Author Topic: Iraqi Jewish History  (Read 2756 times)

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Iraqi Jewish History
« on: September 17, 2007, 11:57:04 PM »
The Iraqi Jewish Community is one of the oldest in The World. It has a great history of learning and scholarship. Abraham, the first Jew and the father of The Jewish People, was born in Ur of The Chaldees, in Southern Iraq, around 2000 B.C.E.. The community traces its history back to The 6th Century B.C.E., when Nebuchadnezzar and The Babylonians, conquered The Kingdom of Judah, destroyed The First Temple, and sent most of the population into exile in Babylonia.

The community maintained strong ties with The Land of Israel. With the aid of rabbis from Israel, the community succeeded in establishing many prominent rabbinical academies. By The 3rd Century C.E., Babylonia became the center of Jewish scholarship. The community's most influential creation is The Babylonian Talmud.

Under Muslim rule, beginning in The 7th Century, the situation of the community fluctuated. Many Jews held high positions in government or prospered in commerce and trade. At the same time, Jews were subjected to special taxes, restrictions on their professional activity, and Anti-Jewish incitement among the masses.

The Baghdad Jewish Community was founded in The Mid 8th Century and it was the seat of The Exilarch (Resh Galutah) from The 9th Century to The 11th Century. During The Gaonate, The Jews lived in a special quarter called Dar Al-Yahud and "The Jewish Bridge" connected them to the rest of the city. The yeshivot of Sura and Pumbedita were established in Baghdad at the end of The 9th Century. The city played an important role in The Karaite Movement.

In The 12th Century, the community reached its peak and Benjamin of Tudela reported that it numbered approximately 40,000 Jews, 28 synagogues, and 10 yeshivot. Jews were active in the fields of medicine, pharmacy, goldsmelting, and trade. Under Mongol rule (1258-1335) the physician Sa'd Al-Dawla was appointed as director of the financial administration of Iraq, and Chief Vizier of The Mongol Empire. After the death of The Sultan in 1291, he was executed on the pretense of not having given The Sultan the appropriate medical attention.

After the conquerors changed their religion to Islam at the start of The 14th Century, they renewed all the decrees and heavy taxes which applied to all "unbelievers". With the conquest of Baghdad by Tamerlane in 1393, many Jews fled to Kurdistan and Syria and Baghdad remained almost without Jews until the end of The 15th Century.

During the first part of Ottoman rule (1534-1623) there was an improvement in The Jews' situation. There were 250 Jewish houses in the city, of a total of 25,000 houses. From 1623 to 1638, Baghdad was under Persian rule and The Jews were greatly relieved when Baghdad was once again conquered by Sultan Murad IV. 16 Tevet, 5399, the day of the conquest, was fixed as "yom nes" (A day of miracle.).

During the second half of The 18th Century to the beginning of The 19th Century, Turkish rule deteriorated and the attitude to The Jews became harsh. Many wealthy members of the community fled to Persia and other countries, among them David Ben Sasson, who moved his business to India. At that time 6,000 Jewish families were resident in Baghdad led by a Pasha known as "King of The Jews". With the opening of The Suez Canal in 1869, the situation of the city's 20,000 Jews improved - along with the general economic situation - and many Jews from other localities settled there. In 1884 there were 30,000 Jews in Baghdad and by the beginning of The 20th Century there were 50,000. The greatest of the Baghdad rabbis, Rabbi Yosef Chaim Ben Eliyahu Mazal Tov (1834-1909), never accepted public financial assistance. His name is famous in The Jewish World, especially among the Baghdad version (of prayer book) communities in Israel, England, India, Singapore, Manila, etc....

Until the British occupation of World War I, The Jews suffered from extortion and the cruelty of the local authorities. Many young men were recruited into the army service to serve in the murderous forces in The Caucasus Mountains. Under British rule, which began with the British entry to Baghdad on February 3, 1917, fixed as Yom Nes 17 Adar, there began a period of freedom for the Jews of Baghdad and many of them were employed in the civil service. Jews fared well economically, and many were elected to government posts. This traditionally observant community was also allowed to establish Zionist organizations and to pursue Hebrew studies. All of this progress ended when Iraq gained independence in 1932. There was an increase in Anti-Semitism especially after the appearance of the German ambassador A. Grobbe in Baghdad in 1932. Jewish clerks were dismissed and in 1936 Jews were murdered and their institutions bombed. In the days of the Pro-Axis revolution of Rashid Ali Al-Kilani on June 1-2, 1941, riots against the Jews took place with the passive support of both the army and police. Between 120 and 180 people were killed and more than 800 wounded. The value of the looted property was estimated at 4,000,000. Thousands left the city and only returned when they heard that the situation had improved.

