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Baghdad in Former Times

Aziz al-Haj, the eminent Iraqi Kurdish intellectual and former representative of Iraq at the Unesco in Paris wrote a series of articles in the Arabic daily "Al-Quds al-Arabi" published in London on the recent history of the Jews of Iraq.

In his last article published on January 18, 1999, he spoke of the "Farhud" tragedy which occurred on the 1st and 2nd of June, 1941. He said Iraq was a tolerant country where all religions and sects lived together in perfect unity. The Jews held a prominent position in the country's economic, commercial and cultural life. They had their own rabbinical organisation and their representatives in the Senate and Chamber of Deputies.

He proceeded to state he remembered his class in the High Teachers' College, English section, during the years 1944-47. The students were 4 Jews (of which one girl), 2 Christians (one from the North), a girl from Mosul, 2 Moslems (a Sunni girl from Baghdad) and a Kurdish Faili. There was also a Shiite student from Baghdad. All this colourful formation lived and studied in perfect harmony. The Jews took part in the State activities. They had professors, and officials in the Tax department, Customs and Excise, railways, Post and Telegraphs and the Finance Ministry. Since 1932 they performed the Military Service with the other nationals. Among the prominent Jews should be mentioned: Sasson Heskell the Minister of Finance in the 1920's, David Samra Vice-President of the Court of Cassation, Menahem Daniel and Ezra Daniel senators, men of letters Meer Basri, Anwar Shaul, Naim Kattan, Murad al-Imari. Of those who participated in the political parties Kattan, Shalom Darwish members of the National Democratic Party, Jahuda Saddiq, Yusuf Zilkha, Masrur Kattan and other communists who formed the Anti-Zionist League in 1946. Jewish merchants were in the majority of the Chamber of Commerce. In the years 1935-36 the Administrative Committee of the Chamber comprised 20 members of whom 12 were Jews.

Before 1931, the Jewish Committee organisation was regulated by the old Turkish "Hakhamkhanah" Law. In 1931 a new law was enacted to regulate the Jewish organisation. Otherwise the community avails itself of all common legal rights and responsibilities.

The Jews preceded other communities in the field of education for both sexes. The first school to be opened was the Alliance school in 1865, and was modelled on the European curricula. French and English were taught in addition to Hebrew, Arabic and Turkish, as well as modern science. The Alliance Society of Paris established subsequently schools for girls and boys in Baghdad and other Iraqi towns.

Since the 1920's the number of Jewish schools increased. The Jews were also enrolled in government schools. Jewish students studied also in the Law and Medicine colleges and the other higher institutions of learning. Even in 1950 when the infamous Law of De-Nationalisation was enacted, the Jewish community had 19 schools. The number of pupils was 6918 boys and 1893 girls. The number of students decreased after the mass exodus of 1950/51 and most of the schools were closed.

The Institute of Contemporary Jewry attached to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem published a research on one aspect of the Jewish education in Iraq, ie., the higher education. A list of Jews who finished their higher education in the country during the years 1910-50 was published. It comprised 10 or 15 Jews who studied law in Istanbul in 1901-10. During the period 1941-50 about 600 Jews graduated in colleges and universities in Iraq and abroad, more than 100 of them in the year 1950.

The Jews of Baghdad took a prominent part in the social life. I remember the rabbinical delegates who attended the special prayers for the martyrs of the "Wathba" (uprising) of January 1948. Also, the Jewish delegation who went to Najaf to take part in the prayers after the funeral of the Shiite Imam Sayid Abul-Hassan.

The co-existence and close relations between the followers of the different religions and sects was exemplary. Jewish schools, commercial offices and medical surgeries were close to those of Moslems, Christians and Sabeans.

Baghdad streets were trodden by Kurds, Arabs, Armenians and Turks. Baghdad was in effect a Tower of Babel displaying a rainbow of languages and costumes. The Baghdad customs at the Mustansiriyah Tigris shore was thronged by Kurdish porters, Moslem and Jewish merchants, Jewish, Moslem and Christian officials.

This was the life in Baghdad in former times!


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