After ISIS, Mosul finally values its Jewish heritage

Since ISIS attacked the diversity of the Iraqi community, diversity is now valued far more consciously, and this trend’s most surprising consequence is related to the Iraqi Jews.

AWARD-WINNING photographer Eddy van Wessel captured Mosul’s Jewish quarter: Hebrew inscriptions on the wall, near the Great Mosque of al-Nuri. (Eddy van Wessel) (photo credit: EDDY VAN WESSEL)
AWARD-WINNING photographer Eddy van Wessel captured Mosul’s Jewish quarter: Hebrew inscriptions on the wall, near the Great Mosque of al-Nuri. (Eddy van Wessel)
(photo credit: EDDY VAN WESSEL)
“The first community we lost in Mosul was that of the Jews,” says Faisal Jeber. “That is why we have to start here in the Jewish quarter, to restore and rebuild, and in that way bring diversity back to the city.” 
Over the past 70 years, Iraq’s second-largest city lost its Jews first. More recently, it also lost most of its Christians, Yezidis, Sufis and Shi’ites, because of radical Muslim groups like ISIS. Faisal Jeber wants them all back.
The director of the Gilgamesh Center for Antiquities and Heritage Protection is a driven man. Last summer, on the very day the Jewish quarter was liberated from the Islamic terror group ISIS, with fighting still raging nearby, he went in with a special army brigade to assess the damage. He had been on tenterhooks: could the neighborhood have survived an avowed anti-Jewish regime like ISIS?
Now he is back in the exact same neighborhood the Jewish inhabitants left in the 1950s. Most of its more recent inhabitants, having fled the battle to free their quarters from ISIS, are now back and working hard to erase the traces of three years of occupation. Jeber walks around, chatting and taking phone numbers, like that of 72-year-old Imad Fetah, who stands in front of his gate, which he has recently repainted in earthy colors, wearing a spotless white dishdasha and a scarf draped loosely over his head.
He points at the blackened remains of the house across the narrow street. The fire was started by ISIS, he says, after the inhabitants had been ordered to leave. The house, which dates from before 1950 and was built around a covered courtyard in the traditional Mosul style, is badly damaged but can still be restored. But whether the owner will spend the money – if he even has it – remains to be seen.
Only when people realized what ISIS intended to do to their homes did they start refusing to leave. Fetah stayed put, too. “Daesh destroys old things,” he says sadly, using the local name for ISIS. It wasn’t only this neighborhood – every monument that did not fit in with their strict version of Islam had to go: statues of poets and writers, Sufi places of worship, libraries with unique book collections.
Once ISIS was gone, the people of Mosul saved as many books as possible from what was left of the university library, and foreign institutes and private individuals sent books to replace the ones that were lost. As for the Great Mosque of al-Nuri with its historic Hadba minaret, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the Caliphate in summer 2014 and which the group bombed when they were chased out of it, reconstruction is planned with financing from the Emirates.
ISIS would tolerate only the things it had a use for, Fetah points out: “Like the tunnels in our quarter which the Jews had dug and which gave them the idea of digging tunnels elsewhere, too.” His hypothesis is probably flawed, because when officers from former dictator Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party and the Iraqi army joined ISIS in droves, they brought their knowledge of tunneling with them.
The tunnels in the Jewish quarter were originally dug to give the inhabitants an escape route in case of danger. Until the ISIS takeover, they were probably last used when anti-Jewish riots erupted throughout the country after the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948. In Mosul too, thousands of angry Iraqis poured into the Jewish quarter.
Because of these rising anti-Jewish tensions, thousands of Iraqi Jews fled across the Iranian and Turkish borders with the aid of human smugglers, usually ending up in Israel. But the main exodus happened in the early 1950s, after the Iraqi government adopted a law that sought to control illegal emigration. Under it, Jews were allowed to leave if they gave up their Iraqi nationality. When this led to massive queues at the registration centers, the authorities modified the regulations to require the emigrants to leave behind almost all their property. Even so, the exodus continued until about two thirds of Iraq’s 150,000 Jews had left. Others followed suit during another period of persecution, this time by Saddam Hussein in the 1970s. Many who wanted to stay in Iraq converted to Islam, or to a lesser extent, Christianity – leaving only a handful of Jews in the present day.
The Jewish quarters emptied in every town and city. The houses of the first owners to leave remained their property or were sold; those who left later had their homes confiscated, sold or rented out by the government. They were popular because of their construction quality, but many were neglected through the years and the quarters slowly changed into slums.
