Conditions worsen for Iraq's last Jews, but do they want to leave?

They number only eight, but they are the remnant of a community 2,700 years old - the last Jews left in modern Baghdad.

August 8, 2007 11:46
3 minute read.


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They number only eight, but they are the remnant of a community 2,700 years old - the last Jews left in modern Baghdad. An Anglican clergyman who watches over the tiny Jewish group says they are increasingly desperate and want to leave Iraq for the Netherlands. But Israeli, Dutch and Jewish officials dispute the Rev. Andrew White's claims. The recent history of Iraq's Jews began to emerge from White's July 25 appearance before the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan federal agency, in which he stressed the growing threat to Baghdad's minorities. "In the last three or four months, things have deteriorated very considerably," he said, according to a transcript of the proceedings held in the Senate. White said he gave the Jews enough money every month to live, which they then share with other Iraqis. "Even though they are very small and they have suffered very greatly, they still want to help those who suffer as well as themselves," he said. "I personally think they should all leave, because they have no future, no security, no ability to survive at the moment." But his claims that the Jews want to go to Holland because of the large Iraqi Jewish community there - and that the Dutch have refused to accept them - were met with surprise by Dutch officials and by the Dutch Jewish community. "We have had no official request or visa applications," said Rob Dekker, a Foreign Ministry spokesman. Michael Jankelowitz - a spokesman for the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, which is responsible for immigration - said none of the eight Jews left in Baghdad has expressed a desire to leave. "They survived under Saddam Hussein, and there is no need for them at their late age to pack up and move to different surroundings," he said. Half of them are over 80 years old, and the others are of working age. They live discreetly in a dangerous area of Baghdad, and could not be contacted for comment. Hamutal Rogel, the Israeli Embassy spokeswoman in The Hague, quoted a member of the Iraqi Jewish community who is in weekly contact with the group in Baghdad as saying they don't want to leave. "They are not in the best situation, but they are not frightened. They are not in direct danger," she said. White, director of the Foundation for Reconstruction and Reconciliation in the Middle East and vicar of St. George's Anglican Church in Baghdad, refused to elaborate on his remarks to the commission, saying he had thought the hearing was confidential. White is a respected figure in the Middle East, active not only in Iraq but also involved in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The eight Jews, belonging to four families, are all that is left in Iraq from the world's oldest Jewish community, dating back to the 6th century B.C.E., when the Babylonians conquered ancient Palestine and exiled its people as slaves. Over the centuries, the Jews flourished, and Baghdad became a center of Jewish culture and learning. By World War I, one-third of Baghdad's population was Jewish. Anti-Jewish campaigns began in earnest with Israel's creation in 1948, and Israel brought more than 100,000 Jews out by the early 1950s. Another wave of emigration came in the early 1970s, several years after the public hanging of Jews accused of spying for Israel. Thousands settled in the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe. In 2003, a dozen of the few remaining Jews in Baghdad moved to Israel. There are many more Iraqis who claim Jewish roots that they want to exploit. The Jewish Agency says a few dozen Iraqis who have at least one Jewish grandparent have been granted citizenship and have come to Israel in recent years - including one who claimed last month to be a cousin of Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik. Jewish tradition does not consider them Jews, but Israel accords them the automatic right of citizenship under its Law of Return, a national rather than a religious law where the definition of being Jewish is much looser. About 500 Iraqis from mixed backgrounds went to Israel after the first Gulf War in 1991 - mostly from the Kurdish area of northern Iraq - and subsequently moved to the Netherlands after failing to reconcile their Jewish history and their Muslim practices with life in the Jewish State, said Jankelowitz and the Israeli Embassy.

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