Iraq's forgotten exiles
Joel Millman reports on the movement to restore Iraq's
Jewry to its former glory
Saturday July 5, 2003
For 1,500 years, from the era of Alexander the Great to
the late 13th century, a high Mesopotamian priest in Babylon
ruled as the supreme leader of Eastern Jewry. Known as the
Exilarch, he settled all disputes brought before him by
Jews living as far away as India and Spain. His authority
ended only when Mongol hordes sacked Babylon, for centuries
[home to] the world's largest Jewish community.
The year was 1270. Seven centuries later, a Jew named Naim
Dangoor, once a Baghdad merchant but now operating one of
London's largest property companies, re-established the
office of Exilarch, naming himself to the position. The
year was 1970.
"Exactly 700 years," smiles Mr Dangoor. "Interesting,
Padding about in a Sabbath robe of silver and crimson brocade,
the 89-year-old is ... relentlessly [pushing] toward his
goal: to re-establish the glory that was Iraqi Jewry ...
He wants the $20bn [£12bn] he estimates Iraq's new
leaders - whoever they may be - owe his people for the calamity
that befell the world's oldest and wealthiest Jewish community
when radical Arab nationalists began ruling Iraq after the
second world war.
Today, descendants of Iraq's Jews are scattered around
the globe ... [But] despite Mr Dangoor's efforts, few are
packing their bags for Baghdad. And some worry that the
spectre of an old man living in splendour here dunning war-ravaged
Iraq for lost wealth will hardly improve Arab-Jewish relations.
"He definitely has the right to sit at the table,"
says Edwin Shuker, another Jewish exile in London who is
working ... to establish a truth and reconciliation commission
that might address reparations. "But really should
he speak for all of us?"
There's a lot of money to go around. The US Treasury has
frozen some $3bn [£1.8bn] in Saddam Hussein-era Iraqi
assets, while US officials estimate another $10bn [£6bn]
may be within reach in other countries and Iraq itself.
Last week at the UN, an organisation called Justice for
Jews from Arab Countries launched a campaign to present
the legal grounds for redressing grievances of more than
three quarters of a million Jewish refugees from all Arab
Abraham Sofaer, former chief counsel of Ronald Reagan's
State Department and himself the son of a Bagh dad-born
Jew, says the claims of Iraqi Jews are legitimate ... but
thinks bringing [them] to court won't be easy. None the
less, thousands of Iraqi exiles have been filling out forms
prepared by the World Organisation for Jews of Arab Countries,
to be compiled for a possible class-action suit ...
In a land beset by rivalries between Kurds and Arabs and
between Shias and Sunnis, Jewish claims may seem beside
the point. Yet until the 1950s, Jewish and Iraqi histories
were entwined. In 597 BC, after King Nebuchadnezzar conquered
Israel, captive Jews were exiled to Babylon. Decades later,
Cyrus of Persia permitted their return to Jerusalem but
few did, so prosperous had Babylon's Jews become.
Mr Dangoor's grandfather was Iraq's chief rabbi; his father
was reputedly the world's largest printer of books in Arabic.
During the second world war, Naim Dangoor turned Baghdad
into a trading hub ... [but] suddenly, it all fell apart.
With the birth of Israel in 1948, anti-Jewish riots swept
the Arab world. In Iraq, regulations modelled on Nazi Germany's
Nuremberg laws restricted the role of Jews in commerce.
By 1952, most Iraqi Jews were in Israel ...
Naim Dangoor stayed in Baghdad until 1964. While visiting
London that year, he got word he should return immediately
or have his property confiscated as a "denationalised
Jew". Fearing an even worse fate awaited him, he chose
exile in England, where he prospered buying distressed real
Today the only distressed real estate he is interested
in is his old home, a stately, two-story building on Baghdad's
famed Abu Nowas Street.
Recovering that lost property is likely to be tough ...
One local newspaper, al-Saah, has speculated that "returning
Jews" are behind the rise in Baghdad's real-estate
prices since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Muslims, a sign
on a factory bulletin board warns, should "resist the
temptation to sell anything to the Jews [lest] the money
they make be turned into bullets to be used against the
Baghdad residents hope the street will return to its glory
days. But that may not include a role for its former denizens.
One of Mr Dangoor's former neighbours refuses to give his
name ... but doesn't hide his contempt for Kurdish and Jewish
exiles who say now they wish to come back. Of Mr Dangoor
he asks, "Did he expect anyone to remember him after
all these years?"
· From the Wall Street Journal Europe, June 30
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