Iraq A Three-Thousand-Year-Old Judaic Homeland

Fact Paper 31

© Samuel Kurinsky, all rights reserved

Summary:Iraq was a thriving hub of Jewish industrial, cultural and religious life for over 3000 years. Jewish centers formed the hub of trade routes from the west into China and India. Baghdad had a Jewish quarter and an industrial quarter occupied largely by Jews since762 CE. 200,000 Iraqi Jews were expelled since WWII, including 80,000 from Baghdad, and all their wordly possessions were seized.
map of baghdad
Baghdad was founded in 762 in the region of the great Judaic cities of Nehardea, Mahosa, Punbedita, Sura, in the rich agricultural and commercial heartland of Mesopotamia, "The Land of the Two Rivers." Baghdad became a thriving hub of Jewish industrial as well as intellectual and religious life. In addition to a Jewish residential quarter of the city, the west bank of the city, Al-Karkh, its commercial and industrial center, was also predominantly Jewish. Repressive measures taken by the Iraqi regime after the formation of the State of Israel led to an "ethnic cleansing" in which over 200,000 Jews were obliged to leave Iraq, including over 60,000 Jewish residents of Baghdad. Map courtesy ofNissin Rejwan and Westview Press

Iraq; The Historical Background

Iraq has been prominently featured in the media since Saddam Hussein launched an invasion of Kuwait. Scarcely a word appears about the ethnic cleansing of the Jews from Iraq, nor about the vast impact the Jews of the region have made on the evolution of the region's culture and civilization. Little note has been taken of the persecution and induced exodus of over 200,000 Jews from Iraq, the virtual elimination of Judaic presence from the land in which they were a dynamic element over thousands of years.

Nissan Rejwan opens his authoritative work, The Jews of Iraq, with the statement, "For close on four millennia the fortunes of the Jewish people, the growth of their religious beliefs, and the shaping of their culture were, in one way or another, inextricably linked with the 'land of the twin rivers,' now known as Iraq."1

It can likewise be said that the growth of civilization in that region was inextricably linked to the Jews during those millennia. A substantive Israelite imprint upon Babylonian civilization began with the Assyrian conquest of Samaria in 723-2 BCE and the deportation (according to the Assyrian conqueror) of 27,290 of the most skillful and productive Israelites, the cream of Israelite society.

Green glass vase bearing the name of Sargon II. Photo courtesy of the British Museum

The art of glassmaking offers a significant glimpse into the process. It was an art that had disappeared from Mesopotamia, the land in which it had been born. It reappeared in that ancient region with the importation of Israelite artisans. Sargon II, ruler of Assyria, celebrated the conquest by having a glass vase made, engraved with a lion and the insignia "Palace of Sargon, King of Assyria." It is a three-inch high green glass alabastron carved from a single piece of molded glass.2 It is now the treasured possession of the British Museum.

Nebuchadnazzer, in 587 BCE, likewise deported thousands of Jewish artisans and savants, the cream of Judaic society, into the Mesopotamian heartland. The extent of Judaic influence can be judged by the fact that, by the time the Achaemenid king Cyrus became the ruler of Babylon in 539 BCE, Aramaic, the secular language of the Jews, had become the official language of the Persian civil service. Aramaic remained the region's official medium for local and international commerce and for governmental and diplomatic affairs for the next thousand years.

Babylonia became the fountain from which scientific knowledge flowed into Greece, and subsequently across North Africa and Europe. The process started when Greek merchants such as Thales, Pythagorus, Herodotus, Leucippus, Democritus and others sojourned in Mesopotamia. The Greeks absorbed mathematics, astronomy and other sciences from the Babylonian sages and brought back the knowledge gained to Greece.3

The Cambridge History of Judaism (Vol. II) acknowledges this debt Greek, and ultimately Western science owes to the savants of Babylonia. "It was during the Achaemenid period... that the Greeks borrowed several major cultural achievements from Babylonia. The historian Herodotus, who visited Babylonia about 450 B. C. E., and left a detailed description of it, wrote in his great work (11:9) that the Babylonians were the Greek's teachers in mathematics and astronomy. Gradually, the synthesis of scientific knowledge, artistic techniques, and religious beliefs of the various peoples brought about what was a new material and spiritual culture. Later this contributed to the triumph of Hellenism, which was the product of Greek culture with that of the peoples of the East."

The science of the Babylonian sages lives on in the works of the Greeks, who codified it and made it known to the West. Judaic savants later found themselves in the reverse role of translators of the Greek texts into Hebrew, Latin, and Arabic.

