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The Jews of Iraq: A Learning Guide

A. Overview

The present campaign in Iraq fills the media, evokes heated debate and claims thousands of lives. As a result, we are learning more about the Iraqi nation and its many peoples. Ethnic and religious terms like Sh’ia, Sunni, Turkoman and Kurd have come into common usage. Place names like Mosul, Basra, Najaf, Nasariya, Kirkuk and Fallujah have become as familiar as Baghdad itself. Images of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers adorn print media and TV screens.

Modern Iraq comprises the area that corresponds roughly to the ancient empire of Babylon. That fact is of special interest to Jews because the Jewish experience in Babylon was a formative one and shapes Jewish thought to this day. The community that produced the Talmud, sowed the seeds of Messianic Jewish aspiration, created houses of prayer and academies of study and evolved the notion of a universal God survived for over 2,500 years into modern times, when it was violently obliterated.

The Reform Judaism articles are summarized below, followed by four “big ideas” to help focus discussion: 1. Jewish communities are found throughout the world. 2. Jews always come to the rescue of endangered Jews and Jewish communities. 3. Antisemitism is an ever-present danger in Diaspora communities. 4. Sephardi Jews figure prominently in Jewish history and culture.

The two articles, “Dispossessed” and “Paradise Lost,” provide a unique Jewish perspective on today’s front-page news. They comprise a window on history and demonstrate that the Jewish media (like Reform Judaism magazine) helps us learn more about ourselves as Jews and helps identify values that guide Jewish behavior. The rise and fall of the Iraqi Jewish community is a microcosmic look at the global story of the Jewish people.

1. “Dispossessed: How Iraq’s 2,600-year-old Jewish Community Was Decimated in One Decade.” Edwin Black.

Pulitzer Prize nominee and international best-selling author Edwin Black chronicles the demise of the Iraqi Jewish community; it now comprises eleven Jews, down from 125,000. The destruction began in 1940. The Farhud —violent dispossession—began in deadly earnest on Shavuot in 1941. The Babylonian community, which traced its origin to the days of the Bible, was no more by 1950.

Black’s narrative begins with the close of WWI, when the victorious Allies carved several nations out of the erstwhile Ottoman Empire. Among the newly created states, Iraq contained the largest and oldest Jewish community.

Subsequent events that affected the fortune and fate of Iraq’s Jews include:

  • League of Nations grants the Iraq mandate to Britain, Feisal named king; Jews prosper
  • 1933 - Feisal dies; his son succeeds him, dies in 1939
  • British install a Hashemite Saudi prince as puppet Regent
  • Iraq’s Moslems rebel against the appointment; Jews are targeted as British collaborators
  • Jerusalem Grand Mufti al-Husseini escapes British in Palestine, flees to Iraq
  • al-Husseini, with help of Nazi sympathizers in Iraq, plots Regent’s overthrow
  • April 1941 – Mufti’s successful coup prompts British invasion
  • al-Husseini blames Jews for his defeat, agitates against them
  • June 1941 – pogrom; Jews begin to leave Iraq
  • Mufti flees to Germany, continues to incite violence against Iraqi Jews
  • 1947 – UN approves Israel statehood; attacks and economic hardships intensify
  • April 1948 – Iraq joins in invasion of Israel; becomes only Arab nation refusing to sign armistice
  • July 1948 – new laws inflict heavy penalties for “Zionism”; many Jews are arrested
  • 1948-1950 - public hangings, economic deprivations
  • 1950 – Iran offers asylum; Iraq imposes economic penalties for filing to emigrate
  • Israel begins first stage of an airlift rescue
  • Iraq freezes all Jewish assets, sets a deadline for exit visas; airlift is expanded
  • 1960s – continued persecution, show trials and public hangings
  • Jews continue to leave as conditions worsen in next forty years

The exodus from Iraq proceeded in fits and starts in the beginning despite the bad and deteriorating conditions and the handwriting on the wall. Many Jews refused to believe that their integration in Iraqi society and politics would fail to protect them. Many did not believe that their loyalty could be questioned. Many were reluctant to leave their possessions. Some could not bring themselves to end the centuries-old community. The older Jews were sure that things would eventually improve.

As the full and awful truth became clear, especially when persecutions increased after each Arab war against Israel, Jews desperately smuggled themselves out of Iraq under great hardship and nearly overwhelmed the miraculous Israeli airlift.

2. “Paradise Lost: An Iraqi Jewish Story.” Tamara Ruben.

Tamara Ruben was two weeks old in 1950 when she and her family were swept up in the incredible Israeli operation to rescue Iraqi Jews. In an interview with Reform Judaismeditor Aron Hirt-Manheimer, Ruben reviews Iraqi Jewish life from the end of WWI, as she learned of it from her parents. They were a privileged and well-to-do Jewish family, descended from Jews exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon in 586 BCE. They were secular Jews with ties to the general community and felt secure in their status as Iraqi nationals. Jewish identity was expressed with other Jews in holiday and family celebrations.

Cataclysmic change came in the 1930s. Arab pro-Nazi sympathizers brought virulent and deadly antisemitism to Iraq’s venerable Jewish community. The ten-year-old tensions erupted during Shavuot in 1941 in a savage pogrom. Jews were publicly hanged in 1948 and 1949. Thousands of Jews escaped illegally to Israel, but most believed that things would improve. By 1950 there was no choice but to leave. Ruben and her family were rescued in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, the secret Israeli airlift that transported the staggering number of 113,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel.

Ruben’s family prospered in Israel but was compelled to leave during the economic downturn of the 1960s and resettled in New York. Today, she and other families of Babylonian/Iraqi heritage work to preserve and transmit the legacy of their ancestors.

B. Ideas to Explore

1. Jewish communities are found throughout the world.

Most scholars believe that the historical materials in TaNaKh (acronym for the three sections of the Hebrew Bible— Torah, Nevi’im-Prophets, Ketuvim-Writings) accurately place our ancestors in ancient Canaan. The accounts in Judges, Samuel and Kings and the writings attributed to the prophets attest to settled Jewish communities throughout the region. The great exile to Babylon in 586 BCE created the first Diaspora community (area of settlement outside the ancestral homeland) and the second major Jewish population center after Judah, the surviving southern Jewish kingdom. (Israel, the northern kingdom, had been destroyed some two centuries earlier.) With the Roman conquest of Judah in 70 CE, deported Jews established communities throughout the Roman world—in the Mediterranean basin, in Asia and in areas that now comprise European nations.

Later settlements were established by Jewish traders, such as the communities in China in the eighth century and in India starting in the twelfth century. In the same way, Jewish merchants and traders established Jewish communities in the United States, moving ever westward with the pioneers and explorers.

Antisemitism and exile drove Jews from European areas of settlement and led to newer Diaspora communities in other locations during and after the Middle Ages. Persecution and the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal ultimately led to the first Jewish settlements in the New World and, in 1654, with the arrival in New Amsterdam of the first group of Jews, to the beginning of the Jewish community in North America.


  1. Why did Jews throughout history so often move to new cities and new countries?
  2. Why did you or friends or family members move to new cities in modern times?
  3. What prompts people to stay put even when life becomes precarious where they live?
  4. What adjustments have to be made when moving to new places?


  1. Martin Gilbert, Ed. The Illustrated Atlas of Jewish Civilization. Macmillan. New York. 1990. Text and maps of Jewish settlements from Abraham to the 20 th century.
  2. American Jewish Archives, www.americanjewisharchives.org. Posters, lesson plans and other teaching material on the celebration of the 350 th anniversary of the Jewish community in America.
  3. Marc. D. Angel. La America: The Sephardic Experience in the United States.JPS. Philadelphia. 1982. The life and times of Sephardi Jews who came to the United States from 1899-1925, as reflected in the pages of the Judeo-Spanish-language (Ladino) national weekly newspaper La America.
  4. Itzhak Ben-Zvi. The Exiled and the Redeemed. JPS. Philadelphia. 1957. The stories of twenty-six Jewish communities which, until very recently, were on the periphery of Jewish life.
  5. Martin Gilbert, Ed. The Macmillan Atlas of the Holocaust. Macmillan, New York. 1982. Maps, commentary and photos chronicling the destruction of Europe’s Jewish communities in the Holocaust. (Note: Like Iraqi Jews, many German Jews also believed that “it can’t happen here.” Why?)
  6. Kurt Wilhelm, Ed. Roads to Zion. Schocken. New York. 1948. Personal accounts of fifteenth- to nineteenth-century Jewish pilgrims to the Holy Land.
  7. Marcus Nathan Adler. The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela. Feldheim. Reprint of 1907 edition. See also “Benjamin of Tudela.” Encyclopedia Judaica, (EJ) Vol. 4, pp. 535-538. This twelfth-century Jewish traveler visited Jewish communities starting in Egypt, via Palestine, east to Baghdad and Turkey, ending in Spain; he recorded his observations en route. The EJ article includes an itinerary map.

2. Jews always come to the rescue of endangered Jews and Jewish communities.

Both Ruben and Black cite the extraordinary undertaking to save Iraqi Jews. This was not an isolated event. 14,000 Syrian and Lebanese Jews were secretly taken across the border to Israel in 1947-49. Just prior to the Iraqi airlift, 50,000 Jews were airlifted to Israel from Yemen and Aden. Some 30,000 Libyan Jews, virtually the entire community, were rescued by ship in 1951. Jews were also rescued from Egypt, Iran, Azerbaijan and Kurdistan. Holocaust survivors from Europe’s refugee camps, internees from Cyprus detention camps, Bulgarian, Yugoslavian, Turkish, Polish and Rumanian Jews were brought to Israel between 1948 and 1953, some 700,000 Jews in all. An amazing seven percent of the entire Diaspora reached Israel in fifteen years. Nearly 300,000 Jews were helped out of the former Soviet Union, resettling in Israel and the United States between 1959 and 1979.

North American Jewry participated in and largely financed these rescue missions. Both Americans and Canadians persuaded their respective governments to support the rescue of Soviet Jews.


  1. Pidyon shevuyim —ransoming captives. This has been one of the most sacred obligations of the Jewish community since Roman times. Talmud (Gittin) considers priorities when choosing whom to redeem. The obvious probability of extortion led the rabbis to set limits on how much ransom to pay.
    1. Is it all right to deal with criminals and thereby encourage further hostage taking?
    2. What do nations do about nationals taken hostage in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere?
    3. Why doesn’t Israel negotiate with hostage takers?
    4. Debate the proposition: “It is never appropriate to ransom hostages.”
  2. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh—all Jews are responsible (or, are surety) for one another. This Talmud teaching (Shevuoth) is the slogan of many Jewish community federations and informs tzedakah and social action programs.
    1. Why did the rabbis assert this obligation?
    2. Do you think it’s true that you are responsible for other Jews? Explain.
    3. How might you show responsibility for other Jews?
    4. Are you equally responsible for non-Jews?

3. Antisemitism is an ever-present danger in Diaspora communities.

The Holocaust demonstrated how far antisemitism can go. But other atrocities are just as compelling, as in the former Soviet Union, in Arab lands and in Europe throughout the Middle Ages and today.


  1. How can/have you or family members or friends responded to antisemitic episodes?
  2. How does the organized Jewish community fight antisemitism?
  3. What can you and friends do to prevent antisemitism?
  4. What can you and friends do to combat antisemitism?

Resource : “Navigating Antisemitic Encounters.” Reform Judaism. URJ. New York. Fall 2004, and online. The six articles in this Focus describe how some Jews respond to antisemitism and suggest projects and resources to guide one’s response. The Learning Guide provides many resources, excerpts and discussion topics.

4. Sephardi Jews figure prominently in Jewish history and culture.

Twenty-three Sephardi Jews arrived in New Amsterdam from Holland via Recife in 1654 and established the first Jewish settlement in North America. Dutch Jews also founded a series of Sephardi settlements all over the West Indies—Curacao, Barbados, Jamaica, Martinique.

Dutch Jews descended from Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula (which became known as “Sepharad” starting at the end of the eighth century). Their ancestors originated in ancient Mesopotamia/Babylon, where Jews settled “by the rivers of Babylon” (Psalm 137:1) after the exile from Judah and Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Later migrations brought Babylonian Jews to North Africa and Spain. Sephardim fanned back to the east and established communities throughout the Ottoman Empire following their expulsion from Spain in 1492.

“Sephardi” today generally designates the culture that developed in Babylon and diffused broadly across the Arab world as well as to Spain and Portugal. However, some scholars believe that the term should be applied only to Jews with Spanish forebears and should not be used to describe “Eastern” or “Oriental” Jews.

Sephardi culture flourished in most Arab lands until the modern period. The Muslim empire fostered a “Golden Age” in which Jewish achievements in literature, philosophy and science flourished and Jews occupied important positions in the Caliph’s government starting in the middle of the eighth century. The golden period ended with the Christian conquests in the fifteenth century. But the creative achievements of Sephardi Jews—including luminaries such as Ibn Daud, Judah Samuel Halevi, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Moses ibn Ezra, Isaac Alfasi, Moses Maimonides, and Hasdai Crescas—shaped Jewish thought and resonate to this day.

Sephardi Jews in Israel have distinguished themselves in all arenas, most notably in the decorative arts, music and dance. (The first silversmiths—from Yemen—joined the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in 1908, two years after its founding by Boris Schatz.) But as the Sephardi story begins in Babylon, Iraqi Jewry continues to call itself Babylonian Jewry.


  1. What enabled Sephardi culture to survive despite persecution and near extinction?
  2. What must Jews do today to preserve what is unique about Jewish culture?


  1. Lucien Gubbay & Abraham Levy. The Sephardim. Carnell. London. 1992. Text, maps, illustrations trace Sephardi history, wandering and achievements from Babylon to today.
  2. Norman A. Stillman. The Jews of Arab Lands. JPS. Philadelphia. 1979. This definitive history from the seventh to fifteenth centuries includes contemporaneous letters, documents and observations that illuminate Jewish life and the relationship of Jews to the larger population at the time.
  3. Norman A. Stillman. The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times. JPS. Philadelphia. 1991. Continues the story begun in the preceding volume into the twentieth century. Special emphasis on how Jews responded to growing western influences in Moslem countries and on the conflicts within the Jewish communities, like religionists v. secularists, Zionists v. non-Zionists. Documentary material illuminates the period.
  4. Devorah & Menachem Hacohen. One People: The Story of the Eastern Jews: Twenty Centuries of Jewish Life in North Africa, Asia and Southeastern Europe. Sabra/Funk & Wagnalls. New York. 1969. The subtitle tells it all. Covers North Africa, Iran, Iraq, Bukhara, Caucasus, Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Balkans, India (on which see also Jael Silliman. Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames: Women’s Narratives from a Diaspora of Hope. Brandeis/UPNF. Hanover. 2001.)
  5. babylon@babylonjewry.org.il Website of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage and Research Center in Or Yehuda, Israel. The center publishes Nehardea, a journal that reports on the center’s activities, the history and customs of Babylonian Jews, and the present state of Babylonian communities in Israel and elsewhere. A recent issue reports that Babylonian Jews in Israel erected a memorial honoring the victims of the 1941 Farhud (see both Black and Ruben articles).

C. Projects

  1. Distribute copies of maps from Martin Gilbert’s Illustrated Atlas (see above) to show the dispersions:
    1. 722 and 586 BCE, from Israel and Judah – page 29
    2. 500 to 300 BCE, from the Greek, Roman and Carthaginian empires – pages 34-35
    3. 600 CE, distribution of Babylonian Jewry – page 50
    4. 750 CE, distribution of Babylonian Jewry under Islam – page 53
  2. Small groups can use the Encyclopedia Judaica and the sources above to prepare and present reports on the communities identified in the maps.
  3. Follow the same format with respect to the 1654 beginning of a Jewish presence in North America. Be sure to contact the American Jewish Archives (see above). Add: Rufus Learsi. The Jews in America. KTAV. New York. 1972. (reprint ofWorld. New York. 1954), Chapter 2.
  4. Develop a list of questions that teams of reporters can use to interview Sephardic Jews in your congregation and wider community. Or, invite Sephardic guests to be interviewed by the entire group.
  5. Have small groups prepare a list of talking points to use in summarizing the units for the larger group, or other groups.