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Crisis in Iraq Iraq Home to Glorious Jewish Past but to a Lonely and Fragile Present

February 10, 2003
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Joseph Dabby was caught amid the winds of change.

An Iraqi Jew, he was twice tossed into the country’s jails on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War. Dabby now remembers being blindfolded by Iraqi officials, marched outside and frozen by the sounds of gunfire around him.

Eventually, Dabby was released with the help of influential connections and money.

“I was lucky,” he says, recalling what befell his uncle, who was tied to a spinning ceiling fan and jolted with electrical shocks for the same bogus charge at that time.

While Iraq is a bitter memory for Dabby — now 57, and a developer living in Los Angeles — he identifies with the Jewish community in his homeland, where only about 50 Jews now remain.

As America prepares for a possible war in the Persian Gulf, Iraqi Jewish expatriates are wary of the repercussions of war in general, and on their former country in particular. Just the same, they largely support it, say Dabby and others interviewed for this article.

“I’m scared of what this crazy man can do,” Dabby says, referring to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

“I think we’re embarking on the right way,” he adds, calling America’s initiative “courageous.”

As for the few Jews left in Iraq — about half of whom are elderly and said to be seeking haven in the last remaining synagogue in Baghdad — their situation is fragile.

“They are a tiny, vulnerable group and current rhetoric from the Iraqi government increase their fears and ours,” according to Steven Schwager, executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

“As soon as circumstances allow, JDC will do whatever is humanly possible to help them.”

The Jewish presence in what is now Iraq is a tale of one of the longest surviving Jewish communities, dating back to 722 B.C.E, when the northern tribes of Israel were defeated by Assyria and taken into captivity there, according to Lawrence Schiffman, the Edelman professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University.

But most of the Jews came to what is now Iraq in 586 B.C.E., when it was Babylon. The southern tribes of Israel were conquered by the Babylonians, who destroyed the First Temple, and enslaved the Jews in their land.

That’s why Jews from the area often refer to themselves as “Babylonian Jews,” emphasizing their historical connection to the “Fertile Crescent,” a land dominated at different times by peoples including the Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Mongols and Turks.

As Dabby puts it, “We consider ourselves biblical Jews. We go back to the slaves that were brought by Nebuchadnezzer from the destruction of the First Temple.”

From the seventh century to the 11th century, the region was the center of world Jewry and is credited with some of the greatest advances in Jewish history, like the creation of the Babylonian Talmud, completed between 500 and 700 C.E. It was home to major Jewish institutions and pre-eminent scholars. Even in modern times, several recent chief rabbis of Israel have come from Iraq.

At their modern-day height — the 1940s — the Iraqi Jewish community numbered 130,000, flourishing in government, commerce, medicine and the arts. Most of them lived in Baghdad, with the second-largest population in the port city of Basra.

In the years before World War II, more than half of Iraq’s importers and exporters were Jewish, according to Itamar Levin, the author of “Locked Doors: The Seizure of Jewish Property in Arab Countries.”

Through their contacts in trade, some communities of Iraqi Jews settled in countries such as India, Singapore and Indonesia.

Iraq, which became a nation-state in 1932, also boasted four major Jewish schools in Baghdad, which groomed students in English, Arabic, French and Hebrew.

Jews “were the educated, elite group,” says Albert Nassim, trustee of the American Sephardi Federation and president of the Babylonian Jewish Center, a synagogue in Great Neck, New York.

But life changed for Iraq’s Jews around the turn of the century with the rise of Arab nationalism and, with it, anti- Semitism.

With the birth of Israel in 1948 came increased anti-Semitism and Israel’s own Zionist promotional campaign.

State-sponsored persecution forced all but 7,000 of them to flee. Most went to Israel, and Iraq froze the assets of anyone who went there.

Iraq allowed the Jews to leave due to international pressure, the desire to take over Jewish assets and the sense that the pressure of immigration on the young Jewish state might force it to collapse, according to Levin.

Today, one of Iraq’s wealthiest Jewish families, which once owned the land of Saddam Hussein’s presidential compound, is almost penniless, Levin wrote. Confiscated Jewish assets in Iraq are valued at more than $4 billion in today’s terms, according to Levin.

Similar circumstances occurred in many other Arab countries.

Recently, Israel and the American Sephardi Federation began collecting claims of assets looted by Arab states. The goal: to counter Palestinian claims for lost property during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

The claims of Jews for their looted properties are expected to be used in any future political negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians.

In Iraq, the years after the 1967 Six-Day War saw arrests and disappearances of Jews, who fled to Iran — the only open border at the time — shrinking the population of the Iraqi Jewish community to 100.

Now, about 250,000 Jews of Iraqi descent are spread throughout the world, the bulk of them living in Israel, according to Nassim.

He estimates that 45,000 live in London, 10,000 in Los Angeles and 3,500 in both Montreal and New York.

Iraqi Jews have a more “open” culture than other Sephardic Jews, says Rabbi Haim Ovadia of the largest Iraqi congregation in Los Angeles, Kahal Joseph, which has 400 families.

Ovadia believes a liberal mind-set may have brought higher assimilation rates to Iraqi Jews than their Sephardic counterparts.

There are more opportunities for women in Iraqi congregations, which allow Bat Mitzvahs and have women recite all the blessings, he says.

Iraqi Jews also emphasize life cycle events, Ovadia adds. One such custom is the festivity the night before the brit milah, or circumcision, in which the chair where the baby will be circumcised is tied with branches of myrtle. Ovadia suspects myrtle was chosen because the plant’s name in Arabic is el-yas, reminiscent of the prophet Eliyahu, who he says is associated with circumcision.

For now, Iraqi Jewish traditions appear to have their best shot at survival in the Western world.

What’s left of the Jewish community in Iraq prays at a synagogue with no rabbi and celebrates Jewish holidays discreetly to avoid attention.

“They are often attacked by the media, by politicians, and are prevented from earning their livelihoods,” according to an internal JDC document. “Jews cannot turn to the state for protection and cannot contact foreign Jewish communities for assistance.”

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