Still, says Imad Fetah, even though many houses are now derelict and empty because their inhabitants could not afford their upkeep, he has lived here happily for many years. All of his neighbors are aware of the Jewish history of the quarter, he says, and they are even proud to live there. In the only shop that reopened in the nearby Bazaar St., Younis Abdullah, 62, confirms this. “My parents bought our home in 1948 from a Jewish family. My 90-year-old mother still knows all the details, and fondly recounts how she liked our Jewish neighbors and misses them.”
AFTER MANY years in which imams and politicians fed their constituents anti-Jewish sentiments, these loving memories are no longer a taboo in Iraq. Since ISIS attacked the diversity of the Iraqi community, diversity is now valued far more consciously, and this trend’s most surprising consequence is related to the Iraqi Jews – who since they left Iraq have been ignored at best, and more often branded as enemies and spies for Israel.
The change started in the Kurdistan Region, where the Kurdish government appointed a Jewish representative in 2015 to find and reunite (Muslim) Kurds with Jewish roots. A rabbi was allowed to investigate the possibility of forming a Jewish community once more. Kurdish Jews who had emigrated to Israel traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan to meet long-lost family members who had converted to Islam. Some even decided to stay. Jewish visitors from abroad were welcomed as “brothers.”
More recently, the popular Shi’ite Imam Moqtada al-Sadr declared in an important statement that Jews who left Iraq would be “welcome if their loyalty is to Iraq” – his meaning being “and not to Israel.” The statement has the power of a fatwa (a religious decision). The rebellious clergyman, whose family also fell victim to Saddam Hussein’s rule, said that Jews who want to return to the country could receive full citizenship rights again.
Al-Sadr, who won the Iraqi parliamentary elections in May on a religious diversity ticket, broke a huge taboo. For years in Iraq, Jews and Israel have been painted with the same brush. Al-Sadr was the first to openly acknowledge that many Iraqi Jews were more loyal to their motherland, Iraq, than to Israel, and had only emigrated after being persecuted with anti-Jewish regulations, desert prison camps and executions.
A recent video on the website of the Iraqi media outlet Yalla shows a Jewish man, dressed in black with sidelocks and a hat, walking through the Iraqi city of Basra holding a map and looking for the house his grandfather left in the 1950s. As he walks around, people help him in a friendly manner and even invite him into their homes. The message: “We have no problem with this Jew, as he is an Iraqi.” But the man is an actor, engaged to record the prevailing sentiment toward the Jews after al-Sadr’s statement. On Facebook, within days, the video had been viewed over 220,000 times and shared 1,300 times with mostly positive reactions.
And a poll by the popular Facebook page Al-Khuwwa al-Nathifa (‘The Clean Brotherhood,’ over 1.7 million followers) recently showed that 77% of 62,000 respondents were in favor of the return of Jewish Iraqis.
In Mosul, Jews are mainly remembered as good neighbors, Faisal Jeber says. “Those good memories are precious. Nobody had any problems with the people as such. The negative sentiments all concern the State of Israel,” and that has not changed as Iraq has moved closer to neighboring Iran, which considers Israel a major enemy. Yet this does not apply to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where most Kurds look at Israel longingly as an example for their own Kurdish state.
After the liberation from ISIS, one wonders what kept civilians from telling ISIS about the culturally valuable houses and ruins in the Jewish quarters? These old sentiments towards the Jews, or love of the neighborhood, or anger at the bearded radicals who left a trail of destruction behind them all over the city?
THE JEWISH QUARTER is surprisingly untouched. The biggest surprise of all is the synagogue, which is the final stop on Jeber’s tour. Just as the Iraqi Jews were ignored, its very existence was forgotten for years. In the 1980s, it was even turned illegally into the private property of a man who went to live in the school on its grounds, and who now wants to sell the whole site. But no matter what destruction ISIS wrought in Mosul, the derelict building still stands tall.
The gate has been boarded up and an official announcement in red letters on the wall says that trespassing is forbidden, as this is a heritage site. But because its roof is gone completely, a climb onto the roofs of surrounding buildings makes it possible to see the synagogue’s interior with its Hebrew tablets on the walls.
Even though ISIS used both the synagogue and an old school nearby to store weapons and ammunitions, three of the Hebrew tablets disappeared only after the group left and on Twitter, Mosul historian Omar Mohammed shared his happiness that the synagogue had escaped destruction at its hands. The historian, who posted the blog Mosul Eye during the occupation, was dismayed when he discovered the theft. While ISIS earned part of its income from smuggling objects it called haram (forbidden according to Islam), this kind of criminality did not end with the liberation. Someone must have realized just how valuable the tablets were, and the smuggling of antiquities in Iraq does not need an ISIS to continue.
For that reason, Faisal Jeber is not too keen on those official warnings in red on the walls of important historical buildings, as they might inspire professional souvenir hunters.
