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The articles in this issue have been divided up into the following categories







The Jews of Iraq

by Naim Dangoor

Congress Bulletin Montreal May-June 1971

Hebrew Associations with Iraq go back to the time of Abraham who left Ur for Canaan by divine command around 1800 BCE because of religious intolerance. Both Isaac and Jacob took wives from the old country and eleven of Jacob’s twelve children were born in Iraq.

The Jews appear again on the scene when, twelve centuries later, in 597 BCE, King Yehoyachin and 18,000 of the leading citizens of Judah were brought captive to Babylon. The people of Judah had been in two minds regarding foreign policy. The Hawks wanted to defend their country’s independence. The Doves, led by the prophet Jeremiah, wanted to come to terms with the moderate King Nebuchadnezzar.

Eleven years afterwards Nebuchadnezzar came and razed Jerusalem to the ground, killed or dispersed the 4million inhabitants and took back with him 100,000 able-bodied men to dredge the silting irrigation canals of Babylonia, which is Southern Iraq, Northern Iraq, which depends on rainwater, is usually referred to as Mesopotamia. (The Jewish people have not recovered from that disaster).

Jeremiah had really very little interest in politics but he had a grand vision of establishing God’s Kingdom on Earth. Nebuchadnezzar offered him safe passage to Babylon but he was not willing to face the bitter exiles. However, he sent them the following message which became in a way the charter of the Jewish Diaspora: "these are the words of the Lord of Host, the God of Israel: to all the exiles whom I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce; marry wives and beget sons and daughters… and seek the welfare of the City to which I have carried you off and pray to the Lord for it, for in its peace you will have peace". In Babylon the Diaspora became a way of life.

(In time the Babylonians came to treat their exiles well and the latter gradually took the position rather of colonists than of captives. Lands were allotted to them and they grew to love and own the soil they cultivated, some of which has remained in Jewish ownership until modern times).

In exile, the formula was – let us preserve the Torah so that the Torah will preserve us, a nation without a State of its own; and to hope that in time a Mashiyah will appear who will lead us back to the Promised Land. In 539 BCE the Persian King Koresh, Cyrus the Great, who is named in the Bible as Mashiyah, defeated Babylon and offered to repatriate the liberated Jews. But only 40,000 returned – the rest, about 80,000, encouraged by the Persians, stayed on to prosper in the rich land of the rivers, astride the main trade routes between East and West.

"By the Rivers of Babylon, there we decided to stay; we also wept when we remembered Zion."

The aim of the Persians was to create a buffer State. In Babylon, this Jewish buffer State retained its importance on and off for over 1,000 years. For example, in the year 363 CE the Roman Emperor Julian, who renounced Christianity, vainly tried to win over to his side the Babylonian and Mesopotamian Jewries in preparation of his contemplated invasion of Persia. He wrote to them, "When I have successfully concluded the War with Persia I will rebuild with my own efforts the sacred city of Jerusalem that you may glorify the most high God therein." But the community remained loyal to Persia. This loyalty had been a major factor in the disastrous Jewish war with Rome which ended with the destruction of the Second Temple.

It is interesting to observe here that in 1971 Iran celebrated the 2500th anniversary, a Jubilee of Jubilees, of Cyrus’s Empire. As Israel was not going to be represented I offered to the Iranian Embassy to lead a delegation of Iraqi Jews to Persepolis to pay homage to the memory of Cyrus and his enlightened and tolerant rule. Teheran found it difficult to arrange this at short notice and we were invited instead to the reception at the Savoy Hotel which was attended by the Diplomatic Corps and other distinguished guests including members of the government, when I and twenty members of the community delivered to the Ambassador an illuminated scroll to commemorate the occasion. The Shah later expressed his appreciation and thanks.

The Babylonian Ezra gave Judaism the decisive impulse that eventually produced the Pharisaic Movement and the rabbinical system. He changed the Hebrew alphabet, started the synagogue and set himself to make the Torah the governing force in Jewish Life. Seeing what happened to the Lost Ten Tribes, Ezra fixed Jewish priorities. Top priority is the preservation of the Torah. Second priority – the survival of the Jewish people and third priority – the establishment of a Jewish State. He was in a real sense the true founder of traditional Judaism from which also emerged Christianity and Islam. It is said of Ezra that if the Torah was not given to Moses, he would have been worthy to receive it. Centuries later, Hillel too went up from Babylon to Jerusalem. He was the first of the Tannaim who established the Oral Torah (Mishnah). His youngest and most famous disciple was Yohanan Ben Zakkai, the founder of the Yavneh Academy. This became the centre of Jewish life and thought after the national disaster and destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

