Legacy of Jews in the MENA - World Jewish Congress
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The Jewish Legacy of Iraq

Iraq was home to the original Jewish Diaspora. It is where the Jews settled in 586 BCE after the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem and is the location of the composition of the Babylonian Talmud, which was completed around 500 CE. It was from Baghdad that Saadia Gaon (882–942 CE) wrote to the Jews of al-Andalus instructing them on how to celebrate Passover outside of the land of Israel. And up until 1949, it was home to a flourishing Jewish community. 

Little is known about the Jewish community of Iraq during the Middle Ages, although a few rare descriptions exist to this day. For example, the great Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela (1130–1173) described Baghdad as being home to a vibrant Jewish community with 28 synagogues and 10 yeshivot, and he estimated that in the second half of the twelfth century, there were about 40,000 Jews there. Although historians agree that the number provided by Tudela is an exaggeration, it is clear that for centuries Jewish life flourished in Baghdad. Unsurprisingly, the Jews of Iraq in the modern era perceived themselves as part of an unbroken chain of Jewish in life in Mesopotamia dating from the time of the Babylonian exile until their mass migration from Iraq in the period between 1949–1952. 

Jewish family of Constantine, Algeria (c) Wikimedia Commons
Jewish family of Constantine, Algeria (c) Wikimedia Commons

Jewish Community in the Nineteenth & Twentieth Century 

In 1830, the Jewish population of Baghdad was somewhere between 6,000–10,000, and that city was no longer seen as an important Jewish center as it was in the time of the exilarch (Rejwan, 1985).  This slowly began to change in the course of the nineteenth century, most notably when in 1864 the Jewish community of Baghdad established a school under the auspices of the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU). This was followed in 1893 by the establishment of an AIU girl’s school, which was the first institution of its kind in Iraq. From there, the Jewish community developed an impressive network of schools that taught Western languages, mathematics, science, and hygiene for the children of members of the upper and middle classes, and vocational training for the poor and orphaned. Consequently, the Jewish community Westernized quicker than members of society at large, and this proved to be a major advantage in the ensuing decades. Moreover, prior to the opening of secular schools by the Christian and Muslims communities, many of their elites sent their children to Jewish schools. These schools were administered by the Jewish lay council and financed by local and foreign Jews, forming the cornerstone of Jewish communal infrastructure in Baghdad. However, by offering places to non-Jews, they also helped build the modern Iraqi state by educating generations of Jewish and non-Jewish civil servants. 

The earliest reliable source of demographic information relating to communal size, professions, and numbers comes from a British consular report in 1910, which estimates that somewhere between 35,000 and 50,000 Jews lived in Baghdad (Kedourie, 1971). The report then divides the Jews into four classes; approximately 5% were considered rich or well off; 30% were labelled as middle class, primarily engaged as petty traders, retail dealers, or employees; 60% were listed as poor; and 5%, mostly from northern Iraq, were considered beggars. One striking aspect of the twentieth-century composition of the Jewish community is the large segment labelled as “middle class,” which continued to grow with each ensuing decade. This attests to a trend seen throughout the Levant during this period:  the emergence of a sizable middle class encompassing all confessions who, through their access to education and Western ideas on secular society, altered the intellectual and social landscape of the age.  The emergence of a large Jewish middle class in Baghdad was primarily due to two factors: access to secular education, and the growth of Baghdad as a commercial center in British trade routes to the Indian subcontinent and other parts of Asia. Baghdadi Jews actively participated in these imperial trade routes, and a Baghdadi diaspora on the Indian subcontinent and in East Asia flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

In the early 1920s, the population of Baghdad was approximately 200,000 people. There were between 65,000 and 80,000 Jews in the province of Baghdad, at least 55,000 of whom lived in the city of Baghdad. Proportionally, this means that at least a quarter of the city’s population was Jewish, the largest unified ethnoreligious group in the city. Although the Jewish community continued to grow over the course of the next three decades, there was tremendous migration during this period of the general Iraqi population to Baghdad. As a result, the proportion of Jews living in Baghdad in relation to the general population of the city declined from the 1920s onward. By the mid-1930s, Jews no longer represented the largest ethnoreligious group in the city. In the 1940s, there were an estimated 77,000 Jews in Baghdad, whereas the overall population of the city had swelled to just over half a million. 

