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Jews of Iraqi Descent Follow Election, but Few Are Expected to Cast Ballots

January 24, 2005
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Carole Basri has a few deaths to avenge. The descendant of Iraqi Jews is close to people whose family members were hung in Baghdad’s public square by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1969.

Those who met their death were falsely accused of espionage for the United States or Israel.

That’s why Basri, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who has accompanied U.S. officials to Iraq to help fight corruption, registered to vote Wednesday in Iraq’s first democratic election, scheduled for Jan. 30.

Voters will determine Iraq’s 275-seat Transitional National Assembly, which will draft a constitution and elect a president.

Jews “were persecuted like everyone else under Saddam, except we were the first,” Basri said. “I want to strike back against what happened in the past, and the best way to strike back against that is to be for democracy.”

But few of the 15,000 Iraqi Jews in the United States, or the 244,000 in Israel, are expected to cast ballots in the Jan. 30 vote.

“We were all raised on decades of enmity with Saddam Hussein and his predecessors,” Jacky Hugi, a son of Iraqi immigrants who writes on Arab affairs for the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv, told JTA. “There’s too much water under that bridge.”

Even before Saddam became president, he managed to create a secret police force in 1968. An agent was assigned to watch each of the country’s Jews, who then numbered about 3,500.

Jews were prohibited from traveling more than three-quarters of a mile from home or owning a telephone, Basri said.

Iraqi Jewish expatriates should vote in the upcoming election to honor the memory of Saddam’s victims and to stand in solidarity with the new Iraq, Basri said.

Not everyone agrees — or has the ability to vote.

The five U.S. voting centers for Iraqi expatriates — in Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville and Washington — are far from the main concentrations of Iraqi Jews here in New York and Los Angeles.

Voters must make two trips to the voting centers — one to register, during a weeklong period that ends Jan. 28, and one to vote between Jan. 28-30.

Iraqi-American Jewish leaders describe mixed reactions in the community to the election.

Some display interest in a democratic Iraq, while others lack the care or motivation to vote — even as one party in the race, led by Mithal al-Alusi, calls for diplomatic relations with Israel.

Some wonder whether their vote could make a difference, given the small numbers of Iraqi Jews in the United States. Others argue that they owe nothing to a country that kicked them out around the time of the creation of Israel, rendering them penniless refugees.

Turnout from Israel also is expected to be moderate. Since Iraq still doesn’t recognize the Jewish state, the nearest absentee ballot station is in Jordan — not a friendly locale for Israelis since the intifada began.

“I know of no Israelis who plan to vote,” said Mordechai Ben-Porat, head of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, which represents Iraqi expatriates in Israel. “Anyone who wants to take part would have to travel to Amman twice — once to register, and again to cast a ballot. That’s a lot to ask.”

According to Ben-Porat, many Iraqi Jews who remember the material and intellectual riches of their native land would like to play a part in or at least witness Iraq’s rehabilitation after Saddam’s overthrow.

During the 1991 Gulf war, several of Saddam’s Scud missiles landed in Ramat Gan, a Tel Aviv suburb home to a huge Iraqi expatriate community. It was an irony lost on no one, and few Israelis believe the average Iraqi is now ready to embrace them.

“It’s not my country anymore,” Iraq-born author Eli Amir said.

Other notable expatriates in Israel are Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a former defense minister who recently rejoined the Cabinet on the Labor Party ticket, and outspoken liberal lawmaker Ran Cohen. Both have publicly downplayed the idea of voting for a democratic government in Baghdad.

That sense of alienation likely will increase with time: Just 29 percent of Iraqi-Israelis were actually born in Iraq, while the rest were born to expatriate parents. This new generation is unlikely to find its interest in Iraq rekindled.

“With all due respect to the Iraqi elections, we are Israelis and have enough local politics to keep us occupied,” Hugi said.

In the United States, many Iraqi expatriates say they feel deeply tied to their land of origin and are following developments there closely.

“They want to be connected because this is a big part of who they are,” Basri said. “They all still speak the language, cook the food.”

The Jewish community in Iraq, which today has dwindled to about a dozen people, is one of the oldest in the world. Jews first arrived there as slaves in 586 B.C.E. after the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple and conquered the kingdom of Judah.

That’s why Jews from the area often refer to themselves as “Babylonian Jews,” emphasizing their connection to an area that was the center of Jewish scholarship from the seventh to eleventh centuries C.E., bequeathing the Babylonian Talmud.

At its modern height in the 1940s, Iraq’s Jewish community included some 130,000 people and reached leading positions in business and government. More than half of Iraq’s importers and exporters were Jews, according to Itamar Levin, author of “Locked Doors: The Seizure of Jewish Property in Arab Countries.”

Most lived in Baghdad, with the second-largest population in the port city of Basra.

But the 20th century brought Arab nationalism and anti-Semitism. State-sponsored persecution around the time of the birth of Israel forced all but 7,000 of Iraq’s Jews to flee, most with little more than the shirts on their backs.

Iraqi-American Jewish leaders are notifying their communities of the logistics involved in voting — prospective voters must provide documents showing they were born in Iraq or to a father born in Iraq, along with valid identification — but aren’t necessarily pushing it.

“Who am I to tell them what to do?” said Albert Nassim, chairman of the board of the Babylonian Jewish Center, an Iraqi synagogue on Long Island.

Haim Ovadia, rabbi of Kahal Joseph, an Iraqi synagogue in Los Angeles, says supporting democracy is a “universal duty” and plans to use his Shabbat sermon this week to urge his congregants to vote.

Ovadia said his community is abuzz over the election, and he has received many e-mail inquiries about it.

“We want to support democracy and liberty and freedom wherever we can, so if we’re given an opportunity, we should use it,” said Ovadia, who was born in Israel but whose parents were born in Baghdad.

Turnout may not match interest, however.

The Washington-area voting center in New Carollton, Md., has not been busy, said Maurice Shohet, an Iraqi-born Jew who is one of the center’s two field coordinators.

“So far it’s less than expected,” he said. He wouldn’t say how many Iraqi-Americans have registered to vote or speculate about what percentage of registered voters might be Jewish, due to regulations of the International Organization for Migration, which is running the voting.

Winter weather, the Martin Luther King Day holiday weekend and simple distance are deterring Iraqi expatriates from the New York area, for whom Washington is the closest voting center.

For Shohet, president of Congregation Bene Naharayim, an Iraqi synagogue in Queens, voting is not just a Jewish responsibility but a universal one.

“You would like democracy to spread around the world,” he said. “I came from Iraq and I would like this process to succeed.”

(JTA Correspondent Dan Baron contributed to this story from Israel.)

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