The quagmire that once was the fertile crescent

The Jewish minority became one of the most important bulwarks of the national economy, commerce and administration , and left an indelible imprint on Iraqi life.

June 1, 2015 21:39
3 minute read.
Iranian Jews

Unveiling ceremony for memorial to Iranian Jews killed in Iran-Iraq war‏.. (photo credit: IRANIAN MEDIA)


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This is the story of citizens who were proud of their countries, served them well and drew much enjoyment and satisfaction from the fruits of Eden, but were betrayed and deceived, their beloved countries turning into quagmires and spewing their Jewish populations from their midst.

For over 2,500 years the Jewish community in Babylonia, modern-day Iraq, the oldest Diaspora community in the Jewish world, maintained its own mores and way of life under successive Persian, Islamic, Mongolian and Arab conquerors.

1931-1940 – Baghdad , population 500,000, for generations an Arab capital along the banks of the Tigris river, a magical city, rich in history, a “home” where old and new enjoyed an amicable coexistence, the national center for economic, educational and cultural activity. Here the Jewish population was an astute and deep-rooted community which had organized its own institutions of education, welfare and health. Out of a total population of four million in Iraq, the Jews numbered 120,000. They had traditionally kept to themselves. That was the key to their survival.

They minded their own affairs, pursuing knowledge and seeking to provide education for their offspring.

They were far from illiterate.

In ancient times they interpreted the Torah, wrote the Talmud, and were well-versed in percepts of the Jewish faith. In the years mentioned above, the influx of Western culture encouraged many Jews to combine Jewish cultural pursuits with modern knowledge. They became well versed in world affairs and excelled in every field. Most of them were merchants, physicians, bank managers, and they held important positions in the British administration and civil service. Actually every minister had a British adviser, and every adviser was dependent on a senior Jewish clerk. My father was one.

Iraqi Jews were prominent in various government ministries, and directed banks and foreign trade firms. Retail trade and import, which had been in Jewish hands for centuries, were buttressed as commercial endeavors. Jews were the first to enter liberal professions to become lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, engineers and accountants. They attained economic security and respectable social standing.

The Jewish minority became one of the most important bulwarks of the national economy, commerce and administration , and left an indelible imprint on Iraqi life.

Jewish-Arab relationships were sincere, honest and mutual. Arabs respected Jews as men of learning and culture, and Jews responded with loyalty and fair dealings.

The rise of Hitler changed the picture. Aggrandized hostilities against the Jews received extensive news coverage.

The Arab population changed their attitude and followed the leaders’ instructions.

Jewish banks were closed or taken over by Arabs, senior clerks were ousted from key positions. Then, the fatal change: even teaching Hebrew was forbidden in private homes. Nazi influence accentuated Jewish persecution, and in 1941 came the worst of all: the pogrom known in Arabic as Farhud. It was the most horrible period the Jews of Baghdad had ever known all through their long history in Babylonia.

The Muslims went from door to door beating Jews, searching houses for gold and silver, arresting innocent men.

They were brutal and had no mercy. Thousands of Jews were taken to prison. As for girls and women, the marauders had to satisfy their animal lusts, in the presence of husbands and fathers.

That was on the eve of Shavuot, May 30. The synagogues were full and the Jews who had lived in fearful seclusion for a month opened their homes. Synagogues were warned that Jews should not be seen rejoicing in the streets. It was customary for Iraqi Jews to celebrate Shavuot by visiting the graves of the righteous on the outskirts of Baghdad or the grave of Joshua across town , but they dared not go out.

It was June 1, 1941, Jews were dragged out of buses and murdered in the street.

The savage throngs and trigger- happy soldiers, egged on by the armed police, regarded the assault on Jews as sport.

The defenseless Jewish Quarter became a battlefield pitted by murder, looting and rape.

The pogrom had a devastating effect on the Jewish community.

The Feast of Shavuot, 1941 – since that date the Jewish community in Iraq felt unwanted, a despoiled community that sought ways to leave the country. In the world’s eyes it was the rise and fall of an intelligent, wealthy, highly educated community.

The writer is the author of The Quagmire.

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