Girls learning to sew in the workshop at the Alliance School in Basra, Iraq, 1939 (c) Facebook group “עיראקים יוצאי בבל”
Girls learning to sew in the workshop at the Alliance School in Basra, Iraq, 1939 (c) Facebook group “עיראקים יוצאי בבל”

Like other Jewish communities of the Levant such as Syria and Lebanon, the Jewish community of Iraq was overwhelmingly urban, with the main Jewish centers being Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul. As a Jewish middle class emerged, many moved out of these predominantly Jewish neighborhoods to new “mixed” suburbs into houses that contained indoor plumbing, electricity, and other modern fixtures. The first of these neighborhoods in the 1930s was Bustan al-Khas followed by Battawiyyin and Alwiyya in the 1940s.  In these areas, middle-class Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived side by side. Some Jews sent their children to local non-Jewish elementary schools, only transferring them later to Jewish  middle and high schools (Somekh, 2007). Although the Jewish community slowly became more dispersed, synagogues and Jewish clinics, social clubs, and communal offices remained clustered in the traditionally Jewish neighborhoods. The institutional buildings were close to al-bab al-Sharqi and the Shorja souk areas that were associated with Jewish merchants. Thus, even as the Jewish middle class moved out of the Jewish neighborhoods, they continued to frequent them, as they were integral to daily life. Indeed, being part of a larger national middle class did not diminish the importance of Jewish communal institutions within daily life. 

The 1924 constitution represented an important shift in the status of the Jewish community in Iraq from that of dhimmi to that of citizen.  As such, Jews became a political minority, with five spaces allocated to them in the parliament. For example, the most well-known Jewish public servant in Iraq was Sassoon Heskel, who served as the minister of finance from 1920 to 1925 and was responsible for negotiating on behalf of the Iraqi state with the British Petroleum Company. However, Heskel was not the only Jew in Iraq to hold an important position in the government or civil service. Jews were found at all levels of the ministry of education, the postal service, and the railroads. Furthermore, employment by the Iraqi state did not exclude participation in transnational Jewish networks. For example, Ibrahim Nahum was both the head of the AIU in Iraq and a member of the Iraqi parliament for much of the 1930s and 1940s (Goldstein-Sabbah, 2021)

Jews were also important to the intellectual and cultural life of Iraq. Men like Nissim Susa (1900–1982), Anwar Sha’ul (1904–1984), Mir Basri (1911–2006), and Shalom Darwish (1913–1997) were among the most renowned Arab writers and intellectuals in twentieth-century Iraq. Jewish musicians were also highly respected, in particular the brothers Dā’ūd (1910–1976) and Ṣalāḥ (1908–1986) al-Kuweiti, who are considered to be the fathers of modern Iraqi music, and whose compositions can be heard on the radio in Iraq to this day, as are the recordings of singer Salima Murad (1900-–1974), for whom the al-Kuweiti brothers composed many pieces. 

Jewish Baghdadi merchants (c) Beit Hatfutsot, the Visual Documentation Center
Jewish Baghdadi merchants (c) Beit Hatfutsot, the Visual Documentation Center

Dissolution of the Community 

The halcyon days of the 1920s and 1930s in which Iraqi Jewish life flourished was followed by a decade of turbulence and growing insecurity, at times punctuated by moments of social calm. At first glance it would be easy to ascribe this change of societal position to the growing tension in Palestine and the anti-Western sentiment that was part and parcel of Arab nationalist movements; indeed, this was central to the erosion of security felt by most Jews. However, in Iraq, the mounting unease was complicated by internal societal changes that were redefining what it meant to be an Arab national and how modern Arab states should interact regionally and globally. 

