Book now available: Iraq's Last Jews:
Stories of Daily Life, Upheaval, and Escape from Modern Babylon (Palgrave Studies in Oral History), based on over 60 interviews, including Aida Zelouf Buy Book
The Jews of Iraq:
Nobody ever speaks about the Jews of the Arab Land, and what happened to them?
Jews were living in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Sudan and Yemen. Nearly a million Jews had to leave behind civilization and history of over 2,500 years and scatter around the world. I was born in Iraq and I would like to speak about the Jews of Iraq
.The Jews lived in Iraq or Babylon since the 6th century BCE, when they were brought back by Nebuchadnezzar after the destruction of the first temple. They lived under the Persians, Turkomans, Arabs, Ottoman Turks and other rules. They prospered and flourished. By the 3rd century, Babylon became the centre of Jewish scholarship. Their most influential contribution was the Babylonian Talmud. They prospered for 1,200 years before the Moslem conquest. They built many Yeshivas, the most famous being Sura, Nehardea and Pombeditta.
The Jews lived well under the Ottoman Empire which lasted over 400 years. After which the Turks lost the First World War and Iraq became part of the British Empire. Their first king, King Faisal the First did not differentiate between Jews, Christians and Moslems. The Jews prospered and they numbered 180,000. Some held very high positions in the government like Sir Sasson Heskell, who was the first minister of finance and who negotiated the revenues of oil with the British and asked for a gold pound instead of normal paper currency. My father was secretary to the foreign ministry as his first job after finishing school. The Jews were the elite and were educated; they were prominent rabbis, doctors, senators, lawyers etc. My great grandfather, of blessed memory, was the Chief rabbi Hakham Ezra Dangoor who together with his son opened the first printing company and they used to print all the Hebrew books and Arabic textbooks. Yehuda Zelouf, Freddy’s grandfather was a member of parliament. Also the Ben Ish Chai, Hakham Yosef Chaim who is the descendant of a great rabbinical family. The Jews had many synagogues, schools, hospitals and clubs. The community trusts for the old people and invalids and for the blind. The opened an atelier which was a work shops for the poor girls to come and do sewing and embroidery. Thus giving them a chance to go and earn kosher money and not to go on the wrong road. Every bride used to have all her clothes, tablecloths, sheets, night clothes etc made there.
Life was not too bad until April 1941, when a pro-Nazi coup d’ etat was mounted against the pro British and the government which resulted in a pogrom. On Shavout, 1st and 2nd June 1941, 300 Jews were killed, hundreds injured, shops and houses looted. The British troops came back to re-establish power. That was called the Farhud. Life returned to normal afterwards, although some Jews decided to leave Iraq.
Unfortunately, after the birth of Israel life became unbearable. 150,000 Jews left Iraq on operation Ezra and Nechamia to go to Israel. They had to forfeit their citizenship, leaving behind all their properties, belongings and all they had for over 2,500 years. They went to Israel and they had to live in tents - Maabarot until they were resettled. Few thousands decided to stay in Iraq. My family was one of them.
I went to a Jewish school, the only one left in Baghdad in our time. I remember the good times we had, the house where I lived with my parents, three sisters and my aunt. We lived next door to my grandparents. The rest of the community lived near each other.
In 1958, there was a revolution, the king and all the royal family were killed and president Qassem came to power. The number of Jews dwindled again until 1963 when everyone who was outside Iraq had to lose his Iraqi citizenship unless he came back. Nobody was allowed to leave. The government nationalised the companies and most Jews were thrown out of jobs. No Jews were allowed to study in the universities of medicine or pharmacy. They had to carry a yellow identity card with pictures of all members of the family. The government even asked the Jews to remove the bones of their loved ones from the Jewish cemetery of over 500 years in order to take the land. My father once told me the story of how the cemetery was created. Apparently, before the start of the Ottoman occupation of Iraq – Mesopotamia then – Turkey’s Sultan Murad 4th came in disguise as a dervish to Baghdad in order to check out the land and the people he planned to conquer. He knocked on the door of a Jewish family in the Jewish ghetto where he smelt fresh bread being baked. The family welcomed him in and gave him a whole unbroken hot loaf which he thought was a good omen. The next morning he returned to his army and a few days later they came to take Baghdad. He went to the old woman’s house and told her that he was the dervish who had visited her. He inquired if she had any favours to ask of him, she said that we are poor Jews and we have no private cemetery for ourselves. He ordered that a spacious area near the city gate should be assigned to the Jews for the burial of their dead.