At the beginning of the present common era there were many conversions to Judaism all over the Middle East. In Northern Iraq, the Royal Family and many of the people of Adiabene became Jews. It is said that Jews at that time constituted 20% both of the Persian as well as the Roman Empires. But after the fall of Jerusalem it was the Christians who made converts in the frontier territories of Mesopotamia. The earliest converts were Jews.. But wherever Rabbinical influence was strong among the local community as in Babylonia, there Christianity (and later, Islam) made little progress among Jews. Iraq remained within the Persian Empire for 1,000 years. Babylonia, covering Central Iraq, became practically an autonomous Jewish State headed by a hereditary Exilarch (Resh Galutha) descended from King Yehoyachin. The Exilarch had his courts and prisons and collected taxes, half of which went to Central Government.

At one time Babylonian Jewry numbered over one million and may have constituted the majority of the population. When the Temple was in existence they sent every year, about the time of Succoth, rich presents to Jerusalem in convoys, sometimes consisting of 30,000 armed pilgrims. It was ruled at that time that the prayer for rain should not be recited until 15 days after the conclusion of Succoth to allow the pilgrims to return. The Babylonian Diaspora retained its paramount importance from the 6th Century BCE to the 13th Century CE – a period of nearly 2,000 years. Its communal constitution, which served as a model to the whole Jewish people, was largely maintained until recent times.

"During our stay in Babylon we made ourselves thoroughly at home. As the Talmud records."

Indeed Babylonia became practically the Jewish Fatherland. Here were established the famous vast academies of Nehardea, Sura and Pumbaditha which later served as prototypes for the first European Universities of the 12th century. The Babylonian Talmud took 300 years to develop in complete freedom and was completed in 499. In its 2.5 million words the Talmud touches on every aspect of life. For instance, it discusses whether a person who is walking on a moving platform that is going in the opposite direction would be breaking the Sabbath if his position relative to the ground remained the same. Einstein admits that this gave him the idea for his theory of relativity.

Towards the end of Persian rule Mazdakite fanatics made life unbearable for the Jews who, in time, invited and gave decisive help to the Moslem conquest of Iraq and indeed of other parts of the Middle East.

Under the Caliphs of Baghdad the Jews paid a head tax and enjoyed religious and communal freedom. The authority of the Exilarch extended, as in Persian times, to all parts of the Empire and this office lasted until the 14th Century. Thereafter the community was headed by a local Nasi who, until recent times, was also always of the Davidic line. He was assisted by a Hakham. In 1849 both positions were united in a Hakham Bashi (Chief Rabbi).

To establish a Jewish Middle class in Europe Charlemagne had asked Harun al-Rashid to send Jewish teachers. These came with Rabbi Machir who was given by Charlemagne a Princedom in Narbonne and was known as King of the Jews. With the fall of Sa’ad Addawla, the Jewish Chancellor of the Mogul Empire, the Jews suffered terribly at the hands of the populace in the pogrom of 1291 and many were forced to embrace Islam, a process which was repeated on several occasions in Iraq and Persia.

Jewish fortunes started to improve after the Ottoman re-conquest of 1638, whose army included many Jewish officers and men. (Some sources say 10,000 Jewish officers and men out of a total army of 100,000).

After the Great War the Jews of Iraq were betrayed first by the Allies who handed over the country to Arab rule and then by the Arabs who, in a short time, proceeded to discriminate against the other national groups – the Kurds, Jews, Assyrians, etc.

For centuries the Treasury of Iraq was in Jewish hands. Under Ottoman rule the head of the community was ex-officio Treasurer (Sarraf Bashi) of the country. This tradition was continued in the early years of modern Iraq when Sir Sasson Heskel held the Finance Ministry in several governments. In the 1920’s and 30’s over 50% of the trade and finance was in Jewish hands but by the 50’s this had dropped to less than 10%. From 1820 Iraqi Jews spread out to India, Australia, the Far East and Europe. The Rashid Ali pogrom of 1941 decided the community that there was no future in Iraq. In the mass emigration of 1950/51 Aliya Ezra and Nehemia and thereafter the majority left for Israel but the better-off went to Europe and America where there now are about 40,000, of whom about 7,000 are in the UK, including our brethren from India who have faithfully kept to the Baghdadian tradition.

The fact that our community was divided in this way does not relieve us of our responsibilities towards the needy who ended up mainly in Israel.

It is a pity that Israel does not make full use of the fact that thirty years ago there was an exchange of populations - the 800,000 Palestinian Arabs who left Israel and the 800,000 Jews from Arab countries who came to Israel. While Israel absorbed its refugees, Arab countries deliberately kept theirs in camps to be used as a lever against Israel.

Although the Jews arrive in Israel as Olim, they leave the Arab countries mostly under duress.



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