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Ohel Yosef and Emanuel Synagogue, Ramla, Israel, 2019
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Ohel Yosef and Emanuel Synagogue, Ramla, Israel, 2019


Ohel Yosef and Emanuel synagogue of Iraqi Jews, Ramla, Israel, 2019
Shaphardi Nusach (Sephardi rite).
7 Ha-Rav Avraham Hillel street, Ramla
Photo: Michael Strimban
The Oster Visual Documentation Center, ANU – Museum of the Jewish People

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جمهورية العراق - Republic of Iraq

21st Century

Only a handful of Jews still live in Iraq with one functioning synagogue in Baghdad.



The Jews of Babylon and Iraq

586 BCE | The Babylonian Exile

Long before America was an empire, Babylonian rulers with strange-sounding names such as Nabopolassar, Nebuchadnezzar and Nebuzaradan ruled the known world, and one word from them sufficed to move armies of hundreds of thousands from place to place.
So the names have changed but the basic dynamics certainly haven't. Back then, as now, the fate of a political entity depended to one extent or another upon its foreign relations policy. To wit: Around 600 BCE a struggle took place in Jerusalem, capital of the Kingdom of Judah, between two groups upholding opposite foreign policy notions. The first was represented by a few fanatical ministers from King Zedekiah's inner circle, who tried to persuade the king to rebel against Babylonian rule, bolstering their argument by reference to an old pact between Judah and the Egyptian empire, which would come to Jerusalem's aid if need be. The other group were in favor of accepting Babylonian supremacy. Led by the prophet Jeremiah, this faction argued that Judah would stand no chance of survival in such a confrontation, and that therefore submission was the best policy for the time being.
Eventually the anti-Babylonian faction had its way, and the king rose up against Babylon. Zedekiah's decision would be rued for all time. The Egyptians, as Jeremiah famously predicted, proved themselves to be “a staff of splintered reed” that causes the downfall of he who trusts in it. After a two-year siege, the Babylonians broke through the walls of the city and exiled its inhabitants. Zedekiah's sons were slaughtered before his eyes and he himself was exiled to Babylon and his eyes were removed.
Upon the destruction of Jerusalem a new phase began in the history of the People of Israel: The exile of Babylon, which is of course in modern-day Iraq.

539 BCE | Return To Zion, Take 2

In 539 BCE the Babylonian Empire officially ended, when the fabled city of Babylon itself fell to the Persian Empire, headed by King Cyrus. One of his first acts following this conquest was to issue the famous Proclamation of Cyrus, which granted freedom of religion to all peoples of the empire and granted the Jews an autonomy in the Land of Israel. However, the residents of Babylon continued to enjoy prosperity even under the new rulers, and only some 50,000 Jews returned from there to the Land of Israel.
“When the Lord returned the captivity of Zion, we were as dreamers,” is how the Book of Psalms described this event, the author not dreaming that 2,500 years later the words “Return of Zion” would be adopted by the leaders of the Zionist movement, and that the original return would serve as a model and inspiration of a decidedly national color.
The arrival of the “Zion Returnees” triggered a bitter dispute between them and those residing in the country at the time. The bone of contention was the ageless question of “who is a Jew?” The Samaritans, who were not exiled by the Babylonians, regarded themselves as Israelites for all intents and purposes, but those returning from Babylon saw it differently, viewing the Samaritans as mixture of Israelites (from the rival Kingdom of Israel, destroyed 140 before Judah by the Assyrians) and people of other nationalities, brought by the Assyrians to replace the exiled Israelites. These social and religious tensions were exacerbated by economic hardship due to successive years of drought that had befallen the land at the time, and the new immigrants were sorely disappointed. This was not the reality they had imagined when reading the prophecies of solace by Isiah and Jeremiah.
However, historians note the Return of Zion as a unique event: For the first time in the annals of nations, a people exiled from their homeland had come back to restore its ancient birthright. To be sure, if not for this unprecedented event, it is doubtful whether the Jewish people would have succeeded in avoiding the fate of all other exiled peoples – loss of their own religious and national character and complete assimilation into the surrounding population.

