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In Iraq Visit, Jewish Officials Find Perils Remain for Baghdad’s Jews

June 25, 2003
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When the bombs started raining down on Baghdad in late March, most Jewish anxiety was focused on Israel, which had been the target of Iraqi missiles during the first Persian Gulf War.

But for a very small group of Jews in the Middle East, the danger was from American bombs.

Those Jews — the remnants of Baghdad’s once thriving Jewish community — are now the focus of a new welfare effort by international Jewish organizations, whose reach is extending into the Iraqi capital for the first time in decades.

Now that the smoke has cleared and Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime is gone, Baghdad’s Jews are tasting freedom for the first time.

Many are finding it fraught with peril.

“They’re very, very wary,” Rachel Zelon, vice president for program operations at the New York office of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, said upon her return Monday night from a week-long trip to Baghdad. She spoke to JTA from a hotel in Amman, Jordan.

“They’ve been alone and isolated for over 30 years, and now all of a sudden people keep knocking on their doors,” she said. “They’re very reluctant to open up because of the various circumstances that they’ve lived under for so long.”

“They are very secretive about the fact that they’re Jewish,” Zelon said.

There are at least 34 Jews left in Iraq’s capital, about half of them elderly. Long-time residents of the city, many of them are poor and lack basic needs such as clothing, medication and food — not to mention Jewish ritual objects.

Zelon and a senior official from the Jewish Agency for Israel, Jeff Kaye, sought to address those needs in the Iraqi capital last week. Kaye, who is the director of financial resource development and public affairs at the agency, brought the Jews prayer books and tefillin, among other things.

Zelon helped them obtain household items like sheets, towels, clothing and insulin.

The trip had special significance for Kaye: His wife’s parents are Iraqi exiles who came to Israel in 1951. “For many years, I’ve heard stories from my mother-in-law about how she and her family were humiliated and stripped of all their possessions and thrown across the border just because they wanted to go to Israel,” he said.

Kaye brought back photographs and video footage to Israel to show to his mother-in-law.

Zelon, who works in Manhattan, said the trip to Iraq was among the most remarkable she has undertaken for HIAS.

It took her several days of travel to arrive in the war-torn Iraqi capital, making the final leg in an overland convoy from Amman.

The scene on the Jordanian side of the border was chaotic, she said, with thousands of trucks idling, hundreds of Iraqi refugee families trying to get back home and several columns of Chevrolet Suburbans filled with members of the foreign press and international workers.

The Iraqi side, by contrast, was orderly, patrolled by American soldiers who seemed glad to run into fellow Americans. They deluged Zelon with phone numbers of their loved ones, asking her to contact them upon her return to America and assure them that the servicemen were safe overseas.

Perhaps the most dangerous part of the trip was the run down the lawless, six-lane highway from the border to Baghdad. Vehicles frequently are targeted by armed bandits and hijackers, and Zelon’s convoy traveled at speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour to avoid trouble.

Baghdad itself, Zelon said, seems to have suffered as much damage at the hands of Iraqis as at the hands of American soldiers, and gunfire is common.

“Everybody has a gun. You’re in the street and all of a sudden there’s gunfire and you don’t know where to hide,” Zelon said.

The chaos in Baghdad has been worrisome for the city’s Jews.

“There is a paradox regarding their security,” Kaye said. “Even though under the very cruel Saddam Hussein regime they were persecuted and had property confiscated, they were generally protected. Now,” the post-war instability “could lead to serious questions regarding their safety.”

While the Jews face no direct threat at the moment, they are laying low. For many families, only their closest neighbors know they’re Jews, Zelon said.

Some of those neighbors are Muslim or Christian friends who for years have helped the community’s older members survive.

A few, but not all, of Iraq’s Jews plan to leave to join relatives in England, Holland or Israel. But it could be a while before they get there: Iraq’s Jews don’t even have passports.

For now, Zelon said, Jewish organizations will focus on helping the community survive.

The assistance she offered during her trip to Baghdad “was a band-aid,” Zelon said. “It was really a fact-finding trip. There are needs that need to be addressed. Let’s find out first and foremost how they are, what they need right now. I think it’s premature to say anything about emigration.”

Zelon was scheduled to meet Kaye in Israel this week to discuss next steps. The Jewish Agency and HIAS say they are working together on the project.

“We are two organizations that work in tandem on a wide variety of projects,” Kaye said. “For the Jewish Agency, as a global Jewish organization, it was very important for us to bring the message to these people that there is a very large Jewish community that supports them.”

World Jewry largely has been powerless to help Iraqi Jews over the past half century. Though Baghdad’s lone synagogue, Twigg Avraham, today counts less than three dozen Jews, the city has a rich Jewish history.

After 90 percent of the country’s Jews were expelled or fled in the wake of Israel’s founding in 1948. Those who remained in Iraq — once the thriving center of diaspora Jewry — were subjected to regular harassment.

During the Saddam era, many local Jews saw their property confiscated and precious community heirlooms seized by Saddam’s secret police, the Mukhabarat.

Shortly after the war, American forces stumbled upon a treasure trove of Jewish artifacts in the basement of the bombed Mukhabarat headquarters. The basement was flooded, so American authorities froze the objects to protect them from further decay and summoned officials from the U.S. National Archives to deal with the find.

Jewish officials are being briefed on developments, and Kaye and Zelon were taken to view the artifacts while they were in Iraq.

For the time being, the fate of the artifacts, like that of Iraq’s Jews, remains unclear.

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