From Baghdad to Ben-Gurion

The return of Iraq’s Jews – and why it matters today.

A man enters the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda (photo credit: BRIAN SCHRAUGER)
A man enters the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda
(photo credit: BRIAN SCHRAUGER)
It was a hot summer day in Baghdad on August 8, 1971. Indeed, it was hot in more ways than one. Life had become dangerous for the few remaining Jews living in Iraq’s capital city.
Sami Dallal, 19, had to make a decision: stay for an interrogation by the antisemitic and murderously minded Ba’ath police, or, with his remaining family, make a break for Tehran?
Today at the age of 67, Dallal tells me his story at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, an attractive, modern museum in the central Israeli city of Or Yehuda (meaning the Light of Yehuda). Running parallel to one of Ben-Gurion Airport’s runways, jets were taking off every few minutes, at the same place where most Iraqi Jewish refugees, destitute, arrived in Israel in an exodus that began in 1948, peaked in 1951, and ended in the early ’70s.
The Babylonian Jewry Center is a hidden gem, unknown even to many Israelis. Established in 1973, the museum is laid out as an Iraqi villa like the ones in which wealthy Iraqi Jews once lived. The design is appropriate. Far from feeling like a memorial to what was, the center is a place vibrating with the life of Jews who lived in Iraq for 2,600 years.
Still, a question begged throughout the center’s rooms and displays is, so what? It is important to remember, but what does this history have to do with life today? It was an inquiry that would give birth to screamingly urgent replies.
A few steps from the museum’s entrance there is an inner courtyard that leads to a winding room that begins with the first Jewish exile to Babylon. In a three-step process that began in 597 BCE, most of the Jews in Judea were forced to leave their homes, and presumably with little to take along, made the 900 mile march to Nebuchadnezzar’s capital city.
Although many Jews made a return (aliyah) to Judea several decades later, many also remained in Babylon, where they had prospered beyond anything they could have imagined when forced to leave their homeland.
“There is a reason why Jews have done so well wherever they have gone throughout the world,” explains Lily Shor, the events manager and a guide at the Center. “The secret of their success is found in a letter sent by Jeremiah — the Jeremiah.”
She holds out a photocopy of a portion from the 29th chapter of the biblical prophet’s book:
“Thus, says Adonai-Tzva’ot, the God of Israel, to all those in captivity, whom I removed as captives into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: build houses and live in them; also, plant gardens and eat their fruit; take wives and have sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there, and do not decrease. Also seek the shalom [peace] of the city where I took you as captives in exile, and pray to Adonai for it – for in its shalom will you have shalom.”
“He was hated in his own day,” Shor continues. “But what Jeremiah wrote became the ethos for all Jews in all their dispersions throughout the years. This is why they prospered in every foreign land where they have found themselves – until, of course, in many cases, the native people of those lands turn against them.”
Strikingly, Jews prospered in Babylon for 2,600 years, far longer than any other place to which they were exiled.
After the fall of the Second Temple, it became the global center of Jewish life. Yeshivas were founded, scholars thrived, the Talmud used today was transcribed, and questions of Jewish law were settled.
Several kings of Judah were buried in the region along with the biblical prophets Ezra, Ezekiel, Zephaniah, and about 300 miles to the northwest, Nahum.
As history waxed and waned, so too did the Jews in what was at first called Babylon. By the turn of the 20th century, however, they were thriving. Of the estimated 145,000 living in Baghdad in 1900, more than one-third were Hebrews.
The beginning of the end for Iraqi Jews was unseen at the time. In 1917, the Balfour Declaration laid a legal foundation for what would become a resurrection of the Jewish State of Israel. Three years later a zealous young man in his early 20s recognized the implications of Balfour and became a lifelong enemy of the Zionism dream for a Jewish state.
His name was Amin al-Husseini, who in 1921 became the grand mufti of Jerusalem. Famous today for his face-to-face meetings with Adolph Hitler in 1941, by that time al-Husseini had already lived in Iraq, where from 1939 until 1941 he aggressively stirred up the Muslim community against their Jewish neighbors.
His promotion of the scurrilous tract, The Protocols for the Elders of Zion, along with Hitler’s best-selling Mein Kampf introduced a virulent strain of antisemitism in the Iraqi Muslim community, which until the mufti’s arrival, got on quite well with Jewish citizens of their country.
On June 1-2, 1941, there was an explosion of riots against the Jews in Baghdad. Known today as the Farhud, it was a pogrom against the city’s Jewish citizens that was eerily reminiscent of Germany’s Kristallnacht riots only 19 months earlier in Berlin.
The biggest difference is that twice as many Jews were murdered in Baghdad than were in Berlin. Taking inspiration from the Nazis, al-Husseini had stepped it up from Kristallnacht’s bloodshed.