The concentration of Jews in the industrial, agricultural, and commercial heartland of Mesopotamia made up the most dynamic element of the subsequent Sassanian (3rd-5th century) economy. River navigation and international commerce were largely in the hands of Jewish entrepreneurs. Insurance and banking were carried on by great Jewish financial houses, and trade with silk, linen, glassware, grain, spices, and a variety of other essential goods was promulgated and financed on a scale that approaches that of modern times.4

The Jews worked the land as tenants of the king, and many of the craftsmen were employed in state enterprises. Weavers and dyers, carpenters and smiths, sailors and singers are among the disciplines mentioned in the Talmud. The wines produced by the Jews of Sura won great praise in poetry quoted by an Arab chronicler of the seventh century. Glassware produced at Ctesiphon, one of the stations along the route into China, presaged the advent of the "Persian" glassware industry.

Jews were an important part of the royal administration. The Judaic community was headed by the Resh Galutha (Exilarch, Naggid, or Nasi), who was charged with the collection of taxes, supervision of markets, and even had autonomous supervision over criminal cases. In pre-Islamic times the Resh Galutha bore the title "King." Thus the official title of the Persian emperor was "King of Kings." The Persian emperor Yezdegerd I (399-420 CE), married a Jewess, Shushan-Dukhit, daughter of such a Jewish "King." Shushan was no mere palace decoration. She promoted Jewish colonization, founding communities in Isfahan and Hamadan, towns that became of prime importance in Islamic times.5

During the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods the population of Babylonian Jews may have approached two million. In any event it constituted a sizable proportion of the region's inhabitants. Great Judaic universities flourished and the Babylonian Talmud was compiled.

At the end of the fifth century, as a result of disorder throughout the empire, King Kabad I (488-531), was deposed and imprisoned. Mar Zutra, the Exilarch of the Jewish community, assembled an army during these turbulent times and founded a kingdom that ruled over the region for seven years! King Zutra proceeded to raise taxes and even wage war. The rule over the region by a Jewish king was but a passing phase, but indicative of the importance of the Jewish presence in the Sassanian period. Mar Zutra's rule ended tragically when in 502, Mar Zutra and his grandfather, the president of one of the great Judaic academies, were crucified on the bridge of Mahisa.

Exigencies arose during the next few centuries that adversely affected the Jews of Persia, particularly during a traumatic period in which the newly-formed, aggressive Mohammadan forces prevailed. Nonetheless, the creative characteristics of the Jewish community came to the fore. The Jewish community endured and became revitalized. By the Middle ages the Jews were again the major participants in the industrial, commercial and cultural development of the region.

Jewish centers at the agricultural and commercial heart of pan-Asian trade In the Talmudic period. Jews were concentrated in key sites of the rich agricultural heartland of Sassanian Persia (now Iraq) where canals criss-cross between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. The centers accounted for over 90% of Sassanian industry, and in them flourished great Jewish universities that drew students from throughout the Diaspora. The trade routes connecting the West to China and India radiate out from the Judaic/Persian hub. Baghdad was then a small village on the Tigris River.

Baghdad was founded in 762. The city was an expansion of a village forming one of its precincts. The village's Persian name (Bag, God; dad, has given) was applied to the whole city. Baghdad became a thriving hub of Jewish industrial as well as of intellectual and religious life. The city was born and nourished in the matrix of the great Judaic university centers at Pumbanditha, Mahosa, Sura, Nehardea and Nisibis, and of other cities thickly populated by Jews in the Sassanian period.

Baghdad's growth into a major center was due to its position at the hub of the intercontinental trade routes pioneered by Jewish entrepreneurs a thousand years earlier. The trade routes radiated out from that hub westward through Palestine, and Russia, and North Africa, and Europe, and eastward into East Africa, Turkestan, China and India.

Persian/Jewish trader/travelers (such as the "Radhanites"), learned the process of making paper in China (a far more reasonable theory than the myth than the process was learned from Chinese prisoners). Jews had been trading in China for more than a thousand years before they established the first paper mill in Baghdad at the end of the eighth century. Soon thereafter, the production of paper, far cheaper to produce, and superior to papyrus or parchment as a medium of writing, spread into other Islamic countries. "We find Jewish merchants importing paper from Syria to Egypt."6 Judaic entrepreneurs subsequently established the first European paper mill in Christian Spain.

The Mesopotamian heartland was one of two main sources of Mishnaic and Talmudic learning and lore. It was likewise the source from which scientific, astronomical and mathematical knowledge was transmitted to the Arabs. David Solomon Sassoon, a scion of Persian Jewry, accumulated a sizable collection of Judaic/Persian historical material. It was summarized and published by his son, Solomon Sassoon, who noted from these records that "Baghdad, in the eighth and ninth centuries, was famed as a center of culture from which the knowledge of the classical Greek scientists and philosophers radiated, and in this movement the Jews played their part... translating Greek authors into Arabic."7

Sassoon also quotes from several works by the English historian De Lacy O'Leary, who researched the history and origin of Arab science in considerable depth. "[There was] John Bar Maserjoye (eighth century). He translated the Syntagma [a systematic collection of writings] of Aaron into Syriac and presided over the medical school gathered in Baghdad."8

