Iraq’s Jewish community dwindles to fewer than five
The nation press services
2021-03-29 | Since 3 Month
The death of Dhafer Eliyahu hit Iraq hard, not only because the doctor treated the neediest for free, but because with his passing, only four Jews now remain in the country. At the Habibiya Jewish Cemetery in the capital Baghdad, wedged between the Martyr Monument erected by former ruler Saddam Hussein and the restive Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, an aged Muslim man still tends to the graves, but visitors are rare. The day of Eliyahu’s burial, “it was me who prayed over his grave,” the doctor’s sister told AFP. “There were friends” of other faiths who prayed too, each in their own way, she added, refusing to give her name. To hear Jewish prayer out in the open is rare now in Baghdad, where there is but one synagogue that only opens occasionally and no rabbis. But Jewish roots in Iraq go back some 2,600 years.
According to biblical tradition, they arrived in 586 BC as prisoners of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II after he destroyed Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. More than 2,500 years later, Jews were the second largest community in Baghdad, making up 40 percent of its inhabitants. Some were very prominent members of society like Sassoon Eskell, Iraq’s first ever finance minister in 1920, who made a big impression on British adventurer and writer Gertrude Bell.
Today, “one prays at home,” said a Baghdad resident knowledgeable of the city’s Jewish community. According to Edwin Shuker, a Jew born in Iraq in 1955 and exiled in Britain since he was 16, “there are only four Jews with Iraqi nationality who are descendant of Jewish parents” left in the country, not including the autonomous Kurdish region. A turning point for Jewish history in Iraq came with the first pogroms in the mid-20th century. In June 1941, the Farhud pogrom in Baghdad left more than 100 Jews dead, properties looted and homes destroyed. In 1948, Israel was created. Almost all of Iraq’s 150,000 Jews went into exile in the ensuing years. Their identity cards were taken away and replaced by documents that made them targets wherever they showed them. The majority preferred to sign documents saying they would “voluntarily” leave and renounce their nationality and property. Still today, Shuker said, Iraqi law forbids the restoration of their citizenship. By 1951, 96 percent of the community had left. Almost all the rest follow after the public hangings of “Israeli spies” in 1969 by the Baath party, which had just come to power off the back of a coup. “Promotion of Zionism” was punishable by death and that legislation has remained unchanged.