Although many associate the 1941 Farhud [anti-Jewish riot that caused millions of dollars of damage to Jewish property and claimed the lives of 180–600 Jews] with the beginning of the end for the Jewish community in Iraq, this is far from true. The Iraqi government recognized it as a heinous act of anti-Jewish violence and partially indemnified the community members for their losses. Furthermore, the return of the British to Iraq in 1941 and the key position of the country during World War II meant that from 1942–1946, Iraqi Jews experienced a safety and prosperity that few other Jewish communities knew in the same period. In fact, in 1947, the Jewish community was still building schools and expanding the communal infrastructure, and there is little to suggest that anyone foresaw the quick dissolution of the community that occurred as the decade came to a close. 

The decline of Iraqi Jewry is closely tied to the political and economic situation of the country as a whole at the end of the 1940s, which was far from ideal.  Inflation, unemployment, and anti-British sentiment made for an extremely unstable political milieu. Those local problems coupled with the defeat of the Arab armies after the birth of the State of Israel in 1948 ultimately led to a rapid dissolution of the Jewish community that until today is not completely understood (Bashkin, 2012)

In May 1948, Iraq was placed under martial law partially due to regional political instability caused by the creation of the State of Israel, but also as a consequence of the wathba [anti-government riots]. As a result, Jews were prevented from legally leaving the country. Furthermore, Jewish civil servants were dismissed from their posts; quotas were placed on university admission for Jews, and merchants were denied trade licenses. The communal infrastructure suffered as well, as Jewish communal property was seized and repurposed to take in Palestinian refugees who were streaming into Iraq. Together these policies made life untenable both socially and economically for Iraqi Jews. Wealthy merchants were unable to run their businesses; members of the middle class lost their jobs, and the poor who were dependent on the charity of the upper and middle classes felt the repercussions of the economic downturn. 

When martial law was declared in December of 1949, Jews began to leave the country at a level not expected by the Iraqi government. In 1950, it put in place a law that denaturalized all those who had left and froze their assets. Many believe that this was done in an attempt stanch the flow of Jews out of Iraq. However, the precarious political and economic situation for the Jewish community persisted, and ultimately, only a few Jews stayed in the country. In total, approximately 123,000 Jews left Iraq between 1949–1952. The majority settled in Israel, with a smaller group emigrating to the UK, India, and further abroad. Following this mass exodus, only some 6,000 Jews were left in the country, but they, too, left in the ensuing decades as political and economic prospects continued to degrade for all Iraqi citizens. 

The Great Synagogue of Baghdad in the early 20th century. (c) Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, Public Domain
The Great Synagogue of Baghdad in the early 20th century. (c) Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, Public Domain

The Iraqi Jewish Diaspora 

Today, the culture and traditions of Iraqi Jewry are preserved in both Israel, where the majority of Iraqi Jews fled between 1949–1952, and throughout the Jewish Diaspora. The second-largest center of Iraqi Jewish life is the New York metropolitan area, followed by London. Thanks to artists, writers, and composers of Iraqi origin and heritage, the memory of life in Iraq is being preserved for future generations. 

Many important Iraqi authors such as Shalom Darwish (1913–1997), Sami Michael (1926), and Samir Naqqash (1938–2004) continued to publish both in Arabic and in Hebrew after immigrating to Israel, and some of their work has been translated into English as well. The music of Iraqi Jews was rediscovered in the twenty-first century thanks to the grandson and nephew of the Kuweiti brothers, Dudu Tassa. His band, Dudu Tassa and the Kuweitis, performs new renditions of their songs, keeping the music alive and introducing it to a new generation. Finally, the traditions of the Iraqi Jewish kitchen are preserved not only in the homes of the Iraqi Jewish Diaspora but also through Israeli food culture. Dishes such as kubbe and sabih have become ubiquitous in restaurants, markets, and fast-food outlets and have thus become part of Israeli culture.

