last Jews wait in fear for war
Ian Cobain reports from Baghdad on a once-thriving
community That is vanishing without trace.
In a dirt-poor Baghdad back street where fetid
water seeps from shattered drains and urchins dart
around piles of rubbish, there stands the last remnant,
of what was once among the wealthiest and most respected
communities of the Jewish Diaspora.
Protected from prying eyes by a 10ft wall and padlocked
steel gates plastered with Saddam Hussein posters
is Battaween Synagogue, an anonymous brown-brick
building, with no nameplate or symbols to betray
its purpose, where the handful of Jews who remain
in the city gather discreetly to worship each week.
Fifty years ago there were about 350,000 Jewish
people in Iraq. When the British marched into Baghdad
at the end of the First World War a fifth of its
citizens were estimated to be Jewish.
Today 38 remain in the capital. In Basra, the once
prosperous port in the south, there is just one
old woman. In Mosul and Amarah, and other Iraqi
cities where Jews had lived for more than two millennia,
their communities have vanished without trace.
Many of the Baghdad community are elderly. The
last marriage was in 1980 and there are currently
no children to be bar-mitzvahed. None of the 38
can perform the liturgy, just two who know Hebrew,
and the rest can barely understand the prayers.
With the threat of conflict looming, anti-Zionist
banners appearing on public buildings and high-placed
Iraqis increasingly unnerved by Washington's talk
of regime change, the dwindling Jewish community
of Baghdad is terrified of what the future may hold.
"I'm sorry, but I can't possibly talk to you,"
said lbrahim Youssef Saleh, a doleful 80-year-old
man who has been the leader of the community since
the last Rabbi died in 1996 and the president of
the synagogue left to join his family in London
two years ago.
"You must have written permission from the
Ministry of Information before I can talk to you,
and then they will send one of their minders to
sit in on the interview."
Then, trembling visibly, Mr Saleh opened the door
of his small office, where a small number of Hebrew
texts had been slipped between the Arabic volumes
on the bookshelves, and where the obligatory portrait
of Saddam gazes down from the wall. "Will you
please leave now?" he begged.
At the ministry, bemused officials yesterday refused
permission, and some even insisted that the synagogue
had closed down years ago.
The Jewish community of what was once called Mesopotamia,
was not only among the wealthiest and most respected
of the Ancient World, it was also among the oldest.
Its members were descended from the Jews who were
taken into exile by Nebuchadnazar, King of the Babylonians,
in three great waves beginning in 597 BC. Among
the captives who sat down and wept by the rivers
of Babylon was the prophet Ezekiel, who wrote home
to Jerusalem that he was living in "a land
of traffick" filled with "fruitful fields".
When the Jews were allowed to return home many
chose to stay, and this is where the Babylon Talmud
Under the Ottoman Turks they worked in commerce
and crafts, achieved high public office and, as
dhimmis, a protected minority, enjoyed complete
freedom of worship.
Relations between Jews and Muslims became strained
under the British Mandate, however, when many Jews
asked for British citizenship, and deteriorated
rapidly in the 1930s during Jewish agitation for
a homeland. In 1941, after a pro-Nazi coup planned
with the aid of the German Embassy in Baghdad, hundreds
of Jews were murdered while police officers stood
by and watched.
After the creation of the State of Israel hundreds
of thousands of Jews fled Iraq, at first slipping
across the borders in small numbers then joining
airlifts organised by the Israeli Government
Others settled in the Netherlands or Britain, among
them the family of Maurice and Charles Saatchi,
the advertising men. More persecution after the
Six-Day War saw community members accused of being
members of "Zionist spy rings" and hanged
in the squares of Baghdad, prompting yet more families
Today Iraqi Jews find it difficult to travel abroad
and are barred from serving in the army or joining
the civil service. A US, State Department report
says, however, that there is no "recent evidence
of overt persecution", and the Jews are free
Saddam even ordered the renovation of Battaween
Synagogue 13 years ago and refurbished the tombs
of Ezekiel and Ezra the Scribe which are also sacred
to Muslims. Guards protect these sites.
Scattered around the rest of Baghdad, however,
lie more than 30 other synagogues, all deserted,
many dilapidated. As the clouds war gather above
the city, its tiny Jewish community may be wondering
whether their last sanctuary will also soon lie
18 October 2002
I was very interested to read the article by Ian
Cobain in today’s paper on The Jews of Iraq
and I have pleasure in sending you herewith the
latest copy of The Scribe, Journal of Babylonian
Jewry published by our foundation since 1971, which
you may find of interest.
Editor of The Scribe