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Iraq's 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 was produced.

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 to flee.

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 to worship.

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 in ruins.


18 October 2002

The Editor
The Times

Dear Sir

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.

Yours truly

Naim Dangoor
Editor of The Scribe



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