Jews around the world will be familiar with the Psalm which begins: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept, when we remembered Zion.”
This refrain of longing for Zion, the Land of Israel, our ancestral homeland, from where we had been expelled shortly before, is something all Jews will comprehend and grasp.
For us, Jews of Babylon, which became Mesopotamia and is now known as Iraq, it could be argued that this Psalm especially resonates, because while we certainly had reason to weep during the more than 2,500 years we lived in that land, we had many more occasions to celebrate, rejoice and delight.
It may seem incongruous to many in the 21st century that we, Jews of Iraq, should maintain any semblance of fondness for a country we were forced to flee during the last century, to join the other hundreds of thousands of Jews from across the Middle East and North Africa whose homes and communities for millennia were suddenly no more.
Nevertheless, for many, our personal memories of Iraq are not necessarily clouded by the Farhud or the 1969 hangings, paralyzing, brutal and gruesome though they certainly were, but of a free, cosmopolitan and progressive existence, one where we would interact with the royal family and Iraqi aristocracy. A life my aunts have often described as paradise on the banks of the fabled and soothing River Tigris, described by medieval poet Ibn al-Arabi as the necklace of Baghdad, where a Jew, my mother, could be crowned Miss Baghdad and receive her sash from the crown prince himself.
Iraq is so many things to those Jews who fled it.
For many, it is a place too cruel to look back and wonder. For others, it is a place whose past and future is still coveted.
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Some have turned their back on it forever, while other Iraqi Jews have returned to visit, vote in its elections, seek its citizenship and even buy homes.
I think for all of us, friend or foe, Iraq is still in our blood and in our bones. It’s like a distant bell ringing in the back of our heads, always reminding us where we came from.
For those, like for me, Baghdad is the formation of our identity. While I now live in London and as a passionate Zionist see Israel as our ancestral homeland, Iraq still provides an emotional sense of belonging.
This may be our story, a story of the Jewish sons and daughters of Iraq, but it is also the story of the Jewish people regardless of our origins.
It is a remarkable thing to witness a German Jew who fled the Holocaust speak of their good memories of Berlin or even the Spanish and Portuguese Jews, whose congregations I have joined, who still sing, centuries after their expulsion, wistful poems of golden and beautiful Spain.
To be a Jew is sometimes to be a bridge to the past, but I believe we can also serve as bridges to the future.
In the Iraq where I was raised, Jew, Christian, Muslim, Sunni or Shi’ite worked, learned, sang and danced together. We lived side by side in peace and harmony.
This is the Iraq that I seek to remember and one we can form in other parts of the world as tensions, xenophobia and intolerance are again on the rise. Once again, people are being forced to flee the same parts of the world we fled only a few decades ago.
The exodus of the Jews from many parts of the world is frequently and sadly sometimes a precursor for other forced migrations.
With such a turbulent and challenging past, while we remember the bad, we Jews are taught to focus on the good and the positive. I believe the story of Iraqi Jewry is one of more positives than negatives, and those positives can teach us much for the world today.
Jews can be both cosmopolitan and observant, progressive and religious, and universalist and particularist.
These are the great lessons we learn, from the Babylonian Talmud to Sir Sassoon Eskell, one of the founders of modern Iraq.
When I remember Baghdad, I think of both our relations with our neighbors on the banks of the Tigris and the great contribution Iraqi Jews made to the Jewish people, the country we lived in, and global civilization.
When I think of how this all came to an abrupt end only a few decades ago, I weep for the past and present. However, I do not despair and I know the coexistence, tolerance and progress that we experienced in Iraq in the past can be rebuilt, whether in Europe, Israel, or in other places around the world, and perhaps in the not so distant future, even return to “The Land Between Two Rivers.”The writer is an Iraqi-Jewish businessmen and philanthropist living in the UK. He is the person behind and one of the main protagonists in the critically-acclaimed documentary Remember Baghdad, to be premiered in Israel during the upcoming Jerusalem Film Festival.
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