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My Honorary Work for the Jewish Community of Iraq

by Meer S. Basri

In the autumn of 1945 the late Rabbi Sasson Khedhouri prevailed upon me to become a member of the Jewish Lay Council which administered the Community's religious endowments, properties, schools and hospitals in Baghdad. This proved to be the beginning of many years which I devoted to the service of the Community in an honorary capacity. Rabbi Sasson Khedouri was President of the Community since 1933. The chairman of the Council was Eliahou Haim Tawfiq and the vice-chairman Advocate Sion Shoua Jiji.

I found the Community's administration chaotic and inefficient. The secretary had tendered his resignation and the employees and committees ceased to function regularly. I strove immediately to re-organise the offices. I selected a young, hard-working lawyer Salim Khabbazah, as secretary and had a new accountant and clerks appointed.

We prepared new regulations for the Committee responsible for the administration of schools, hospitals and properties of the Community as the old regulations, issued in 1929, have become obsolete. New committees were formed to supervise the activities in accordance with the new regulations. Gourji Heskell, a lawyer and former Land Registry official, was asked to make an up-to-date record of the Community's estates and Waqfs (trusts) complete with detailed information and title-deeds.

In the autumn of 1947, the Lay Council was re-elected under the chairmanship of Eliahou Haim Tawfiq. I was chosen as vice-chairman. The members were Abraham Elkabir, Jacob Shelomo, Advocate Sion Jiji, advocate Abdallah Sion Shina, Menashi Shaoul Shashoua, etc. However, the year 1948 augured badly for the Jews of Iraq. The Government took the pretext of the partition of Palestine and the proclamation of the State of Israel to declare martial law and harass its Jewish citizens. Hundreds of Jews, young and old, were imprisoned for spurious accusations. Government officials were summarily dismissed. The Jews were forbidden to leave the country, and those who tried to depart clandestinely to neighbouring Iran were incarcerated and subjected to torture and outrageous treatment.

Rabbi Sasson Khedhouri, the Lay Council and the leading Jewish notables, Senator Ezra Menahem Daniel, Deputy Abraham Haim, Sasson Abed, Moshi Shohet, Abraham Elkabir, Abraham Nahom and others initiated forlorn efforts for the protection and defence of the Jews. We interviewed the Regent, the Prime Minister, ministers and high officials and submitted addresses and supplications to stop the rising campaign of persecution and vilification. Every effort was exerted to alleviate the pains of our poor community.

In October 1949 Rabbi Sasson Khedhouri resigned his office of President feeling unable to help his co-religionists. The late Heskel David Shemtob was elected chairman of the Lay Council and thus became ex officio President of the community. I was myself re-elected as vice-chairman.

After a few months, in 1950, a new government was formed headed by Tawfiq al-Suwaidi with Saleh Jabr as Minister of the Interior. The Ministry enacted a law for the voluntary relinquishment by Iraqi Jews of their nationality preliminary to their leaving the country. The community made arrangements for the voyage by air of the persons deprived of their nationality. Subsequently, with the concurrence of the Minister of Interior, a special committee was formed to work in close touch with the Nationality and Passport Department and supervise the travel arrangements. Its chairman was Sasson Sion Abed and the members Abraham Elkabir and Moshi David Shohet.

I resigned from the Lay Council in October 1950.

In the middle of 1951, the transportation of de-nationalised Jews to Israel came to an end. Many thousands of Iranian Jews who had lived in Iraq, most of them probably for hundreds of years, but without acquiring the Iraqi nationality, left in the meantime for their country of origin. About 15,000 Jews remained in Iraq, mostly domiciled in Baghdad.

In 1953 Heskel Shemtob, the Acting President of the Community, tendered his resignation to the Ministry of Justice. The Ministry re-appointed Rabbi Sasson Khedhouri as acting President. He kept his post until his death in May 1971. Advocate Naji Chachak was named secretary to the Community.

In the meantime, the Israelite Community Law of 1931 was repealed. The Ministry of Justice issued instructions governing the administration of the Jewish Iraqi Community. The Lay Council was abolished to be replaced by an Administrative Committee for Iraqi Jews entrusted with the management of Jewish affairs, synagogues, schools, properties and religious and cultural bequests. The first Administrative Committee was elected under the chairmanship of Farid David Samra. In 1958 a new Committee was elected with the late Salman Daniel as chairman. It reorganised the School Committee and asked me to head it, with Joseph Reuben Masri as a member and Abdallah Shaoul Obadiah, headmaster of the Frank Iny School, as secretary.

