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Israel Turns 55 for Iraqi Israelis, War Brings Both Trauma and Hope for New Beginnings

April 30, 2003
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Like many Israelis, David Machlev was glued to his television set throughout the American-led war against Iraq.

But Machlev, a philosophy lecturer at Alma College in Tel Aviv who opposed the war, had different reasons than most for watching.

“I was very curious to see the Meir Tweg synagogue,” he recalls. “I think my parents were married there.”

Machlev’s parents came to Israel as part of the mass exodus of Iraqi Jews in the years following the 1948 founding of the State of Israel

The experience of Nuriel Zilha, an ombudsman for the Israeli government, was fairly typical: He was forced to leave his fortune behind, arriving in Israel with just the clothes on his body.

The Iraqi Jews arrived to Israel “with nearly nothing,” since Iraq confiscated and nationalized all their personal, communal and religious property, explains Mordechai Ben-Porat, who was instrumental in underground efforts to help the community emigrate.

Ben-Porat later founded the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Museum in Or Yehuda, a Tel Aviv suburb with one of the two largest concentrations of Iraqi Jews in Israel.

“We couldn’t get back to Iraq and take photographs, so we collected all the memories, all the songs here in Israel, and we started the museum,” he says.

In addition to replicas of Jewish objects from Iraq, the museum boasts a collection of original Jewish artifacts that somehow made it out of the country. It also has a life-size exhibit of a typical street scene in Baghdad’s Jewish ghetto.

The estimated 250,000 Israelis of Iraqi origin also have set up schools, synagogues, foundations, and restaurants throughout the country to support the community and pass on the rich Babylonian Jewish heritage.

On Jabotinsky Street in Ramat Gan, another Tel Aviv suburb with a heavy concentration of Iraqi Jews, you can buy glida mastik, an ice cream delicacy created by a Jewish entrepreneur in Baghdad decades ago. The recipe remains a family secret, passed down from generation to generation.

The third largest Jewish community in Israel, Iraqi Jews have been actively involved at all levels of Israeli society. Shortly after the community’s mass immigration, 17 percent of all Israeli doctors and 11 percent of all teachers were from Iraq.

Since that time, 30 Iraqi Jews have served in the Knesset — in fact, fully 10 percent of the legislators in the last Knesset alone had some Iraqi origin.

All of Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbis have come from families with Iraqi origins, including Ovadia Yosef and Mordechai Eliyahu.

Ten Supreme Court justices, and about 40 judges on other courts, have been of Iraqi descent.

Government leaders of Iraqi descent include Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who has served as defense minister and Labor Party chairman; Dalia Itzik, who has served as minister of trade; and Moshe Levy, the Israel Defense Force chief of staff from 1983-1987.

Amira Hess and Sami Michael, nationally renowned writers; Yair Dalal, an internationally known oud player; and Yossi Madmoni and David Ofek, movie producers, all are of Iraqi origin.

Iraqis in Israel also have helped found and lead movements for social change: They created the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, which fights for compensation for Jewish refugees from the Muslim world; and have been among the founders and leaders of Hakeshet Hademokratit Hamizrahi, a high-profile activist organization for Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin, where members joke about the group’s “Iraqi mafia.”

Hakeshet is one of the organizations addressing Iraqi Jews’ concern that their quick and successful integration often came at the price of their distinctive heritage.

“Iraqi Jews were in a trap,” explains Shoshana Gabay, the daughter of Iraqi Jews and one of Hakeshet’s founders and directors. “They had to disconnect from their homeland in order to be accepted in this country.”

Over the decades, Iraqi Israelis sometimes faced hostility and ridicule because of their ethnic background.

“Our conflict here is rooted in the pressure to bleach from ourselves all remains of our Arabic inclinations,” Gabay says. “Iraqi Jews were very much a part of Iraqi society. We were part of the foundation of the country. When we left and came here, there was a huge crisis.”

Such feelings of cultural trauma seem to have resurfaced for the older generation of Iraqi Israelis during the two Persian Gulf Wars.

Israelis of all ethnicities may have felt they were watching a movie rerun during the recent war, but many Iraqi Jews could not get over the renewed shock of seeing their birthplace bombed.

Their reactions to the American attack were as mixed.

Some were deeply concerned about the neighbors they had left behind. Others saw the attack as punishment for those who had persecuted Jews in Iraq.

Still others felt the war was a tragedy, but that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was best for the Iraqi people in the long run.

Regardless of whether they were for or against the war, Jews of Iraqi descent seem excited about the sudden possibility that they may be able to visit Iraq in the near future.

Ben-Porat estimates that tens of thousands of Iraqi-Israelis will visit the country, and he believes the community will play an important role in building bridges between Israel and a new Iraq.

Accountant Salman Khalastchi is confident his community will be on the forefront of transforming the Iraqi-Israeli relationship.

“When peace will come,” he says, “we can go and pray in our holy places that are left in Iraq. From the other side, our brothers and sisters from Iraq can come to Israel and pray in the holy places of Muslims and Christians, under the shadow of peace. God will hear and answer our prayer, insh’alla.”

For now, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Mossad security agency are trying to bring the remaining 35 or Jews in Iraq to Israel.

Tikva Ziv, professor of Hebrew at the Technological College of Beersheba and a sabra of Iraqi descent, thinks that bringing the remaining Jews to Israel will be a positive step.

“This is the Jewish state. They don’t have to hide here, to be afraid. Here they can be free with the rest of us,” she says.

But the Jews left in Iraq reportedly are resisting attempts to bring them to Israel, arguing that they want to stay in the land of their ancestry and birth.

“I just hope that Israel won’t decide for those Jews,” Gabay says. “In 1950-1951, we did not have the choice to decide. I hope Israel will not ‘save’ them, because maybe they don’t want to be saved. Maybe they want to stay in their own country.”

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