"There was "Sahl ibn Rabban al-Tabiri... who lived in the same century [and] was, according to one tradition, the translator of al-Majisti, a work by Ptolemy... His son, 'Ali (d. 850) who became a Moslem was the author of a great medical work Firdawa al-Hikhama..."9

During the tenth century there figures the name of Ishaq ibn Amran as-Israeli, who was trained in Baghdad... He became a pioneer in introducing medicine to Africa whence it spread to Spain. His treatise, Kitab al-Bawl, "On Urine," is the best medieval text on the subjects. His Guide to Physicians, of which the Arab text is now lost, was translated into Hebrew as Manhig (or Musar) and becomes a favorite manual of Jewish physicians."10

Baghdad in the Middle Ages

In 1168 the intrepid traveler Benjamin of Tudela visited a number of Babylonian cities, and reported on Jewish life in great detail in a work translated by Marcus N. Adler. Benjamin reported that "in Baghdad there are forty thousand Jews, and they dwell in security, prosperity and honor under the great Caliph, and amongst them are great sages, the heads of academies engaged in the study of the Law."

Benjamin was in Baghdad during the reign of the Abbassid caliph al-Mustanjid billah Yusuf (1160-70). "In Baghdad there are twenty-eight Jewish synagogues, situated either in the city itself or in al-Karkh on the other side of the Tigris, for the river divides the city into two parts.

The Jewish suburb of Baghdad, al-Karkh, was the center in which Jewish artisans plied their trades, and in which a major portion of the city's industry and business was conducted. This pattern of a city's creative and productive center being also an area of Jewish activity, and in which the only religious institutions were synagogues, was also true of Rome, where the Trastevere ("across the Tiber') district was both the Jewish quarter and Rome's industrial center. So too was the Chalkoprateia, ("brass market"), which was both the Judaic and the industrial quarter of Constantinople.11

"The city of Baghdad is twenty miles in circumference," marveled Benjamin, "situated in a land of palms, gardens and plantations, the like of which is not to be found in the whole land of Babylon. People come thither with merchandise from all lands."

The sumptuous palace of the Caliph and its grounds covered three square miles, all of which were enclosed with a substantial wall. Included were an arboreum, a zoo, and a lake fed by the waters of the Tigris. Whenever the Caliph decided to throw a party or host a feast, his servants would catch all kinds of birds, beasts, and fish, and he would bring his counselors and princes to revel at the palace. Many Jews were included in the Caliph's entourage."12

At the time of Benjamin's visit the Jews enjoyed autonomy over their own affairs. The Exilarch of the community, Daniel (in office from about 1150 to 1174), possessed "a book of pedigrees going back as far as David, King of Israel." The administration of the Jewish community was carried out under Daniel by ten scholars, headed by Samuel ben Ali, who held office from 1164-1193, and thereafter became Exilarch after the death of the reigning official.

"They do not engage in any other work than communal administration, and all the days of the week they judge the Jews their countrymen, except on Monday, when they appear before the Chief Rabbi Samuel, the head of the academy... who in conjunction with other scholars judges all those who appear before them."

"The great synagogue of the Exilarch," reported Benjamin, "has columns o marble of various colors overlaid with silver and gold, and on these columns are sentences of the Psalms in golden letters. And in front of the ark are about ten steps of marble; on the topmost step are the seats of the Exilarch and of the princes of the House of David."

The Exilarch enjoyed an exalted status next to that of the Caliph, who commanded that due respect be given to the Exilarch by all, Muhammadans and Jews alike. "On the day that the Caliph performs the ceremony of investing him with authority, the Exilarch rides in the second of the royal equipages, and is escorted from the palace of the Caliph to his own house with timbrels and fifes..."

",,,[The Caliph] ordered that everyone, whether Muhammadan or Jew or belonging to any other nation on his dominion, should rise up before the Exilarch and salute him... And every Thursday when he goes to pay a visit to the great Caliph, horsemen - non-Jews as well as Jews - escort him, and heralds proclaim his advance: 'Make way before our Lord, the son of David, as is due unto him...' He is mounted on a horse, and is attired in robes of silk and embroidery with a large turban upon his head, and from the turban is suspended a long white cloth adorned with a chain upon which the seal of Muhammad is engraved. Then he appears before the Caliph and kisses his hand, and the Caliph rises and places hi on a throne which Muhammad had ordered to be made in honor of him, and all the Muhammadan princes who attend the court of the Caliph rise up before him and the Exilarch is seated on the throne opposite the Caliph... to give effect to what is written in the Law. 'The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet as long as men come to Shiloh; and unto them shall the obedience of the people be.'"13

How different things would be if Saddam Hussein had followed the example of the twelfth century Caliphs! Benjamin mentioned that the Caliph possessed a knowledge of Hebrew and of Judaic law. Another Jewish world-traveler, Petachia of Ratisphon, visited Baghdad, and not only substantiated Benjamin's report but added emphasis to his glowing report. In fact, Petachia went so far as to state that the Caliph loved the Exilarch and "in his heart" had adopted the Jewish faith. He intended to accept Judaism with his own people, but that he "had not time to become a convert and convert his people before he dies."14

"There is not an ignoramus throughout the whole of Babylon and Assyria..." wrote Petachia, "who does not know all th 24 books of the Bible and their punctuation and grammar... Even the Ishmaelites (Arabs) are trustworthy. In Babylon there are 30 synagogues."