Family of Iraqi Chief Rabbi Hakham Ezra Dangoor in Baghdad, 1910 (c) Wikimedia Commons
Family of Iraqi Chief Rabbi Hakham Ezra Dangoor in Baghdad, 1910 (c) Wikimedia Commons
Jews In Iraq
Yahya Qassim (1914–2004)

Yahya Qassim (1914–2004) was a well-known Iraqi lawyer, civil servant, and publisher who dedicated his life to promoting pluralism and democracy in his country. After graduating at the top of his class from the Baghdad Law Faculty in 1932, Qassim quickly climbed the ranks to become the head of the Iraqi Civil Service at just 21 years old. Qassim's dedication to equal treatment extended to the Jewish community, for whom he acted as a lawyer and helped negotiate the denationalization law, enabling Iraqi Jews to leave the country between 1949–1952. His contributions to the successful emigration of Iraqi Jewry and his advocacy of pluralism and democracy continue to serve as an inspiration.

Dāʾūd & Ṣalāḥ al-Kuweiti

The brothers Dāʾūd (1910–1976) and Ṣalāḥ (1908–1986) al-Kuweiti are considered by many to be the founders of modern Iraqi music. Born in Kuwait City to an Iraqi Jewish family, they studied music at a young age and became known as prodigies. They eventually moved to Baghdad in the 1930s, where they helped found a modern school of Arabic music incorporating European instruments such as cellos into traditional folk melodies, and they collaborated with prominent Arab singers of the time, including Umm Kulthum and Muḥammed ʿAbd al-Wahhāb. Their music was played on radios across the Middle East, but political tensions in Iraq following the creation of the State of Israel forced them to emigrate to Israel.

Shalom Darwīsh

Darwīsh was a prominent 20th-century Iraqi lawyer, politician, and writer. He was born in a small village near the Iraq–Iran border and later moved to Baghdad, where he attended a Jewish communal school and studied law. Although Darwīsh had both a successful legal and political career, he is most well known as a writer and is considered one of the pioneers of modern Iraqi literature. He was active in both Jewish communal life and Iraqi politics and was elected to the Iraqi parliament in 1947. His first publications appeared in al-Ḥāṣidṣ, which published the works of Iraq’s leading intellectuals and was edited by Anwar Shaul. His first volume of Arabic short stories dealt with the life of the common people of Iraq. He left the country in 1950 due to persecution and settled in Israel, where he practiced law and wrote weekly columns on legal matters. He published his stories and a novella in Hebrew and his work remains an important commentary on life in Iraq during the first half of the 20th century.

Sassoon Heskel (1860–1932)

Heskel was a prominent Iraqi politician, lawyer, and diplomat. Born into a prominent Baghdadi Jewish family, he studied at the Alliance Israélite Universelle School, and later in Istanbul, London, and Vienna. He was elected as a deputy for Baghdad in the first Ottoman Parliament and later became the first finance minister of Iraq (1920–1925). As finance minister, he played a crucial role in the establishment of the National Bank of Iraq and was a key figure in the establishment of the country's first budget and financial system, as well as the development of the country's economy. He was also actively involved in the development of Iraq’s infrastructure, promoting the construction of roads and railroads, and was one of the main advocates for the development of its oil industry.

Anwar Shāʾūl (1904–1984)

Shāʾūl was among the most renowned Arab writers in twentieth-century Iraq. Shāʾūl was both active in Iraqi literary circles and in Jewish communal affairs, serving as secretary of the lay council for the Jewish community of Baghdad from 1929–1938. Shāʾūl was the editor of the Arabic-language journal al-Miṣbāḥ from 1924–1925. Shāʾūl was a patriotic Iraqi and progressive activist, advocating for an end to British colonialism, freedom of expression, the enlightenment of his fellow Iraqis, and the advancement of education and empowerment of women.

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