criticised the dictatorship, ignored stern warnings from the conference’s 11-member committee against the “sensitive and dangerous subject”, and took advantage of live press coverage “to surprise them and talk about the massive contribution and rights of Iraqi Jews”.
Mr Al-Haidari, who is Muslim, said: “I raised three main issues: the rights of citizenship, parliamentary seats and the right of Jews to get back the properties and money that was stolen from them.
“If the organisers had known what I was going to say, they wouldn’t have invited me to speak. But I wasn’t afraid of Saddam, and I’m not afraid of them.”
The conference was attended by 30 government ministers and sponsored by Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani.
“President Talabani, who is a well- known humanitarian, must seek to legislate to return their citizenship and add Jews to Article Two of the constitutionto do so,” Mr Al-Haidari added.
More than 5,000 Iraqi Jews currently live in the UK. Emile Cohen, who left when he was 16 to study in London, said: “I left Iraq in 1959 and in 1964 they withdrew my passport. They told me I had to return to Iraq or lose my nationality. This only applied to Jews and there was a prison sentence hanging over me — I don’t know what for — so I didn’t return.
“There isn’t any Jew I know who is prepared to go back and get Iraqi citizenship.”
Mr Al-Haidari was “very optimistic. I received personal assurances [from leading Iraqi judges and officials] that Iraqi Jews can apply for their citizenship, get their money and property back.”
But Edwin Shuker, a British-based Jew who fled Baghdad in 1971, thought this was an over-confident assessment.
He said: “The Jews who left, mainly in the 1950s, had their property taken away and their assets frozen by the government, by law. Unless the law is revoked, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
However, Mr Shuker praised Mr Al-Haidari’s courage in speaking about Iraqi Jews. “He did a great job. Many Iraqis believe that Jews are responsible for the good times and if Jews return the times would be better in the country”.
London Iraqi David Dangoor said: “Morally speaking, Iraqi Jews have not only the right to the property that they lost, but to a share of the mineral wealth of the country they inhabited long before it became Arab or Muslim.
“However, Jews are practical people. Most of them have already made new lives elsewhere and have proved themselves in their new communities.
“My father Naim built up six major businesses in Iraq and had to leave them all behind, yet it was the best bargain under the circumstances, to exchange countries for religious freedom and a peaceful environment. ”
Though critics have called him a “Zionist spy for Israel,” Mr Al-Haidari insisted he was speaking only about Iraqi Jews and their contribution to his country.
“The new generation don’t know about the great history of Iraqi Jews — what they did for the country. Some people hear the word ‘Jew’ and think ‘Israel’”.