70 CE | The Babylonian Eretz Israel Lobby

Many studies have shown that the Jews living under the Parthian Empire, which ruled over Babylon and Mesopotamia as of 248 BCE, enjoyed economic prosperity and cultural and political freedom. In the Land of Israel, on the other hand, the Jews were subject to hostile edicts and restrictions, first by the Hellenistic regime of Antiochus IV Seleucus and later under Rome (save for a relatively brief period during which Judea was independent under the Hasmonean dynasty).
Historians are unsure whether Babylon was the center of leadership and creativity for world Jewry as early as Second Temple times or not. But there is no question that between 539 BCE and 70 CE, when the Second Temple was destroyed, the number of Jews in Babylon had grown to such an extent that historian Josephus Flavius noted that the Jews of Babylon were “Tens of thousands untold, their number beyond count”.
Like the Jews of North America in modern times, the Jews living back then between the Euphrates and the Tigris supported their brethren in the Holy Land. Proof of the solidarity between the Jewish communities of Babylon and Judea can be found in the writings of the Jewish-Egyptian philosopher Philo, who claimed that one of the reasons that prevented the Governor of Syria from placing an idol in the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem was fear of the reaction by the Jews of Babylon.

135 | Babylon Rising

The destruction of the Second Temple, which took place in 70 CE, was the beginning of a new era. The power of the Sanhedrin as a center of Torah study was great. From the year 132 the term “Chachamim” (“Wise Men” or “Sages”) first appears, describing scholars who migrated from Israel to Babylon, most likely due to the harsh conditions and persecution during and following the Bar Kokhba Revolt.
When exactly did the rabbinical center of gravity move from the Land of Israel to Babylon? None can provide a definitive answer to this question, but many researchers agree that the decline of Israel as a spiritual center and the rise of Babylon were reaffirmed in 219 CE. In that year a tall, handsome man known simply as “Rav” for his immense learning, left Israel and moved to Babylon.

224 | The Law of the Kingdom Is Law

In 224 CE Babylon was in the hands of the Persian Sassanian dynasty, which ran a centralized regime centered upon the Zoroastrian faith. The Sages of Babylon, aware of bitter historical lessons, decreed that as long as the People of Israel reside in exile, they must accept the local political authority and acknowledge its legitimacy. This ruling was encapsulated in the famous saying by Shmuel, one of the sages of Babylon, who ruled that “Dina d'malchuta dina”, which means “The law of the kingdom is the law”. Thanks to this sober approach the Jews of Babylon prospered and flourished, and slowly Babylon became a center of Torah study to rival that in Israel.
From the third century to the fifth a new institution took shape in the Jewish world – that of the “Yeshiva”, whose students devoted their time to studying and interpreting the Mishna. The fruit of their labor is known to this day as “The Babylonian Talmud” - Grandson of the biblical text and son of the Mishnaic one.

500 | Rhetorical Battles Between Great Minds

The Sages of Babylon, who were known as the “Amoraim”, became the supreme religious authority, replacing the Tanaim, who were the sages of the Mishna. The Amoraim period, which began in the third century and ended around the year 500, is considered one of the most prolific eras in Jewish history. It was then that the most authoritative book of religious ruling in Judaism, from that time to the modern age, took shape – the Babylonian Talmud.
There is little that has not been said already about the Babylonian Talmud. This wondrous mixture of 37 tractates full of all manner of texts – rhetorical battles between great minds, fantastical legends, legal analysis, mysticism, relationship insight, tragic and comic stories and all in lean, muscular Aramaic, which adroitly captures an entire world of meaning in a single pithy phrase – became one of the richest, most complex works of literature in human history.
But first and foremost, the Babylonian Talmud was a pioneer in the field of law. The volumes of this work include a “courtroom record” of sorts, following the disputation of each halachic issue from the very beginning to the logical conclusion. In this regard, it would be no exaggeration to say that the Talmud was ahead of its time, and it is indeed this text, and the methods of study and debate it produced, which is most accredited with the over-representation of Jews wherever they are to be found (and allowed) in the legal fields.

