We read of Iraqi protests every day, but do we remember Iraqi Jewry?
We read of Iraqi protests every day, but do we remember Iraqi Jewry?

Since protests broke out in Iraq in October, at least four hundred protesters have been killed and thousands injured by Iraqi security forces.  In the midst of Iraq’s demonstrations, which are among the largest and bloodiest protests in modern history, we must remember one of the oldest communities of Iraq that no longer live there: Iraqi Jews.

The modern nation-state of Iraq came into existence in the early twentieth century. During ancient times, lands that now constitute Iraq gave rise to some of the world’s earliest civilizations such as Assyria. The name for the region in the Assyrian language is Beth Nahrain or “the land between the rivers”, also known as the cradle of civilization.

The Jewish presence in Assyria began after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the eighth century BCE and the exiling of the ten tribles.  Later, Jews from the tribe of Judah arrived in Iraq.when Babylon (today's Iraq) destroyed the First Temple. Jewish study thrived in Iraqi yeshivas where the Babylonian Talmud was compiled in the 6th century.

Sadly, this ancient community of Iraq is almost extinct now.  “Jews lived in that region for more than 2,600 years, but only about five Jews live in Iraq today as far as we know,” Lily Shor, the Director of External Relations and Events of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center (BJHC), said.

The anti-Jewish pogrom, also known as Farhud, that broke out on June 1 in 1941 was the beginning of the end for the country’s Jewish population.  “A turning point for Jews in Iraq was the pogrom in 1941 influenced by Nazi propaganda during World War II. Around 200 Jews were murdered and this number stems from only those whose names were reported; many more could not be identified and were buried in a mass grave. During and following the pogrom, the Jews understood that there was no future for them in Iraq. This led to a massive emigration in 1950 and 1951. A hundred and ten thousand Jews came to Israel.”

The Iraqi government, which had long oppressed and murdered its Assyrian, Jewish, and Yazidi minorities, then used the 1967 Arab–Israeli War or the Six-Day War as another excuse to target its remaining Jewish citizens.

“In the 1960s,” said Shor, “following the Six-Day War, the Iraqi regime’s revenge developed into severe persecutions against the Jews. Many lost their jobs, were not allowed to study in universities, their bank accounts and property were frozen, others were arrested, and many were murdered in prison or in their homes. In January, 1969, nine Jews were executed publicly in the Tahrir Square in Baghdad while tens of thousands of Iraqis who were invited by the government and brought to town in special buses came to celebrate this barbarian act and danced around the bodies of the Jews who were hanged there. 

“In Basra, too, Jews were murdered and executed.  Hundreds of Jews decided to flee, leaving everything behind, locking their doors and taking only a small bag with them. Almost all the community escaped. The schools were shut down and only one Synagogue served the few hundreds who remained there. Those Jews found a way to leave Iraq in the following years.”

The ongoing current massive protests across Iraq started in the same square, the Tahrir Square, in which the Jews were hanged fifty years ago, said Shor.

“When I saw the Freedom Monument in the Tahrir Square in Baghdad on TV, tears filled my eyes. We cannot forget the TV transmission all day long on January 27 in 1969 and in the following days, showing the bodies of the innocent young Jewish men while tens of thousands of Iraqis celebrating the deaths of the ‘spies’ and dancing around the gallows. This trauma will never leave the hearts and minds of the Jews who lived in Iraq at that time.

“Now I see these young Iraqi protesters and realize that they are not the same people who rejoiced in the murder of the Jews. They are victims exactly like us, trapped under a government which harms its people instead of fulfilling its duty of protecting them and providing for them. They only want to live their lives in peace. I feel strong solidarity with these young people in the Tahrir Square and proud of them for not retreating from their goals despite of all they have suffered. I wish them success with all my heart, and I do hope that Iraq will one day be a prosperous, calm country that recognizes equal rights for all: Muslims, Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Assyrians, Armenians, and all others.”

Juliana Taimoorazy, the founding president of Iraqi Christian Relief Council and an advocacy fellow of Philos Project, visited the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in November. She said:

“I met Lily at the museum and felt in my heart her deep longing and pain for the place she and her family were born. We wept together for the ancient homeland of Iraqi Jews and Assyrians.  I also visited northern Iraq in 2018 with my Jewish guests. We celebrated Shabbat at the site of a synagogue there that was in ruins. The townspeople who are Assyrian came to us and supported the Shabbat ceremony. Then an Assyrian old man approached the Jewish guests and wept, saying ‘I miss the Hebrew language. I miss our Jewish neighbors. I wish we could live together again.’

“A lot of Jews from Iraq speak Assyrian. Many Jewish taxi drivers that I have met in Israel are descendants of the Jews from Iraq and they speak the Assyrian/Aramaic language. Preserving the language and culture of Jews from Assyria/Iraq is of utmost importance to us because when the members of this generation pass away, so will the culture they have brought from Assyria - if it is not preserved.”

The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda, Israel is both a research institute and a museum.  According to its website, it was “established in 1973 to preserve the history of the Jewish community of Iraq and to ensure that it remains part of the future narrative of the Jewish nation. To this end, the Center fosters research, preservation and publication of the culture and folklore of Iraqi Jewry.” Shor explains the museum’s mission:

“The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center (BJHC) brings the story of the Jewish people which was brought 2,600 ago to the region that is today called Iraq and the generations that have lived there until today through exhibitions, research, conferences, and various cultural activities for school students, and the wide public, especially for the young generation. Lately, the descendants of the Iraqi immigrants have taken a growing interest in their roots as well as Iraqi Jews from all over the world. The BJHC is the home to all Iraqis. We also welcome gladly non-Jewish Iraqis who are very enthusiastic when they visit the Museum and meet with Iraqi Jews.” 

The museum’s work is immensely important for Shor as she was born in Baghdad and escaped from the country in 1971 when she was 14.

“The whole Jewish community was terrorized after the Six Day War. My father too was followed by Iraqi Secret Police agents like many of the Jews. Everyone’s life was in danger and it was only a matter of time to be arrested. There was only one solution – to escape. My family, like many of our Jewish friends, locked the doors of their houses and fled with one suitcase.  We were lucky that we were able to come to Israel; we are so lucky to have a country for the Jews.”