Yet it is a minor miracle that the neighborhood, which is known both in Mosul and beyond as the Mahallat al-Yahūd, or Jewish quarter, should have survived ISIS relatively unscratched. Jeber thinks we have the derelict state of the houses to thank, and asserts that the Hebrew tablets were not even discovered because most of the ISIS members in Mosul were from the provinces and illiterate. “They thought the Hebrew was Assyrian; there are churches in the quarter, too, and Christians lived here. And they hardly knew anything about Judaism. None of them had ever met a Jew.”
But inhabitants point out that ISIS wanted them out of the neighborhood for the very reason that it was Jewish, and therefore considered haram by the radicals, and that it was mainly saved by its inhabitants’ refusal to have their homes taken from them and burned, however scared they may have been. That could well be true, as people also remained in other parts of the Old City, even when the bullets were flying, and ISIS snipers had taken position on their roofs, until the bombing campaigns of the anti-ISIS coalition and the violent battle with the Iraqi army made staying impossible.
The fact that the neighborhood has survived the bombings rather well compared to most of ruined West Mosul, with just some of the houses where ISIS leaders were based bombed, is mostly thanks to the Americans. Well aware of the value of Mosul’s Jewish heritage, they had marked it on their maps.
“In 2004, I saw an American officer walking through the quarters,” recounts Saad Rachawi, 56. He insists on making tea for the foreign visitors that he leads up onto his roof to look at the Jewish school opposite. ISIS stored weapons there, he says, which scared the hell out of him; elsewhere in Mosul, those schools became targets for the coalition. But here, nothing happened – because of the American’s visit 14 years ago, it would seem. “He had a map of the neighborhood, and was making notes on it,” Rachawi remembers.
He must be talking about Carlos Huerta, a rabbi with the American troops in Mosul after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. In a blog, Huerta reported how he stepped over rubbish to discover the synagogue there. “My heart broke as I climbed over the garbage piles that filled the room where, for hundreds of years, the prayers of Jews had reached the heavens. This is when I realized I was probably the first Jew to enter this holy place in more than half a century.” The garbage is still there, years later, in one of the rooms of the synagogue.
Last year, Saad Rachawi once again saw Americans near his house, when they came to the school after ISIS had been evicted from Mosul. “We were all told to leave. They used robots to remove all those explosives.”
NOW THAT ISIS no longer poses a threat, new threats have appeared. Even though house prices have halved, owners are having to sell their property for lack of money after they survived ISIS on a shoestring. Fasal Jeber fears that bargain hunters will buy the houses with a view to demolishing, rebuilding and making a nice profit. In this way, important heritage will be lost, he warns.
His fears center on the synagogue, which has been put on the market by its owner for $2 million. He hopes to sell it as soon as possible, but the amount is far too high, Jeber thinks.
“We want to buy the premises, or even rent them, to base our headquarters there. We’re looking for funding, so we can return the building to the community.” At the same time, he is considering starting legal proceedings in the courts since the synagogue, as government property, should never had been sold to a private owner.
For now, Jeber’s life is completely taken up by this battle. He confesses to being inspired by the 2014 George Clooney movie The Monuments Men, in which a group working with the Allies during World War II try to stop valuable art from falling into the hands of the Nazis. “I feel like a Monuments Man myself.”
His dream is to return the derelict quarter back to its former glory.
“That would be important for raising awareness that the Jewish quarter is an inseparable part of Mosul. For a long time, people tried to erase the Jews from our history. But it is our heritage, our identity and our true history.”
That is why he even hopes that Jews will return to live in the neighborhood. A taboo until recently, after ISIS it no longer seems to be. Jeber is hopeful: “It definitely will not be easy, but it could be the first step toward bringing cultural diversity back to Mosul.”
Diversity disappeared when radical groups appeared after 2003, and mostly because of ISIS, he says. “Then our mosaic changed into a dull gray. We want the color back. We must bring the different groups together again.” He planned a number of activities for everyone to take part in. One was a recent remembrance of the “genocides,” the murders that have afflicted most Iraqi minorities over the past century. To this end, he has invited not only Yazidis, Christians, Shi’ites and dignitaries from Iraq and abroad, but also Iraqi Jews. And indeed, a Jewish representative of Iraqi descent joined him from London.
Based on his experience during the years after the American invasion of 2003, he believes there is a window of opportunity for another two years. Jeber is convinced that how things develop subsequently will depend mainly on what action is taken.
“I see the local community starting to accept the return of the Jews, because of the good memories we share. Our Iraqi identity can unite us. That is why it is just as important to rebuild our diversity as it is to restore our economy.”