The Administrative Committee remained in office until 1966. However, its chairman Salman Daniel resigned for health reasons. He was succeeded by the vice-chairman Heskel Setty. Mr Setty died in office and was succeeded by his deputy Naim Reuben Masri. The late Eliahou Ezra Khalastchi was chosen as vice-chairman.

The Ministry of Justice decided in 1966 to dissolve the Committee and appoint an interim committee headed by the acting President of the Community Rabbi Sasson Khedouri, with Advocate Salman Saleh Elkabir and three other members, to manage affairs until a new committee is elected by members of the community. Accordingly, elections were held in February 1967. I was appointed as chairman of the new Administrative Committee, with David Nessim Khalastchy as vice-chairman and Menashi Shaoul Shashoua, Morris Menashi Khalastchi and Joseph Jacob Zilkha as members.

We proceeded to re-organise the administration of the community but were overtaken soon by events. In June 1967, the Six-Day war broke out with Israel. The Iraqi Government adopted immediately an oppressive policy against all Jews whose number dwindled to about 3,300 persons, including women and children. Many Jewish merchants were arrested and jailed without trial. Restrictions were imposed on the movement of Jews inside Iraq and the sale of their property. Telephones were removed from Jewish homes and offices. The few employees in the government and companies were dismissed, pharmacies and commercial firms closed, and Jewish students refused admission to universities and higher educational institutes. The President of the Community and the Administrative Committee renewed their efforts in defending the community and pleading for the restoration of its rights, releasing the detainees and the removal of restrictions.

Matters took a turn to the worse in July 1968 on the advent of the Baath Party to power. A number of Jews, together with Moslems and Christians, were arrested accused of treason and spying, tried by a martial court in denial of the elementary rudiments of justice and executed publicly in the midst of macabre rejoicings of the populace and the President of the Republic Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, himself. Many other Jews were incarcerated and tortured to death. More than 1,300 Jews left Iraq clandestinely, fleeing the persecution, to Iran, in 1970-71, in dire circumstances by way of the rugged Kurdish mountains. Then the Iraqi Government decided at last to grant passports to the Jews and allow them to leave the country, forfeiting their nationality if they failed to return within three months, and their property confiscated.

Rabbi Sasson Khedhouri died in May 1971. I was appointed acting President of the Community in addition to the chairmanship of the Administrative Committee.

In 1972-73, tragic events took place when 28 Jews were abducted at different times by the Security Police from their homes or the street presumably killed. All my endeavours on their behalf were fruitless except that I was able to save the life of three persons who were released after one month of detention and grim torture.

Passports were withheld again after the Yom Kippur War of 1973. After many pleadings with the Authorities, the Jews were again permitted to leave the country.

I was re-elected twice, in 1971 and 1974, to the chairmanship of the Administrative Committee and the Presidency of the Community. I finally left Iraq with my family in October 1974. We lived in Amsterdam for a few months and then settled in London.

The number of Jews remaining in Iraq dropped to not more than 350 persons. Most of them reside in Baghdad, but a few are domiciled in Basra and Hit on the Euphrates.

Reuben Naji Elias, vice-chairman of the Administrative Committee succeeded me as chairman and President of the Community. Jewish schools were taken over by the Government in 1974 along with all other Christian and private educational institutions. However, the Administrative Committee still manages the tiny community’s affairs, properties and religious bequests. Help is extended to the poor and aged who form a large part of the remnants. The Jewish holy shrines, the tombs of Joshua the High Priest, the Prophet Ezechiel and Ezra the Scribe are in the hands of Moslems. The Prophet Nahum's tomb at the village of Alqosh is under the custody of the Chaldean Christian Bishop. All these shrines are revered and well looked after by all sections of the population. The Jews are permitted to visit them and to exercise their religion freely.

After more than 2,500 years, Jewish settlement in Iraq, the Land of the Twin Rivers, has come to an end, with all its vicissitudes and glories. It bequeathed a most exalted and holy heritage to the Jewish people and the Mosaic religion: the Babylonian Talmud.

P.S. The above was written in 1975 after I settled with my family in London. Since then most Jews who remained in Iraq left the country. Now, the community dwindled to not more than 50 or 60 persons, including women and children. Reuben Naji Elias went to Holland in 1998, and the community is now headed by Abraham Joseph Saleh Shohet, aged 76. He still manages its synagogue (Meir Toeg's), trusts (Waqfs) and properties with no interference by the Government.

On October 4, 1998 a Palestinian entered into the Community Offices in Mustansir Street and killed the accountant and clerk and two Moslems who happened to be there. The offender was arrested and committed to trial for murder and was hanged in June 1999.

 

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