In the Heritage Center, a Farhud memory by then six-year old Yaacov Ben Zion is indelible.
The door suddenly broke open. My mother stood by the door and I stood beside her. Our neighbors entered. My mother said to them (in Arabic), “The house and everything in it is ours. Just don’t hurt us.”
They started taking out objects one after the other.In the midst of the looting, a policeman in uniform entered. He stood there and cursed our religion and [the land of] Palestine. Mother kept begging.
He shot her in the head and she fell.
I fled and stood behind the policeman. My older sister ran toward her, “Mother, mother!”
He killed her as well.
A rioter took hold of my young brother and wanted to slaughter him. My other sister begged. He relented and left him to her.
My cousin wanted to go upstairs. The rioter opened her belly and everything fell out. He cut her hand and threw her away.
And so the Jewish departure from Baghdad began.
With displays and artifacts directly from those times, the Center portrays the sporadic exodus that culminated in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah from 1951 to 1952. Named for the two biblical heroes who led exiles back to Jerusalem in the 6th century BCE, the Israeli operation brought approximately 125,000 Jews from Iraq to Israel.
Hoping to protect family properties and businesses, a few Jews stayed behind, braving labels of traitor and enduring prohibitions to work.
By the early 1970s only a few thousand Jews remained. Sami Dallal and his family were among them. Now 67, Dallal’s recollection of what happened 48 years ago is vivid.
“Two years before we fled Baghdad, in 1969, nine Jews along with two Christians and three Muslims were arrested, falsely accused of being spies for Israel,” says Dallal. “They were hanged in prison. Afterward, their bodies were brought into Liberation Square where they were hung again. Half a million people showed up to celebrate. I went to the square, the only living Jew there. I saw the bodies of my neighbors.
“After this, the remaining Jews in Baghdad knew they could no longer stay, at least not for long. That’s when smuggling operations began, finding ways to get Jews out of Iraq. By the time my father was arrested on the eighth of August 1971, several of my brothers had found a way to leave.
“Almost immediately after he was taken by police, I went to them, looking for my father. The authorities questioned both of us. ‘Where are you brothers,’ they demanded me to answer.
“‘I do not know,’” Dallal replied. “‘So many have been taken from their homes and disappeared. Do you know where they are?’
“They let us go home for the night, but told us to return the next day at noon.
“That afternoon a Jewish woman whose husband was a smuggler offered us a way to leave. My father was unable to make a decision, so I took charge.
“We could only take small bags, no luggage. We boarded a train at 10 p.m. that took us to Erbil, the main city of Iraqi Kurds, enemies of the Ba’ath party.
“From Erbil we were put into a taxi, then into Land Rovers, and driven to a point on the high mountains between Iraq and Iran. Around midnight we were told to get out of vehicles and wait. Standing in the dark, completely alone, not knowing if anyone, in fact, would show up, was terrifying.
“Eventually, car lights appeared. Kurdish operatives drove us into Iran. Around noon on August 10, we made it to Tehran and from there were flown to Israel.
“When we landed, we had nothing; but we were immediately Israeli citizens.”
Dallal went on to work at Ben-Gurion Airport, making a career of bringing millions to a safe landing in Israel. Today there are rumored to be five to ten Jews living in all Iraq, a place where, for 2,600 years, they followed Jeremiah’s directives and prospered.
“THE HISTORY and personal stories are breathtaking,” I say to Aliza Dayan Hamama, general manager of the Heritage Center. After meeting with Sami, I was in her office. Aliza’s parents were among those who fled Iraq, illegally making their way to Israel just before it embraced Jews desperate to escape their Babylonian home in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.
“But how do you answer the question, ‘So what? What does it matter to us today?’”
Without a pause, she says, “Because the millennia during which we lived there is part of who we are. The Babylonian exile is part of our identity. Sent there as punishment, we obeyed what Jeremiah told us to do and prospered. Jews today need to know that this is an essential component of who we are.”
It was an answer that resonated.
Continuing to think about that history and its eventual connection to the Shoah, the vow “Never Again” came to mind.
Perhaps “Never Again” is a pledge behind which it is too easy to hide from the possibility, if not the probability, that Jews, Christians, Kurds and other out-of-favor minorities will see comparable persecution in years ahead.
Perhaps what happened to Jews in Iraq, and during the past 10 years to Christians and Kurds, could happen to others – even in the West.
If it does, are we ready? Are there not lessons to be learned from what has happened in Iraq over the past 100 years?
If so, the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center is not only part of Jewish identity. It is also a necessary school of learning for Jews, Christians, Yazidis, Kurds and other demonized communities that need to know what to do, and what not to do so, if it happens again.
No... When it happens again.