Benjamin visited the maritime port of Basra, where he found 10,000 Jews in residence, and likewise found another equally numerous Jewish population in Okhara, a city on the Tigris river. In fact, Benjamin found that such colonies of Jews were settled all along the major trade routes of the region.15

The Exilarch was empowered by the Caliph for oversight over the other more or less autonomous Judaic communities of the entire Near-East, and his jurisdiction extended into a large portion of Asia.

"The authority of the Exilarch extends over all the communities of Babylon, Persia, Kharasan and Sheba, which is el-Yemen, and Dyar Kalach and all the land of Mesopotamia, and over the dwellers in the mountains of Ararat, and the land of the Alans..."

The Alans inhabited the Caucasus, the mountains referred to by Benjamin. They were allies of the Khazars, who had converted to Judaism. The Jews were anciently conversant with these tribes, having dealt with them along the "Linen, Glass, Spice and Silk Route" to Kaifeng, the capital of China. The trail of the Jewish glassmakers leads to glassworks found in the Alan territory in the northern foothills of the Caucasus at Mecheta-Samtawbro. They date to an early period, apparently as far back as the fourth century. The Mecheta glassworks appeared to have continued operating into the ninth century, the time in which Jewish traders from the district of Radhan (the "Radhanites"), near Baghdad, reached the peak of their activity.16 Another significant glasshouse was excavated in Alan territory at Orbeti. It dates from the seventh or eighth centuries, in which period the Khazars converted to Judaism and an exodus of Jews began from Persia as a consequence of Muhammad's aggression.17

Benjamin continues his delineation of the Exilarch's authority. "His authority extends also over the land of the Sawir, and the land of the Turks, unto the mountains of Asveh and the land of the Gurgan [that is, around the Caspian Sea]. Further it extends to the gates of Samarkand, the land of Tivet [Tibet?], and the land of India..."

Thus Benjamin outlines the routes pioneered by the Jewish/Persian trader/travelers across Asia and down into India. Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent, and Bactria all lie within the region delineated by Benjamin; they were all important trading posts along the route into the Far East, and all harbored significant and active Jewish communities.18

"Iraq Jews carried the trade of their land to Central Asia, India and beyond; and some of the emissaries of Babylonian and Persian Jews to Bukhara served as viziers in the courts of the emirs and the great moguls of India."19

The other traveler mentioned above, Petachia of Ratisphon, arrived in Baghdad at a time when the Exilarch, Daniel b. Hisdai, was no linger among the living, and left no heirs. Petachia's glowing report parallels that of Benjamin, but Petachia decries the division of the Jewish community on the succession to the position held by Daniel.

Petachia made a gloomy assessment of the future, a judgement that was confirmed by the poet Judah el-Herizi, who arrived during the reign of the succeeding Caliph, el-Nasir bidin-Allah (1180-1225), and found that Baghdad, a city that until then had been "a seat of wealth and learning, the Jewish community populous and full of religious vigor, free and happy, industrious and charitable... [was now] pleasure-seeking and forsaken, bereft of the pious and full of sinners."20

The libertarianism displayed by the Jews was a reflection of the dissoluteness that permeated the Caliphate during this affluent time. Phillip Hitti describes the court: "The large harems, made possible by the countless numbers of eunuchs and boy slaves (ghilman), who contributed most to the degradation of womanhood and the degeneration of manhood; the unlimited concubines and the numberless half-brothers and half-sisters in the imperial household with their unavoidable jealousies and intrigues; the luxurious scale of high living with the emphasis on wine and song - all these and other similar forces sapped the vitality of family life and inevitably produced the feeble heirs to the throne."21

The famous Tatar ruler, Chinguz ("Genghis") Khan, who considered himself "the scourge of God sent to men as a punishment for their sins," may have considered cleansing sin from the Mesopotamian Caliphates as part of his manifest destiny. It was left to his grandson, Hulago Khan, to complete the downfall of Moslem dominion over Mesopotamia. The last Abbassid Caliph, el-Musta'sim-billah, was captured and executed.

The Jews suffered from the destruction that took place with the siege of the city and the ravages of the countryside, but the long-standing and sympathetic relationship between the Jews and the Mongols stood them in good stead. It appears that some Jewish institutions and house of worship were spared or were allowed to have been rebuilt. The Jews lost no status in the region as a consequence of Mongol rule. In fact, a Jewish family that had served as doctors, viziers, and councillors at the court of the great Khans over four generations was entrusted with governing Mesopotamia!

