'Baghdad Jews must run for their lives'

Exclusive: Community caretaker says 8 remaining Jews facing grave threats.

baghdad bombing 298 88ap (photo credit: AP [file])
baghdad bombing 298 88ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Eight Baghdad Jews who represent the remnants of that city's Jewish community are facing security threats so grave that they need to flee the country, the community's caretaker, Canon Andrew White, told The Jerusalem Post from London on Tuesday. According to White, who himself has fled from Baghdad due to terrorist threats, the situation has become dire for the 2,600-year-old community, which only 100 years ago made up a third of Baghdad's population. Ever since sectarian violence in the capital first forced the community to assume a low profile, White, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, has taken on the role of community keeper, bringing the families food, money and medicine. He has also been actively trying to increase awareness of their plight abroad, petitioning for diplomatic and humanitarian support in America and Europe. White is the vicar of St. George's Anglican Church in the US Embassy in Baghdad, where he has been posted since a 1998 sanction by Saddam Hussein gave him permission to serve the church. He said "violent incidents" had been recorded against the eight Jews. He also said they were constantly threatened by looming violence, given that they reside beyond the heavily guarded Green Zone. "The time has come for them to flee," White said. Asked if the threat against them came from Shi'ite or Sunni groups, he said "everyone" was out to get them. "I asked [the US] Congress about the Jews in Baghdad because their situation was so desperate," White said, referring to his July 25 appearance before the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, where he stressed the growing threat to Baghdad's minorities, including Jews. "In their passports it says Yihud [Jew in Arabic] under religion, and that only adds to the danger. They need to get out." According to White, an unspecified few have expressed their desire to leave. But despite efforts by Jewish organizations abroad and some Knesset members to bring them to Israel, the eight rejected the idea of the Jewish state as a possible point of refuge. The problem, White said, was that due to the umbrella of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist sentiments they have lived under in Iraq, they are fearful of Israel and what it represents. "They have been fed anti-Israel propaganda all their lives," he said. "They do not trust Israel to be a good place. If some of them do want to go to Israel, they are scared of what the repercussions might be for the ones that stay." White said Labor MK Michael Melchior has been extremely supportive. Melchior, a member of the Knesset Committee on Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, told the Post the situation facing the eight Jews in Baghdad was very complex and sensitive. He said some had even been held hostage. "We always try to help when Jews are in need," he said, adding that they were under the care of White. White said an alternative to Israel as a point of refuge could be the Netherlands. The Baghdad Jews have relatives among the Iraqi community there who emigrated via Israel after the first Gulf War. He said there has been a flurry of back-channel activity between Israel and Holland concerning their possible emigration to either country, and praised the efforts made by Israeli representatives, saying the Israeli government has "done absolutely everything" to help. However, White said the Dutch were ignoring requests for the visas needed to immigrate and refusing to absorb the community. "We're talking about eight people," he said. "[The Dutch] should be receptive, but they're not." Dutch officials in Israel told the Post Monday that no activity toward such immigration has taken place. "Lies. Damn lies. The fact is, is that they just don't want to take them in," White said. "I have spent hours sitting with them. How can they say that I was not there?" Speaking from The Hague, Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman Rob Dekker told the Post that there have been no recent requests for visas, and that there have been no "formal discussions" between White and the Dutch government. He said informal meetings between White and a former Dutch ambassador to Baghdad had taken place. Dekker said the Dutch Embassy in Baghdad was not equipped to handle the visa requests, and that the eight Jews would have to travel to Jordan or Syria to request visas. He acknowledged that their classification as Jews in their passports might not grant them safe passage to Damascus or Amman, but said these procedures "applied to everyone in Iraq," regardless of religion. Dekker also said asylum could not be given either, and could only be requested from Holland. Dutch law does not allow for asylum requests from Dutch embassies, he said. Baghdad's Jews have been leaving for North America, Europe and Israel for 60 years, most recently in 2003, when a few Jews left just after US and British troops invaded Iraq. Following Israel's independence in 1948, 100,000 Iraqi Jews were brought into the newly created Jewish state. The community had been present in Iraq since the Babylonian exile, which began in 586 BCE. following the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem.