The modern state of Iraq, which was born in the twentieth century, roughly corresponds to the Mesopotamia region of western Asia between the Tigris and the Euphrates. The history of the Jews in Iraq is documented from the time of the Babylonian captivity circa 800 BC. Iraqi Jews constitute one of the world's oldest and most historically significant Jewish communities.
The Jewish presence on this territory dates back to Abraham. The Bible says that he left Ur for Canaan, around 1800 BC. The influx of Jews into the territory of Iraq was not the result of a decision, but of two disasters.
The first contingent arrived in the region after 722 BC, following the defeat of the Kingdom of Israel (North) by the Assyrians. In 597 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar, who had conquered the Kingdom of Judah (South), laid siege to Jerusalem in response to the revolt by the Jewish king Jehoiachin. He partially despoiled the Temple and deported to Babylon the king, his court, as well as thousands of men.
Eleven years later, during the reign of Zedekiah, who had been enthroned by Nebuchadnezzar, Judaeans revolted again. A second siege of Jerusalem began, and lasted eighteen months. The city was razed to the ground, and a further deportation ensued. Finally, five years later, Jeremiah records a third captivity.
After the overthrow of Babylonia by the Persians, Cyrus gave the Jews permission to return to their native land (537 BCE) and rebuild the Temple. Only 40,000 of them left Babylon, while 80,000 decided to continue to live there.
Fairly soon after the Persian conquest, Jewish life flourished. It was in Babylonia that Ezra "the scribe" laid the foundations for what became the Pharisaic movement, and later rabbinic Judaism. This is where the sage Hillel first established the authority of the Michna, the oral law and here were born the famous academies of Nehardea, Sura and Pumbedita. The key work of these academies was the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud.
During this period, the Jewish community in Babylon was led by an exilarch, whose title was hereditary. He collected his own taxes, half of which belonged to the empire. The Babylonian diaspora retained and developed its community structure and its relative independence until the thirteenth century.
The end of the Persian Empire threatened the situation. To counter the Mazdakites who put their religious freedom at risk, the Jews supported the conquest of Iraq by Muslims. Under the caliphs of Baghdad, they paid a poll-tax (jizyah), which ensured freedom of religion and community.
Iraq, which had fallen under the domination of the Ottoman Empire in 1517, had to wait until the reforms, the Tanzimat, to have a centralized administration. The reform movement had a strong influence on the Jewish community: it introduced it to the modern world. In addition to the adoption of Western clothing, Jews gained access to education including foreign language learning and acquisition of skills in the business world.
Under the Ottoman rule, Jews were legal advisers and councillors to governors and served in the Ottoman parliament.
Over time, the Turkish rule deteriorated and the situation of the Jews worsened, but the population continued to grow. In 1884 there were 30,000 Jews in Baghdad and by 1900, 50,000. The community also produced great rabbis, such as Joseph Hayyim ben Eliahu Mazal-Tov (1834 - 1909).
Under the government of Young Turks (1908), who led a policy of unification, Jews served in the army and fought in Turkish units during the First World War or were doctors or translators.
For many, however, this conflict had disastrous consequences. Soon after their defeat, the Ottomans threw the blame on the Jews and accused them of shirking from their duty in the war effort. Some were executed; many others saw their property confiscated.
Iraq was the creation of the League of Nations, which marked the end of the First World War and the defeat and dismantling of the Ottoman Empire. After twelve years under British mandate (1920 - 1932), Iraq became an independent state in 1932.
Its population consisted of a majority Shiite Muslim south and a Sunni Muslim minority in Baghdad, which until recently dominated political life in Iraq in modern times. Other small ethnic and religious groups, including Kurds, Yazidis, Christians and Jews, lived in the country.
Under the regime of King Faisal 1, a benevolent monarch supported by the British, Jews, like all other minorities, were invited to participate as citizens in the new Iraq. In this climate, Jews enjoyed a period of splendour. Iraq's first minister of finance, Sir Sassoon Eskell, was a Jew, and Jews were important in developing the judicial and postal systems. Records from the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce show that 10 out of its 19 members in 1947 were Jews and the first musical band formed for Baghdad's nascent radio in the 1930s consisted mainly of Jews. Jews were represented in the Iraqi parliament, and many Jews held significant positions in the bureaucracy which in many cases led to resentment by the Iraqi population.
Sociologist Philip Mendes asserts that before the anti-Jewish actions of the 1930s and 1940s, overall Iraqi Jews "viewed themselves as Arabs of the Jewish faith, rather than as a separate race or nationality".
In the 1930s, the situation of the Jews in Iraq deteriorated. Previously, the growing Iraqi Arab nationalist sentiment included Iraqi Jews as fellow Arabs, but these views changed with the introduction of Nazi propaganda and the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian Mandate. Despite protestations of their loyalty to Iraq, Iraqi Jews were increasingly subject to discrimination and harsh laws. On August 27, 1934 many Jews were dismissed from public service, and quotas were set up in colleges and universities. The teaching of Jewish history and Hebrew in Jewish schools was banned. Following Rashid Ali's pro-Axis coup, the Farhud ("violent dispossession") pogrom of June 1 and 2, 1941, broke out in Baghdad in which approximately 180 Jews were murdered, and up to 1,000 injured -- damages to property were estimated at $3 million. There was also looting in many other cities at around the same time.
At the creation of Israel in 1948, Zionism became a capital crime to Iraqi law. The worsening climate intensified. In 1950, Iraqi Jews were permitted to emigrate, if they renounced their citizenship. New economic restrictions were imposed on those who remained in the country. In 1952, the tone changed: emigration was forbidden. Two members of the Jewish community, accused of masterminding an attack against a U.S. institution, were hanged in public.
During the 1960s, the authorities led a policy of systematic discrimination. Property sales were banned, Jews had to have a distinctively yellow identity card. After the Six-Day war, Jews lost the right to property, their bank accounts were frozen, they were forced to close their shops, and were excluded from all public functions.
When Saddam Hussein came to power in 1979, there were fewer than 400 Jews in Iraq. The Jewish community still lived under constant surveillance. Ironically, it seems that the attitude of Saddam Hussein to the Iraqi Jews was less excessive than that of his predecessors. According to testimony gathered by journalist Philippe Broussard for the newspaper Le Monde (8 May 2003), his regime removed most of the discriminatory anti-Jewish laws.
It is believed that no more than seven or eight Iraqi Jews still live in Baghdad, all that is left of a community that once
Today, only the memory and history of the Jewish diaspora in the land of Iraq remain. Iraqi Jews, now citizens of other countries, have established institutes for historical research and preservation of their culture. Their actions reflect the richness of Jewish history in this land and also their nostalgia.