882 | Between “Reisha Galuta” and “Geniuses”

In the early seventh century the Muslims began their mighty campaigns of conquest, which encompassed Babylon as well. Under their rule the Jews enjoyed relative security and began to establish an autonomous community life. They were still designated as a protected minority (dhimmi, in Arabic) and at one point were even forced to wear a yellow star on their clothes, but in a historical perspective, it was a time of prosperity for them. One reason was the influence of Muslim culture, which at the time was at its apex and made impressive achievements in algebra, astronomy and the study of infectious diseases.
The leadership of the Jewish community was divided in two: The administrative side was under the authority of the head of the community (the “Reisha Galuta” in Aramaic), who was the liaison between the community and the authorities, particularly regarding the collection taxes, while the spiritual side of life was entrusted to the heads of the yeshivas, the “Geonim” (“Geniuses”) who ruled on teaching, religious law and interpersonal matters. The most famous of the geonim was the Rasag, Rabbi Saadia Gaon, born in 882, who at the tender age of twenty had already composed a detailed Hebrew-Arabic dictionary. “Emunot V'Deot” (“The Book of Beliefs and Opinions”), his most famous work, was the first comprehensive attempt by an observant Jew to reconcile contradictions between scripture and science.

1190 | New Era: Sunset

Rabbi Hai Gaon, the last of the “Generation of Geonim”, died around 1038. About 130 years later, at the end of 12th century, the famous traveler Benjamin of Tudela – the Jewish Marco Polo – reported that Babylon was home to approximately 40,000 Jews. This impressive number decreased significantly along with the end of the Caliphate in Baghdad and the decline in the economic power of the Jews of Babylon. Many Jews began emigrating elsewhere, and the Jewish community of Babylon began to wither.
Historical sources record almost no mention of Jews in Babylon between the 13th and 18th centuries. The long decline of this proud and storied community has to do with the destruction wrought by the Mongol invaders, and later with the many wars between the Ottomans and Persians, which turned Babylon into a poverty-stricken frontier zone.

1794 | The Renaissance of Baghdad Jews

In the late 18th century the Jewish community of Baghdad began to recover. In 1774 there were 2,500 Jews living in the city, about 3% of the city's population. By 1893 the Jewish numbers had risen significantly, to about 50,000 souls (constituting approximately 35% of the city's population), and the number of synagogues rose from 3 to 30.
The demographic growth was reflected in the community leadership as well. The hereditary leadership which prevailed until then, headed by a “community president”, who always belonged to one of the most powerful families in the city and conducted reciprocal relations with the authorities in order to solidify his own position, died out. Instead a hierarchical leadership developed, headed by the head of the community, known as the Hakham Bashi, under whom served two committees: The “corporeal committee”, which served as the civilian administrative leadership, and the “spiritual committee” which was the religious, rabbinical leadership.
The Jewish community enjoyed economic prosperity as well and its leaders took a place in the textile and cotton trade with the British, who controlled these markets. In the first half of the 19th century Jewish families began to establish trading and entrepreneurship colonies outside of Baghdad as well, in the great cities of South- and East Asia – Hong Kong, Calcutta, Bombay, Singapore, Shanghai and others. The immigrants established communities of “former Baghdadites” who preserved the traditions of the old country. Among the most famous Baghdad families were the Gabays, the Kaduris and the Sassoons, the latter of which built a flourishing international trade network that stretched from India through Shanghai and Cuba to England.

1835 | Yosef and the Pit

Legend has it that when Rabbi Yosef Hayyim was seven years old, he fell into a deep pit and was miraculously saved. While in the pit, he vowed that should he come out alive, he would dedicate his life to the study of Torah. In time Yosef Hayyim became one of the giants of the age in Baghdad in particular and throughout the Jewish world, and although he held no official rabbinical position, served as the Chief Rabbi of Baghdad for 50 years and was the final court of appeals for any halachic dispute.
Rabbi Yosef Hayyim wrote some 100 books and his learning encompassed every facet of Torah studies – Halacha, legends, Talmud, morals, religious poetry and the wisdom of Kabbalah. He was also known as a gifted preacher and gave two sermons every day of the week – one after the morning prayer of Shacharit, which lasted for an hour and a half, and one after the midday prayer of Mincha, which lasted for an hour. On the Sabbath the Rabbi gave a special sermon that lasted for about three hours, and thousands of people would flock to hear it.
Rabbi Yosef Hayyim's sermons were peppered with parables, folk tales and riddles, and legend has it that he never repeated himself but always delivered something new, illuminating further facets of the world of Torah. The Chief Dayan (religious judge) of Baghdad, Rabbi Yechezkel Moshe HaLevi, said that “Should Rabbi Yosef Hayyim tell me that left is right and right is left, I would not doubt him for a moment”.
Rabbi Yosef Hayyim passed away in 1909, on the way to pray on the tomb of the prophet Ezekiel in the village of Al Kifl, where he was buried according to tradition.