"The Mongol Khans employed members of a Jewish family as their physicians viziers. Sa'ad el-Dawlah, whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather were attached to the Mongol rulers, was sent to Baghdad in the year 1284 by the Argun Khan, the grandson of the conqueror of the Abbassids, as governor of Mesopotamia. This Jewish governor, sitting on the throne of the Caliphs, raised Baghdad to a great height of wealth and importance. The integrity and financial skill of the governor were fully and duly recognized by his master and he was elevated to the dignity of Chancellor of the Empire."22

Even contemporary Arab poets lauded Sa'ad in flattering rhymes:

The Jews of this our time a rank attain,
To which the heavens might aspire in vain.
Theirs is the dominion, riches to them cling,
To them belong both councillor and king.23

The envious undertone of the poem reflected the growing resentment by public servants and the soldiery to the strict regime instituted by Sa'ad. The Muslims among them awaited an opportunity to regain their former importance, and opposition seethed underneath the deceivingly calm surface of society. "When the first opportunity arose, the jealousy and the enmity - which was directed against the Mongol overlords as against Da'ad el-Dawla himself - began to find expression."24

The opportunity for revolt arose with the failure of Khan's counselor and physician, Sa'ad, to cure the ruler. Sa'ad petitioned for the prayers of the Jewish community for divine help to no avail. Those who had feared and flattered the counselor now petitioned the khan, complaining about the growing power of the Jews. Emboldened by the khan's weakness they staged a coup, killing a Mongol friend of the Caliph entitled as "Prince." Finally the death of the khan sparked a riot. Sa'ad was killed; the Jewish quarter was ravaged and its residents massacred. A contemporary poet wrote:

Grim captains made them drink Death's cup of ill,
Until their skulls the blood-bathed streets did fill,
And from their dwellings seized the wealth they'd gained,
And their well-guarded women's rooms profaned.

Rejwan notes: "We will never know if these lines were written by a bragging Muslim, an envious Christian, or even a Jew trying to bring home some point or other."

An economic crisis ensued. Two years later another Jew, Rashid el-Dawla, was appointed to the lofty position of Wazir. His position as counselor and physician to Uljaitu Khan proved to be just as tenuous as that of Sa'ad. When the khan died in 1316, rumors were spread that his physician had poisoned him. Rashid was executed.

By this time the Mongol rulers had embraced Islam, and Jews who attained high position were forced to convert before acceptance. The Arab Muslims were also perturbed about the translation into Arabic in 1341 of a book written in 1280 by a Jewish oculist, Sa'ad ibn Mansur ibn Kammuna, also a teacher of philosophy and an author of several works on the subject. One of Kammuna's works, entitled Examination of the Enquiries into the Three Faiths, was a cautious work on comparative religion. The book inflamed the Arabs simply because it dared to raise questions about Islam, albeit it did not question its practice.25

The fortunes of the Jews continued to rise and fall during several changes of regime until Tamerlane ["Timur the Lame"], the last and most ruthless of the Mongols, invaded Baghdad. His forces massacred thousands, looted indiscriminately, and demolished mosques and synagogues alike. Turbulent times followed Tamerlane's death in 1405. "Prince followed prince, intrigue and violence rent the loose and mutinous empire." So-called "Black Sheep" dynasties contended with their cousin "White Sheep" dynasties.

Jews were fewer but never absent from Baghdad during this period, one in which Baghdad had become a mere shadow of what it had been. Jews began to flow back into the decimated city in 1457, when Uzun Hasan, of the "White Sheep" dynasty defeated the "Black Sheep" kingdom and extended his rule over Persia and Iraq. Baghdad's economy began to regain some of its old strength.

Arrival of the Sephardim

A new influx of Jews took place after 1492, refugees from the expulsion of Jews from Spain. Immigration came to a trickle as the reign of the "White Sheep" dynasty came to an end in 1508, when Iraq came under the rule of the Sawafis, a Persian Shiite dynasty. Nonetheless, a Portuguese traveler, Pedron Teixera, visiting Baghdad in the early sixteenth century, found some 250 houses occupied by Jews, indicating a Jewish population of no less than five times that number. He talked to five of the families, all of whom earned their living as artisans or tradesmen. Pedron was enamored with the beauty of the Jewish women, especially their "delicacy" and the "excessive" beauty of their eyes!

