From 150,000 to None: The Jews of Iraq
Nearly 3,000 years ago, after the destruction of Jerusalem’s First Temple, the Jewish people were forced to disperse, with many ending up in Babylon, now modern-day Iraq. Throughout the years, the Jews of Iraq maintained their Jewish identity through culture and traditions, such as observing Shabbat and keeping kosher. They spoke Judeo-Arabic — a language that distinguished them from the broader community.
During the 12th century, Iraq was home to 40,000 Jews, with 10 yeshivot and 28 synagogues. Tolerance toward Jews afforded them freedom to exercise their religious beliefs and customs. More recently, in the early 1900s, Jews played a vital role in civic life; for example a third of the Baghdad Chambers of Commerce were Jewish. They also filled key roles in the Iraqi parliament, and many held important positions in wider society.
But when the Zionist movement first emerged in the 1930s and conflicts erupted, the tolerance toward Jews began to decline. In the year of Israel’s independence (1948), the Iraqi authorities outlawed Zionism, making it a crime carrying a lengthy prison sentence. The Jews of Iraq faced more antisemitism along with rising anti-Zionism. Almost 120,000 of the 150,000 Jews in Iraq were airlifted to Israel between 1949 and 1951. Those left behind were soon unable to leave, as Iraq banned emigration to Israel.
However, despite the increasing restrictions, many led happy lives during these years. My mother recalls the prosperous periods during that era. Her family often spent weekends at the Jewish country club, embarked on many trips and spent Shabbats with friends and family in synagogue. She describes their early lives in Iraq as “luxurious.”
In 1963, the restrictions took a turn for the worse, as Jews were banned from buying new properties and were forced to carry yellow identity cards wherever they went. The Jews also faced public hangings during that same decade. In 1967, after the Six-Day War, the well-being of the Jewish people in Iraq swiftly deteriorated: Jewish bank accounts were frozen, Jews were subjected to house arrest — even setting foot in the streets posed a danger. My mother recalls that Jews were even banned from using telephones. My uncles were arrested, thrown into jail and slashed with whips and electrical cords for no other reason than their Judaism.
With rising levels of anti-Jewish persecution in Iraq, Jews had limited options for places of refuge. Israel proved to be the most important one. After connecting with a Kurdish taxi driver, my maternal grandfather arranged for my family’s escape. The driver transported them to the border, and my grandpa bribed the guards; if they were caught escaping, they could have been executed. Such a risk was frightening, yet necessary.
Jews were not welcome in Iraq anymore, but they were finally able to return to their ancestral homeland in the newly-formed State of Israel. After they crossed the border to Iran, they made their way to Tehran, where Israeli agents escorted them to the Israeli embassy. At the embassy, my family arranged the passports and documentation needed for their eventual arrival in Israel.
Leaving every item they owned behind (not to mention thousands of years of Jewish history), the Jews of Iraq were forced to flee, as were Jewish communities across the Middle East during the mid-20th century. It’s difficult to comprehend the fear my mother felt leaving her home. However, this time, they had somewhere to turn — a place they could instantly call home. Arriving in Israel, my mother recalls the moment they finally reached their homeland, filled with warmth and welcome.
Today, there are reportedly just a handful of Jews in Iraq. The community that thrived for over 2,000 years has now vanished. However, many of the former Jews of Iraq are now flourishing again in the State of Israel. We often take for granted how lucky we are to have a state we can call our own. For as long as Jews have existed, they have faced persecution all around the world, resulting in expulsions and even industrialized genocide. The Jews of Iraq are yet another example of how a vibrant community escaped murderous antisemitism. Today, with an increase in antisemitic attacks on campuses, we cannot become complacent. We must protect Israel and defend the country for our own safety.
Nicole Shamash is a 2019-2020 Fellow for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA).