JEWS OF IRAQ

 
   
  IRAQ  
 
JEWS OF IRAQ:
 
Iraqi Jews are Jews born in Iraq and/or of Iraqi heritage. The history of the Jews in Iraq is documented from the time of the Babylonian captivity c. 586 BCE. Iraqi Jews constitute one of the world's oldest and most historically significant Jewish communities.

The Jewish community of Babylon included Ezra the scribe, whose return to Judea was associated with significant changes in Jewish ritual observance. The Talmud was compiled in Babylonia, identified with modern Iraq.

From the Babylonian period to the rise of the Islamic caliphate, the Jewish community of Babylon thrived as the center of Jewish learning. The Mongol invasion and Islamic discrimination in the Middle Ages led to its decline. Under the Ottoman Empire, the Jews of Iraq fared better. The community established modern schools in the second-half of the 19th century.

In the 20th century, Iraqi Jews played an important role in the early days of the Iraq's independence, but the Iraqi Jewish community, numbered at around 120,000 in 1948, almost entirely left the country due to persecution following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.[9] Most of them fled to the newly founded state of Israel, and today, fewer than 100 Jews remain.

Early Biblical history

In the Bible, Babylon and the country of Babylonia are not always clearly distinguished, in most cases the same word being used for both. In some passages the land of Babylonia is called Shinar, while in the post-exilic literature it is called Chaldea. In the Book of Genesis, Babylonia is described as the land in which are located Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh (Gen. x. 10), which are declared to have formed the beginning of Nimrod's kingdom. Here, the Tower of Babel was located (Gen. xi. 1-9); and it was also the seat of Amraphel's dominion (Gen. xiv. 1, 9).

In the historical books Babylonia is frequently referred to (there are no fewer than thirty-one allusions in the Books of Kings), though the lack of a clear distinction between the city and the country is sometimes puzzling. Allusions to it are confined to the points of contact between the Israelites and the various Babylonian kings, especially Merodach-baladan (Berodach-baladan of II Kings xx. 12; compare Isa. xxxix. 1) and Nebuchadrezzar. In Chron., Ez., and Neh. the interest is transferred to Cyrus (see, for example, Ez. v. 13), though the retrospect still deals with the conquests of Nebuchadnezzar, and Artaxerxes is mentioned once (Neh. xiii. 6).

In the poetical literature of Israel, Babylonia plays an insignificant part (see Ps. lxxxvii. 4, and especially Psalm 137), but it fills a very large place in the Prophets. The Book of Isaiah resounds with the "burden of Babylon" (xiii. 1), though at that time it still seemed a "far country" (xxxix. 3). In the number and importance of its references to Babylonian life and history, the Book of Jeremiah stands preeminent in the Hebrew literature. With numerous important allusions to events in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, Jeremiah has become a valuable source in reconstructing Babylonian history within recent times. The inscriptions of Nebuchadnezzar are almost exclusively devoted to building operations; and but for the Book of Jeremiah, little would be known of his campaign against Jerusalem.

Late Biblical history and the Babylonian exile

Three times during the 6th century BCE, the Jews of the ancient Kingdom of Judah were exiled to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. These three separate occasions are mentioned (Jeremiah 52:28-30). The first was in the time of Jehoiachin in 597 BCE, when, in retaliation for a refusal to pay tribute, the temple of Jerusalem was partially despoiled and a number of the leading citizens removed (Daniel 5:1-5). After eleven years, in the reign of Zedekiah -- who had been enthroned by Nebuchadnezzar, a fresh revolt of the Judaeans took place, perhaps encouraged by the close proximity of the Egyptian army. 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 more than forty thousand are said to have availed themselves of the privilege. (See Jehoiakim; Ezra; Nehemiah.)

The earliest accounts of the Jews exiled to Babylonia are furnished only by scanty biblical details; certain sources seek to supply this deficiency from the realms of legend and tradition. Thus, the so-called "Small Chronicle" (Seder Olam Zutta) endeavors to preserve historic continuity by providing a genealogy of the exilarchs ("Reshe Galuta") back to King Jeconiah; indeed, Jeconiah himself is made an exilarch. The "Small Chronicle's" statement, that Zerubbabel returned to Judea in the Greek period, can of course not be regarded as historical. Certainly, the descendants of the Davidic house occupied an exalted position among their brethren in Babylonia, as they did at that period in Palestine. During the Maccabean revolt, these Judean descendants of the royal house had emigrated to Babylonia.

Greek period (300s BCE to 160 BCE)

With Alexander the Great's campaign, accurate information concerning the Jews in the East reached the western world. Alexander's army contained numerous Jews who refused, from religious scruples, to take part in the reconstruction of the destroyed Belus temple in Babylon. The accession of Seleucus Nicator, 312 B.C., to whose extensive empire Babylonia belonged, was accepted by the Jews and Syrians for many centuries as the commencement of a new era for reckoning time, called "minyan sheṭarot," æra contractuum, or era of contracts, which was also officially adopted by the Parthians. This so-called Seleucid era survived in the Orient long after it had been abolished in the West (see Sherira's "Letter," ed. Neubauer, p. 28). Nicator's foundation of a city, Seleucia, on the Tigris is mentioned by the Rabbis (Midr. The. ix. 8); both the "Large" and the "Small Chronicle" contain references to him. The important victory which the Jews are said to have gained over the Galatians in Babylonia (II Macc. viii. 20) must have happened under Seleucus Callinicus or under Antiochus III. The last-named settled a large number of Babylonian Jews as colonists in his western dominions, with the view of checking certain revolutionary tendencies disturbing those lands. Mithridates (174-136) subjugated, about the year 160, the province of Babylonia, and thus the Jews for four centuries came under Parthian domination

Parthian period

Jewish sources contain no mention of Parthian influence; the very name "Parthian" does not occur, unless indeed "Parthian" is meant by "Persian," which occurs now and then. The Armenian prince Sanatroces, of the royal house of the Arsacides, is mentioned in the "Small Chronicle" as one of the successors (diadochoi) of Alexander. Among other Asiatic princes, the Roman rescript in favor of the Jews reached Arsaces as well (I Macc. xv. 22); it is not, however, specified which Arsaces. Not long after this, the Partho-Babylonian country was trodden by the army of a Jewish prince; the Syrian king, Antiochus Sidetes, marched, in company with Hyrcanus I., against the Parthians; and when the allied armies defeated the Parthians (129 B.C.) at the Great Zab (Lycus), the king ordered a halt of two days on account of the Jewish Sabbath and Feast of Weeks. In 40 B.C. the Jewish puppet-king, Hyrcanus II., fell into the hands of the Parthians, who, according to their custom, cut off his ears in order to render him unfit for rulership. The Jews of Babylonia, it seems, had the intention of founding a high-priesthood for the exiled Hyrcanus, which they would have made quite independent of Palestine. But the reverse was to come about: the Palestinians received a Babylonian, Ananel by name, as their high priest which indicates the importance enjoyed by the Jews of Babylonia. Still in religious matters the Babylonians, as indeed the whole diaspora, were in many regards dependent upon Palestine. They went on pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the festivals.

How free a hand the Parthians permitted the Jews is perhaps best illustrated by the rise of the little Jewish robber-state in Nehardea (see Anilai and Asinai). Still more remarkable is the conversion of the king of Adiabene to Judaism. These instances show not only the tolerance, but the weakness of the Parthian kings. The Babylonian Jews wanted to fight in common cause with their Palestinian brethren against Vespasian; but it was not until the Romans waged war under Trajan against Parthia that they made their hatred felt; so that it was in a great measure owing to the revolt of the Babylonian Jews that the Romans did not become masters of Babylonia too. Philo speaks of the large number of Jews resident in that country, a population which was no doubt considerably swelled by new immigrants after the destruction of Jerusalem. Accustomed in Jerusalem from early times to look to the east for help, and aware, as the Roman procurator Petronius was, that the Jews of Babylon could render effectual assistance, Babylonia became with the fall of Jerusalem the very bulwark of Judaism. The collapse of the Bar Kochba revolt no doubt added to the number of Jewish refugees in Babylon.

In the continuous Roman–Persian Wars, the Jews had every reason to hate the Romans, the destroyers of their sanctuary, and to side with the Parthians, their protectors. Possibly it was recognition of services thus rendered by the Jews of Babylonia, and by the Davidic house especially, that induced the Parthian kings to elevate the princes of the Exile, who till then had been little more than mere collectors of revenue, to the dignity of real princes, called Resh Galuta. Thus, then, the numerous Jewish subjects were provided with a central authority which assured an undisturbed development of their own internal affairs.

Babylonia as the center of Judaism (219 CE to c.1050 CE)

After the fall of Jerusalem, Babylon would become the focus of Judaism for more than a thousand years. The rabbi Abba Arika, afterward called simply Rab, was a key figure in maintaining Judaism after the destruction of Jerusalem. Rab left Palestine to return to his Babylonian home, the year of which has been accurately recorded (530 of the Seleucidan, or 219 of the common era), marks the beginning of a new movement in Babylonian Judaism—namely, the initiation of the dominant rôle which the Babylonian Academies played for several centuries. Leaving an existing Babylonian academy at Nehardea to his friend Samuel, Rab founded the Sura Academy, where he held property. Thus, there existed in Babylonia two contemporary academies, so far removed from each other, however, as not to interfere with each other's operations. Since Rab and Samuel were acknowledged peers in position and learning, their academies likewise were accounted of equal rank and influence. Thus both Babylonian rabbinical schools opened their lectures brilliantly, and the ensuing discussions in their classes furnished the earliest stratum of the scholarly material deposited in the Babylonian Talmud. The coexistence for many decades of these two colleges of equal rank (though the school at Nehardea was moved to Pumbedita -- now Fallujah) originated that remarkable phenomenon of the dual leadership of the Babylonian Academies which, with some slight interruptions, became a permanent institution and a weighty factor in the development of Babylonian Judaism.

The key work of these academies was the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud, started by Rav Ashi and Ravina, two leaders of the Babylonian Jewish community, around the year 550. Editorial work by the Savoraim or Rabbanan Savoraei (post-Talmudic rabbis), continued on this text for the next 250 years; much of the text did not reach its final form until around 700. (See eras within Jewish law.) The Mishnah and Babylonian Gemara together form the Talmud Bavli (the "Babylonian Talmud").

The three centuries in the course of which the Babylonian Talmud was developed in the academies founded by Rab and Samuel were followed by five centuries during which it was zealously preserved, studied, expounded in the schools, and, through their influence, recognized by the whole diaspora. Sura and Pumbedita were considered the only important seats of learning: their heads and sages were the undisputed authorities, whose decisions were sought from all sides and were accepted wherever Jewish communal life existed. In the words of the haggadist, "God created these two academies in order that the promise might be fulfilled, that the word of God should never depart from Israel's mouth" (Isa. lix. 21). The periods of Jewish history immediately following the close of the Talmud are designated according to the titles of the teachers at Sura and Pumbedita; thus we have "the time of the Geonim and that of the Saboraim. The Saboraim were the scholars whose diligent hands completed the Talmud in the first third of the 6th century, adding manifold amplifications to its text. The two academies lasted until the middle of the 11th century, Pumbedita faded after its chief rabbi was murdered in 1038, and Sura faded soon after.

Sassanid period (225 to 634)

The Persian people were now again to make their influence felt in the history of the world. Ardashir I destroyed the rule of the Arsacids in the winter of 226, and founded the illustrious dynasty of the Sassanids. Different from the Parthian rulers, who were northern Iranians following Mithraism and Zoroastrianism and speaking Pahlavi dialect, the Sassanids intensified nationalism and established a state-sponsored Zoroastrian church which often suppressed dissident factions and heterodox views.

Shapur I (Shvor Malka, which is the Aramaic form of the name) was a friend to the Jews. His friendship with Shmuel gained many advantages for the Jewish community.

Shapur II's mother was Jewish[citation needed], and this gave the Jewish community a relative freedom of religion and many advantages. Shapur was also the friend of a Babylonian rabbi in the Talmud called Raba, and Raba's friendship with Shapur II enabled him to secure a relaxation of the oppressive laws enacted against the Jews in the Persian Empire. In addition, Raba sometimes referred to his top student Abaye with the term Shvur Malka meaning "Shapur [the] King" because of his bright and quick intellect.

Christians, Manicheans, Buddhists and Jews at first seemed at a disadvantage, especially under Sassanian high-priest Kartir; but the Jews, dwelling in more compact masses in cities like Isfahan, were not exposed to such general discrimination as broke out against the more isolated Christians. Generally, this was a period of occasional persecutions for the Jews, followed by long periods of benign neglect in which Jewish learning thrived. By the 7th century, however, the Jews were increasingly persecuted, and they welcomed the Arab conquest of 632-634.

Islamic Arab period (634 to 1258)

The first legal expression of Islam toward the Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians after the conquests of the 630s were the poll-tax ("jizyah"), the tax upon real estate ("kharaj") was instituted. The first caliph, Abu Bakr, sent the famous warrior Khalid bin Al-Waleed against Iraq; and a Jew, by name Ka'ab al-Aḥbar, is said to have fortified the general with prophecies of success.

The Jews may have favored the advance of the Arabs, from whom they could expect mild treatment. Some such services it must have been that secured for the exilarch Bostanai the favor of Umar I, who awarded to him for a wife the daughter of the conquered Sassanid Chosroes II as Theophanes and Abraham Zacuto narrate. Jewish records, as, for instance, "Seder ha-Dorot," contain a Bostanai legend which has many features in common with the account of the hero Mar Zuṭra II, already mentioned. The account, at all events, reveals that Bostanai, the founder of the succeeding exilarch dynasty, was a man of prominence, who received from the victorious Arab general certain high privileges, such as the right to wear a signet ring, a privilege otherwise limited to Muslims.

Omar and Othman were followed by Ali (656), with whom the Jews of Babylonia sided as against his rival Mu'awiyah. A Jewish preacher, Abdallah ibn Saba, of southern Arabia, who had embraced Islam, held forth in support of his new religion, expounded Mohammed's appearance in a Jewish sense. Ali made Kufa, in Iraq, his capital, and it was there that Jews expelled from the Arabian Peninsula went (about 641). It is perhaps owing to these immigrants that the Arabic language so rapidly gained ground among the Jews of Babylonia, although a greater portion of the population of Iraq were of Arab descent. The capture by Ali of Firuz Shabur, where 90,000 Jews are said to have dwelt, is mentioned by the Jewish chroniclers. Mar Isaac, chief of the Academy of Sura, paid homage to the caliph, and received privileges from him.

The proximity of the court lent to the Jews of Babylonia a species of central position, as compared with the whole caliphate; so that Babylonia still continued to be the focus of Jewish life. The time-honored institutions of the exilarchate and the gaonate—the heads of the academies attained great influence—constituted a kind of higher authority, voluntarily recognized by the whole Jewish diaspora. But unfortunately exilarchs and geonim only too soon began to rival each other. A certain Mar Yanḳa, closely allied to the exilarch, persecuted the rabbis of Pumbedita so bitterly that several of them were compelled to flee to Sura, not to return until after their persecutor's death (about 730). "The exilarchate was for sale in the Arab period" (Ibn Daud); and centuries later, Sherira boasts that he was not descended from Bostanai. In Arabic legend, the resh galuta (ras al-galut) remained a highly important personage; one of them could see spirits; another is said to have been put to death under the last Umayyad caliph, Merwan ibn Mohammed (745-750).

The Umayyad caliph, Umar II. (717-720), persecuted the Jews. He issued orders to his governors: "Tear down no church, synagogue, or fire-temple; but permit no new ones to be built". Isaac Iskawi II (about 800) received from Harun al-Rashid (786-809) confirmation of the right to carry a seal of office. At the court of the mighty Harun appeared an embassy from the emperor Charlemagne, in which a Jew, Isaac, took part. Charles (possibly Charles the Bald) is said to have asked the "king of Babel" to send him a man of royal lineage; and in response the calif dispatched Rabbi Machir to him; this was the first step toward establishing communication between the Jews of Babylonia and European communities. Although it is said that the law requiring Jews to wear a yellow badge upon their clothing originated with Harun, and although the laws of Islam were stringently enforced by him to the detriment of the Jews, the magnificent development which Arabian culture underwent in his time must have benefited the Jews also; so that a scientific tendency began to make itself noticeable among the Babylonian Jews under Harun and his successors, especially under Al-Ma'mun (813-833).

Like the Arabs, the Jews were zealous promoters of knowledge, and by translating Greek and Latin authors, mainly at the House of Wisdom in Bagdad, contributed essentially to their preservation. They took up religio-philosophical studies (the "kalam"), siding generally with the Mutazilites and maintaining the freedom of the human will ("chadr"). The government meanwhile accomplished all it could toward the complete humiliation of the Jews. All non-believers — Magi, Jews, and Christians — were compelled by Al-Mutawakkil to wear a badge; their places of worship were confiscated and turned into mosques; they were excluded from public offices, and compelled to pay to the caliph a tax of one-tenth of the value of their houses. An utterance of the caliph Al-Mu'tadhel (892-902) ranks the Jews, as state servants, after Christians. Reasons for this change need to be investigated.

Mongol period (1258 to 1534)

The Caliphate hastened to its end before the rising power of the Mongol Empire. As Bar Hebræus remarks, these Mongol tribes knew no distinction between heathens, Jews, and Christians; and their Great Khan Kublai Khan showed himself just toward the Jews who served in his army, as reported by Marco Polo. Hulagu, the destroyer of the Caliphate (1258) and the conqueror of Palestine (1260), was tolerant toward Muslims, Jews and Christians; but there can be no doubt that in those days of terrible warfare the Jews must have suffered much with others. Under the Mongolian rulers, the priests of all religions were exempt from the poll-tax. Hulagu's second son, Aḥmed, embraced Islam, but his successor, Arghun (1284–91), hated the Muslims and was friendly to Jews and Christians; his chief counselor was a Jew, Sa'ad al-Daulah, a physician of Baghdad. After the death of the great khan and the murder of his Jewish favorite, the Muslims fell upon the Jews, and Baghdad witnessed a regular battle between them. Gaykhatu also had a Jewish minister of finance, Reshid al-Daulah. The khan Ghazan also became a Muslim, and made the Jews second class citizens. The Egyptian sultan Naṣr, who also ruled over Iraq, reestablished the same law in 1330, and saddled it with new limitations. Mongolian fury once again devastated the localities inhabited by Jews, when, in 1393, Timur captured Baghdad, Wasit, Hilla, Basra, and Tikrit, after obstinate resistance. Many Jews fled to other areas during this time.

The cumulative effect of the Mongol incursions is that most of the pre-existing Jewish community either died or fled, and the later Jewish community consisted largely of immigrants from other places, principally Aleppo. For this reason the traditions of Iraqi Jewry cannot be regarded as continuous with the Babylonian tradition of Talmudic or Geonic times, but are a variant of those of Middle Eastern Jewry generally.

Ottoman rule (1534 to 1918)

After various changes of fortune, Mesopotamia and Iraq came into the hands of the Ottoman Turks, when Sultan Suleiman II in 1534 took Tabriz and Baghdad from the Persians, leading to an improvement in the life of the Jews. The Persian reconquest in 1623 led to a much worse situation, so that the re-conquest of Iraq by the Turks in 1638 included an army with a large population of Jews, some sources say they made up 10% of the army. The day of the reconquest was even given a holiday, "Yom Nes" (day of miracle).

In 1743 there was a plague in which many of the Jews of Baghdad, including all the rabbis, died. The remaining Baghdad community asked the community of Aleppo to send them a new Chief Rabbi, leading to the appointment of Rabbi Sadka Bekhor Hussein.[12] One effect of this was a further assimilation of Iraqi Judaism to the general Sephardic mode of observance.

Over time, the centralized Turkish control over the region deteriorated and the situation of the Jews worsened, but the population continued to grow. An example of this deterioration are the persecutions of Daud Pasha, which caused many members of the Jewish community, such as David Sassoon to flee. In 1884 there were 30,000 Jews in Baghdad and by 1900, 50,000, comprising over a quarter of the city's total population. The community also produced great rabbis, such as Joseph Hayyim ben Eliahu Mazal-Tov, known as the Ben Ish Chai (1834–1909).

Modern Iraq (1918 to the present)

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".[13] Additionally, early Labor Zionism mostly concentrated on the Jews of Europe, skipping Iraqi Jews because of their lack of interest in agriculture. The result was that "Until World War II, Zionism made little headway because few Iraqi Jews were interested in the socialist ideal of manual labor in Palestine." (Simon, Reguer, and Laskier, p 364)

During the British Mandate from 1918, and in the early days after independence in 1932, well-educated Jews played an important role in civic life. 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.

In the 1930s, the situation of the Jews in Iraq deteriorated. Previously, the growing Iraqi Arab nationalist sentiment included Iraqi Jews as fellow Arabs[citation needed], 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[citation needed], and quotas were set up in colleges and universities. Zionist activities were banned, as was the teaching of Jewish history and Hebrew in Jewish schools[citation needed]. Following the collapse of Rashid Ali's pro-Axis coup, the Farhud ("violent dispossession") pogrom of June 1 and 2, 1941, broke out in Baghdad in which approximately 200 Jews were murdered (some sources put the number higher), and up to 2,000 injured—damages to property were estimated at $3 million. There was also looting in many other cities at around the same time. Afterwards, Zionist emissaries from Palestine were sent to teach Iraqi Jews self-defense, which they were eager to learn. (Simon, Reguer, and Laskier, p 364)

According to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Sa'id, ”The Jews have always been a source of evil and harm to Iraq. They are spies. They have sold their property in Iraq, they have no land among us that they can cultivate. How therefore can they live? What will they do if they stay in Iraq?