The trickle of Jewish immigration turned into a sizable flow after the Ottoman Süleyman the Magnificent (1529-66), accompanied by a number of scholars and physicians, entered Baghdad on the last day of 1534. Jews had been supportive of the Ottomans and were instrumental in their successes against the Byzantines. Stanford Shaw records that "These Ottoman conquests marked a very substantial change for the Jews of the Middle East and Europe. They meant liberation, not only from subjugation, persecution and humiliation but often from actual slavery in Christian's hands. As a result, Jews contributed significantly to Ottoman conquests."25

Shaw goes on to document how the Jews of Barsa, Byzantine's administrative center of northwestern Anatolia, had actively helped to capture the city in 1324, had assisted in the capture of Gallipoli and of Andrionople (now called Edirne), and how their assistance to the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II Fatih ("The Conqueror") contributed to bringing the Byzantine Empire to an inglorious demise in 1453.

The Turkish conquerors brought large numbers of Jews from the newly conquered lands in Bosnia and Serbia as well as Ashkenazi refugees from throughout Europe. Süleyman continued this policy by extending a warm invitation to the Sephardim to immigrate into his domain, including a contingent into Baghdad itself. The further expansion of the Ottoman Empire was, indeed, made possible in great measure by the munitions and artillery factories that these very Sephardim established along the banks of the Bosporus.

Baghdad was, of course, but one of the many Mesopotamian cities harboring a substantial Jewish population. Baghdad's Judaic population increased steadily during the following centuries despite recurring traumatic episodes and also because of the decimating plagues that took place in 1743, 1773, and 1833. The growth and importance of the Jewish community of that city alone can be judged by the fact that in the latter part of the nineteenth century, 2300 students attended the Talmud Torah of Baghdad.

In 1890-91 a military tax to obtain exemption from military service was paid on behalf of 2,483 young Jews of draft age. This figure indicates that the Jewish population had grown to about 80,000, a figure that still excludes an indeterminate number of young Jews that did perform military service.

In 1889, students of the Army School of Medicine in Istanbul (the "Young Turks"), formed a secret organization, "The Ottoman Society for Union and Progress," and finally succeeded in terrifying Sultan Abdul Hamid into accepting the Society's demands for a constitution that included citizenship and equal rights for non-Muslim subjects. The Jews enjoyed these enhanced freedoms under the new constitution, proclaimed on July 23rd, 1908.

In 1909, Sassoon Heskel, deputized to represent the Jews of the Vilayet (Iraqi Province), "was appointed Turkey's representative at the talks aimed at concluding a treaty of friendship with Great Britain... Heskel, [Later Sir Sassoon Heskel], was appointed the Secretary of the Treasury in the first government to be formed under the British Mandate, a post which he kept throughout the first five Iraqi cabinets."

The British occupied Baghdad in March 1917. The Jews were numerically the largest, commercially the most dynamic, and certainly the best educated of the city's ethnic and religious groups. The last Ottoman official yearbook registered 80,000 Jews out of a total Baghdad population of 202,000. The Sunnis Shiites and Turks together numbered 101,400, the Christians, 12,000, the Kurds, 8000. Jews from Baghdad had also established themselves in India, England, and the Far East, and their international commercial networks and local industries made them by far the most productive factor in the Iraqi economy.

The British and French launched a campaign to undercut Turkish influence in favor of the Arabs. An Anglo-French declaration promised "to encourage and assist in the establishment of indigenous governments and administrations in Syria and Mesopotamia." This innocuous-sounding proclamation was merely a cover for undermining the Turkish/Muslim domination of Iraqi society and substituting for it control by a minority group, the Arabic Sunnis.

"Now these Muslims, or rather, the Arabic-speaking Sunnis among them, were to be given the whole country to rule, most likely to lord it over the Jews, the Christians, the variety of non-Arab Muslims... and even over their Shiite co-religionists."26

It was a classic case of "Divide and Conquer," the stratagem employed by an imperialist power to control a society by on installing a minority group whose power depended on the support of the imperialist power, and, ergo, did the power's bidding from the top echelons of society.

Emir Faisel, an Arab son of a sheik who had led an Arab revolt against the Ottoman sultan, was brought from Mecca to govern the kingdom of Iraq. On August 23rd, 1921, Faisal was proclaimed King of Iraq.

It so happened that Faisal was friendly to the Jews. Faisal had already signed the famous Faisal/Weizman agreement to establish a national home for the Jews in Palestine. The Jews celebrated his access to the throne by a festive reception in the Great Synagogue of Baghdad. The new king kissed the temple's scroll, and in addressing his hosts, declared that the Jews were "the moving spirit among the inhabitants of Iraq."

Faisal's assurance that there would be no discrimination between Christian, Muslim, and Jew was reaffirmed in a constitution passed in July, 1924 by the constituent assembly and ratified by Faisal in March of the next year. The Jews were well represented in the new administration. Five of the thirty-three deputies were Jews, two each from Baghdad and Basra, and one from Mosul. The post of Finance Minister and other important posts were held by Jews. A crowning achievement for Iraq, and for all the Arab countries, was the successful negotiations Sassoon Heskel ("Heskel Affendi"), the Iraqi Finance Minister, conducted with the British Petroleum Company in 1925. "He insisted that the payment of oil revenues be calculated on the basis of gold. After much wrangling, he got his way - and when Britain abolished the gold standard, Iraq... gained considerable additional revenue from its oils."27

The Arabs have yet to render thanks to Heskel for wealth gained as a result of a Jew's foresightedness!

Iraq won independence from Britain in 1932, and was admitted into the League of Nations. King Faisal died in 1933 at a most critical historical period. Iraq became a haven for pan-Arabic nationalists. The movement was ignored and even given tacit support by the French and British, a policy that weighed in against the allies when the Arabs joined the Axis powers.

The Iraqi Jews were put into an untenable position. They found themselves no better off after the British army invaded Iraq and was posted outside of Baghdad. The Iraqi army was disbanded, but allowed to enter Baghdad in small groups not in formation (a policy repeated with even more egregious consequences by President Bush, who allowed Saddam Hussein's army to retreat intact).

Assurances to the Jews by the British of security did not prevail. Attacks on the Jews escalated until an estimated 170-180 Jews were slaughtered in a riot, along with an indeterminate number of Muslims who came to the rescue of their neighbors.

A commission was formed to investigate the farhud (pogrom). The commission faulted Nazi propaganda but failed "to mention what must be reckoned as the most bizarre and astonishing aspect of the whole affair, namely that the riots took place after the pro-Nazi regime of Rashid 'Ali was toppled, and in full view, so to speak, of the British, the loyalist army, and the police commanders."

The lack of action by the British occupiers and their allies stood in sharp contrast to the defense of the Jews by their Muslim neighbors. "Hundreds of Jews were saved by the willingness of the Muslim neighbors to protect them, in some cases at the cost of their own lives and limbs. According to one account, the spiritual head of the Shiite community of Baghdad, Sayyud Abbu'l Hassid al-Musawi helped to save many lives by ordering his followers to refrain from taking part in the looting and killing by refusing to issue a fatwa (religious edict) calling on Muslims to declare jihad (holy war) against the Jews."28

The following four years of tenuous peace lulled the Jews into continuing life as before. Anti-Jewish riots in Cairo on November 2, 1945, soon after World War II ended, led to a call for similar action by Iraqi Arab nationalists. Anti-Jewish sentiments escalated, and severe ant-Jewish policies were instituted. The numbers of Judaic civil servants was drastically reduced. Jews were obligated to take Muslim partners into their businesses. The number of Jews in universities was slashed. Many other measures rasped away privileges the Jews had enjoyed through the ages.

Zionist aspirations were decried. The Iraqi Zionist movement was hardly significant, due to the ancient ties the Jews had to The Land of the Two Rivers, but the identification of all Jews with Zionists became part and parcel of strident anti-Semitic Arab propaganda. The formation of the Arab League led to an escalation of this propaganda. In 1946, the leader of the Shiites joined the campaign against the Jews by issuing a fatwa forbidding the sale of land to the Jews in all Arab countries, including Palestine.

The resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on November 29, 1947, calling for the partition of Palestine into Arabic and Judaic states, sparked demonstrations calling for "Death to the Jews."

Immediately after the State of Israel was proclaimed on May 15, 1948, marshal law was imposed and Iraqi troops invaded Israel, the first time Iraqi troops were ever abroad. Israeli victories added fuel to the zeal with which anti-Jewish measures were instituted and enforced. Military courts were established, and the Iraqi Jews found themselves defenseless against a new, vicious series of anti-Jewish laws passed and applied with gusto. Civil servants were dismissed. The Ministry of Health stopped issuing licenses to doctors and did not renew old ones. Accusations of subversive activities led to summary convictions and sentences in which the prisoner was given the choice of imprisonment or a heavy fine. The plight of Jewish business men became a windfall for those who snapped up long-established businesses at nominal coat.

The armistice and the lifting of martial law furnished only an ephemeral relief to the Jews. The embarrassing defeat Iraq and five other Arab nations had suffered in their war against Israel, growing financial problems and an influx of Arab refugees spurred further deterioration in the position of the Jews. The Chief Rabbi, who had opposed Zionism, resigned and was replaced by the Zionist-oriented Heskel Shemtob. An underground Zionist movement burgeoned and an exodus began.

A portion of a bas-relief from the royal Assyrian palace recording an event in 732 BCE, when the Assyrian war-lord, Tigleth-Pileser, invaded Israel. An Assyrian soldier is depicted driving Israeli musicians before him. Another Assyrian inscription relates that 13,500 of Israel's musicians and artisans were taken into captivity. In 598 BCE the Babylonian king Nebuchadnazzar likewise deported thousands ofJudahites to Babylonia, including "all the craftsmen and the smiths." Jews were thereafter continuously resident in the region, and were major contributors to its evolution of civilization. The forced exodus of over 200,000 Jews, and the confiscation of their assets has been ignored by the media and by the international community.

"Various escape routes to Iran, old and new, were used to capacity, mainly through Basra and Shat al'-Arab in the south and through the mountainous borders in the north. Arab and Kurdish 'guides' were mobilized and paid handsomely; border policemen and other security people were bribed and conveniently looked the other way; government officials were also easily bought... Confronted with such determination and seeing neither the army or the police were capable of stopping the flow, the government, its hands forced, decided to legalize emigration."29

The new law deprived emigrants who did not return to Iraq in two months of their citizenship. The Judaic community did not respond to legal registration for emigration at first, fearing a devious trap fashioned to round up suspected Zionists. Once registration for departure did begin, it burgeoned into a flood. By the end of April, 50,000 Jews had registered. The move to an exodus was hastened on the last day of April after a bomb was thrown into a crowded café. Other incidents followed. The law permitting emigration expired in March, 1951. It was found that with the exception of six thousand persons, all Iraqi Jews had registered to leave.

"It was then that the final blow was dealt. Two laws were proposed and passed. The first decreed that all possessions of all Jews that had registered for emigration were to be 'frozen'; the second stipulated that Iraqi Jews who had not given up their Iraqi nationality, and who were abroad would lose their nationality if they did not return in a specified period of time, in which case their possessions would be forfeit to the government."30

The cash assets alone of the emigrants were valued at 7,000,000 pounds. Their other assets, land, businesses, houses, and personal possessions, a formidable national wealth accumulated over two mil-lennia, were likewise to be forfeited. Over a hundred thousand Jews were suddenly rendered penniless.

A massive airlift, "Operation Ezra and Nehemiah," removed up to 1400 Iraqi Jews daily from the land Jews had occupied and benefitted for well over two thousand years. In addition to the considerable number of Jews who had fled earlier, 107,603 Jews were airlifted through Cyprus to Israel, and at least 16,000 others are known to have gone elsewhere. In 1962, six thousand Jews remained in Iraq, and by 1980 the country was virtually devoid of Jews.

It should be emphasized that the Jews have a firmer historical claim to residence in Iraq than the Arabs, for whereas the Jews can claim a continuous presence in the country since the eighth century BCE, the Arabs arrived fourteen centuries later!

Much is made in the media and in international circles about the displacement of Arabs from Israel as a consequence of Arab aggression. Little note is taken of the "ethnic cleansing" of Jews from Arab lands, and of the summary confiscation of their worldly goods. The displaced Jews did not launch rockets against their Arab neighbors. Indeed, the Jews have contributed prosperity and civilization to the people of the region, including its Arabs, in the twenty-seven hundred years of residence among them.


  1. Nissim Rejwan, The Jews of Iraq, 1985, 3.
  2. Samuel Kurinsky, The Glassmakers; An Odyssey of the Jews, 1991, 4.
  3. HHF Fact Paper 16, The Babylonian Origin of Greek Science
  4. Samuel Kurinsky, The Eighth Day; The Hidden History of the Jewish Contribution to Civilization, 244-7.
  5. S. D. Goitein, Jews and Arabs, 1974, 120
  6. Goitein, Ibid., 92
  7. David Solomon Sassoon, History of the Jews in Baghdad, 1949, 39.
  8. De Lacy O'Leary, Arabic Thought and its Place in History, London, 1939, 105.
  9. O'Leary, Ibid., 158.
  10. Sassoon, Ibid, 40.
  11. Kurinsky, The Glassmakers, 151-3; 367-9.
  12. Sassoon Ibid., 89.
  13. M. N. Adler, The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, London, 38-42. The reference is to Genesis 49:10; See also Mark R. Cohen, Jewish Self-Government in Jewish History and Booklore, 42.
  14. M. N. Adler, Jewish Travelers, 1966, 71-2.
  15. Yosef Levanon, The Jewish Travelers in the Twelfth Century, 1980, 139.
  16. Norman A. Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands, 1979, 35.
  17. Kurinsky, The Glassmakers, 333-4, 348.
  18. Kurinsky, The Glassmakers, 281-6.
  19. Chaim Raphael, The Road From Babylon, 1985, 226, quoting Itzhak Ben Zvi, The Exiled and the Redeemed, The Strange Jewish Tribes of the Orient, London, 1958, 14.
  20. Sassoon, Ibid., 91
  21. Phillip Hitti, History of the Arabs, 455-470.
  22. Sassoon, Ibid., 92.
  23. Prof. Edward G. Browne, A Literary History of Persia, Vol. III, 1928, 1-6.
  24. Rejwan, Ibid., 157
  25. Stanford Shaw, The Jews of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic, 25-6.
  26. Rejwan, Ibid., 211.
  27. Rejwan, quoting Mir Basri, Prominent Jews in Modern Iraq, 33-4.
  28. Rejwan, Ibid., 224,
  29. Rejwan, Ibid., 245-6
  30. Rejwan, Ibid., 248