In 1945 there were frequent demonstrations against The Jews and especially against Zionism, and with the proclaimed partition of Eretz Yisrael in 1947, The Jews were in danger of their lives. Many received harsh legal sentences and were forced to pay heavy fines. Although emigration was prohibited, many Jews made their way to Israel during this period with the aid of an underground movement. The number of Jews in Baghdad decreased from 100,000 to 77,000. With the establishment of Israel hundreds of young Jews were arrested on charges of Zionist activity and 2 Zionist leaders were publicly hanged in Baghdad. In 1950, The Iraqi Parliament finally legalized emigration to Israel, and between May, 1950 and August, 1951, The Jewish Agency and The Israeli Government succeeded in airlifting approximately 110,000 Jews to Israel in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah and Operation Magic Carpet. This figure includes 18,000 Kurdish Jews from the Kurdistan region of Northern Iraq, who have many distinct traditions. Altogther, since 1948, 129,557 Iraqi Jews made aliyah to Israel, 123,371 of them between 1948 and 1951. Thus a community that had reached a peak of 150,000 in 1947 dwindled to a mere 6,000 after 1951.

Persecutions continued, especially after The Six Day War in 1967, when many of the remaining 3,000 Jews were arrested and dismissed from their jobs. On January 27, 1969, 9 Jews were hanged on charges of spying for Israel. In recent years Jews in Iraq were permitted to live in only two cities: Baghdad and Basra. They numbered about 500 in total. During Gulf War I in 1991, Baghdad had a small Jewish community of some 150. The only synagogue of Baghdad stood in the center of the city, surrounded by a wall. The synagogue committee was the only organization serving the community. Two members of Iraq's dwindling Jewish community were murdered in the synagogue by a PLO/Hamas Arab Muslim Nazi in October, 1998. Contacts with Jews in other countries were sporadic. After Gulf War II, Jewish Agency officials spent several weeks looking for Jews in Iraq, and found 34. Six of them made aliyah in July, 2003. 17 more made aliyah in August, 2003, thus that only 11 Jews remained in what was once, some 1,500 years ago, the Torah center of the The World.

Until Operation Ezra and Nehemiah there were 28 Jewish educational institutions in Baghdad, 16 under the supervision of the community committee and the rest privately run. The number of pupils reached 12,000 and many others learned in foreign and government schools. About 400 students studied medicine, law, economics, pharmacy, and engineering. In 1951 the Jewish school for the blind was closed. It was the only school of its type in Baghdad. The Jews of Baghdad had two hospitals in which the poor received free treatment, and several philanthropic services. Out of 60 synagogues in 1950, only 7 remained in 1960.

From the end of The Ottoman Period until 1931 there was a "General Council" of 80 members, among them 20 rabbis. A law was passed in early 1931 to permit non-rabbis to assume the leadership. Despite this, in 1933 Rabbi Sasson Kaduri was elected and in 1949, Ezekiel Shemtov succeeded him. Kaduri returned to his position in 1953. In December, 1951, the government abolished the rabbinical court in Baghdad.

During The 10th Century, there were 2 distinguished Jewish families in Baghdad, Netira and Aaron. At the end of The 10th Century, Rabbi Isaac Ben Moses Ibn Sakri of Spain was the Rosh Yeshiva. In The 12th Century, the exilarch Daniel Ben Chasdai was referred to by The Arabs as "Our Lord, The Son Of David". The Baghdad community reached the height of its prosperity during the term of office of Rosh Yeshiva Samuel Ben Ali HaLevi, an opponent of Rambam, who raised Torah study in Baghdad to a high level. Rabbi Eleazar Ben Jacob HaBavli and Rabbi Isaac Ben Israel were Rashei Yeshivot during The Late 12th Century through The Mid 13th Century. Notable personalities in The 18th Century and 19th Century included Abdullah Somekh who founded a rabbinical college called Beit Zilkha, Rabbi Sasson Ben Israel, Jacob Tzemach, Ezekiel Ben Reuben Menashe, Yosef Gurji, Eliezer Kaduri, and Menachem Daniel. Until 1849 the community of Baghdad was led by a president (Nasi), who was appointed by the vilayet governor, and who also acted as his banker. The most renowned of these leaders were Sasson Ben Rabbi Tzalach, the father of The Sasson Family, and Ezra Ben Yosef Gabbai.

The first Hebrew printing press in Baghdad was founded by Moses Baruch Mizrachi in 1863. Other printing presses were founded by Rabbi Ezra Reuben Dangur and Elisha Shochet. A Hebrew weekly, Yeshurun, of which only five issues were published, appeared in 1920. This was the last attempt at Hebrew journalism in Baghdad.