Life deteriorated even more after the next revolution in 1963. Some Jews left illegally by boat from Basra, south of Iraq and went to Iran. After 1967’s war with Israel, men were imprisoned, bank accounts were frozen, telephone lines were disconnected and no-one was allowed to go to universities. The only thing we had left was our Frank Iny school. We had to be extremely careful as we were followed and spied on the whole time. Jews were kidnapped from streets, imprisoned, some tortured and killed. On January 1st 1969, I remember over a dozen men coming to search our house. They looked everywhere including the dustbins, after midnight and more men coming to help them, they arrested my father, although he was the honorary head of the Jewish community, and he was a very well known writer, poet, economist and historian. Most men and boys were in prison at that time including our chief rabbi’s son who was tortured badly. We were extremely scared, my mother, my aunt, three sisters and I were terrified when they took my father to prison. We could hardly recognise him when he was released 55 days later.
Jews were always accused of spying for Israel. On January 27th 1969, 9 Jews and 5 non-Jews were hanged in Liberation Public Square. Baghdad radio called upon all the Iraqis to come and enjoy the national holiday. People were dancing where the bodies hanged. The president Bakar and Saddam Hussein drove around the square where it all happened. Most men and boys were imprisoned, quite few were killed and some even their bodies were not returned to their families.
By 1970-71 most of the remaining Jews left illegally through the north of Iraq with the help of the Kurds who lived there. They had to leave with nothing, walk for days, or on the back of mules. The trip also cost them a lot of money. The majority made it to Iran and from there to Israel although some of them were caught and put in prison, including elderly women and children. By then we numbered about 200 only.
In 1973, after the Yom Kippur war, life became even harder. I lost all hope of ever leaving and seeing any of my friends. A year later we were granted a permit to leave. We finally left Baghdad on the 9th October 1974, with the bare minimum. Even religious books and family photos had to be checked and stamped by the Iraqi authorities. The plane stopped in Beirut and Greece then Geneva. For the fist time we had freedom. We took the plane to Amsterdam late that night. 2 months later we came to England.
The Jews left not only property and belongings but also history of 2,700 years including tombs of prophets like Ezekiel and Ezra HaSofer.
Shavout was a very special festival where we used to go to visit the tomb of Ezekiel the prophet in Kiful. As it was just before the end of year exams I remember taking pens and pencils and everything needed for the exam with us in order to bring us good luck when we use it. Also we used to eat Kahi which is made and fried with butter and we used to put on top of it home made date syrup.
On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur the weather was very hot and we used to always wear white, including the men who wore white suits. Until the end of Succot we used to sleep on top of the roof as the weather was warm. By Simchat Torah usually it rained. We left Iraq on Simchat Torah and it poured on that day.
Passover was very special. In the old days they used to make the Matzah at home, in my time they used to bake them in the synagogue. We used to make grape juice from raisins after checking it and cleaning it carefully. Everything was home made. But most of all I miss when all the family used to visit each other on the Chagim and we used to go from one house to another, and even our non- Jewish friends used to visit us.
Jewish life in Iraq was simple; it revolved mainly around the family. We visited each other everyday as we did not even have telephones after 1967 and we kept in touch at school and we lived near each other.
Now there is a handful of Jews left in Iraq. The 180,000 who lived there once upon a time got scattered around the world mainly Israel, England, the States and Canada, others as far as Australia and South America.
The Sassoon and the Khedourie dynasty’s originally came from Iraq and settled in India and Hong Kong along time ago. I wish you all chag sameach.
The books written by the late Meer Basri are available from the Basri family.
Faisal 1st in the Alliance school, Hakham Ezra Dangoor, Hakham Sasoon. Far right, bottom row Rouben Zelouf (Freddy's father), Third from right, bottom row Yehuda Zelouf (Freddy's Grandfather), the rest are Jewish dignitaries.
First Finance minister - Sir Sasson Heskell
Ruins of Babylon
Arch of Ctesiphon, Iraq
1975 - With Rav Obadiah Yosef(Middle) , Hacham Goan (5th on left), Dayan Toldenano (1st on left, Meer (2nd on left).
Chief Rabbi - Hacham Ezra Dangoor.
Hakham Sasoon Khedourie - Chief Rabbi of Baghdad.
Hakham Sasoon Khedourie and Hakham Daoud.
Map of Iraq.
Meer Basri and his family.
Tomb Of Joshua the prophet