1917 | Iraqization

In 1917, following the fall of the Turkish Empire, the British took over the Land of Two Rivers and gave control of it to King Faisal I. The reign of Faisal I is considered the golden age of Iraq's Jews in the 20th century. The Jewish community received representation in the Iraqi parliament, and its trade ties with the British tightened further. The latter even gave the Jewish merchants a few import-export lines owned by the British West Indies Corporations and thus allowed them to control a large part of the goods entering Iraq. One of the greatest Jewish traders was Yechezkel Sassoon, who was nicknamed “The Rothschild of the East”. Sassoon was the first Jewish Treasury Minister in Iraq and a leader of the Iraqi national movement.
The world of Jewish education also benefited from the general prosperity. The global school network Alliance Israelite Universelle established educational institutions which combined the teaching of Hebrew with modern fields of knowledge and made a crucial contribution to the connection between tradition and secular life among Iraq's Jews.
It was this enlightened atmosphere that saw the birth of figures who would one day become the intellectual elite of the Baghdad-descended Jews, among them authors Samir Nakash and Sami Michael, Prof. Sasson Somech and others, who defined themselves as “Arab Jews” and combined the Arab-Muslim culture with the Jewish one in their works.

1932 | The Nazi Monster Rears Its Head

In 1932 Iraq won its independence and became a sovereign nation-state. A year later Faisal I's son, Ghazi, ascended to the throne. A pro-Nazi wave began to emerge in Iraq, strengthened by the visit of the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who was himself a Nazi sympathizer, and also following the translation to Arabic of “Mein Kampf”, Adolph Hitler's anti-Semitic book. In those days many Jews were dispossessed of their property and fired from their jobs.
Concurrently, lively activity by the Zionist movement began to take place, the eventual impact of which is described by Jewish author Ishaq Ben Moshe: “In those days the Iraqi Jew walked around as though drunk, or verily in a dream. The name of Israel was on all lips and its inspiration reached every soul... Some who were ill put off visiting their doctor, hoping that treatment in Israel was better than here. Some students halted their studies, hoping to continue them in the State of Israel. The working man began to think of work free of threat and harassment, and the villager – of Hebrew labor in the Holy Land.”

1941 | The Farhud

By 1941 there were approximately 150,000 Jews living in Iraq. Many of them worked in banking, commerce, government offices and farming. But then the Farhud pogroms broke out. The Farhud pogroms took place immediately following the overthrow of the Rashid Ali government, which was inspired by the pro-Nazi Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, while the city of Baghdad was in a state of power vacuum. The background to the pogroms included a combination of Nazi propaganda, including the foundation of the “Al-Fatwa”, the Iraqi version of the Hitler Jugend; The influence of the Arab Revolt in Palestine; and the rage of the mob following the Iraqi defeat and heavy losses in the Anglo-Iraqi War. During the riots the most horrific acts of murder and rape were committed against infants, women and the elderly, shops were looted and burned, and children were thrown into the Tigris before their parents' eyes. Over 180 Jews were murdered in this pogrom and over 1,000 were injured. “Through the window we saw dozens of people armed with knives, axes and firearms. Some of them were carrying objects and furniture looted from Jewish homes,” A Jew by the name of Joseph Nimrodi testified, “I saw a woman carrying a baby's leg.” During the dispersal of the rioters some 300-400 of them were killed, and the Jewish murder victims were buried in a mass grave in Baghdad.
In later years the issue of the Farhud made headlines in Israel when some historians demanded that the courts recognize the victims of this pogrom as Holocaust victims. Other historians, however, claimed that the impact of the Nazi propaganda on the outbreak of the Farhud was minor, and that therefore the victims should not be recognized as Holocaust victims.

1948 | The Modern Ezra and Nehemiah

The establishment of the State of Israel and the War of Independence (In which the Iraqi army took part on the Arab side) created a choke-hold around the necks of Iraq's Jews, who were seen as a fifth column and as having double loyalties and identities. Iraqi nationalists threw bombs at Jewish institutions and synagogues in Baghdad, and Iraqi law forbade the Jews to leave the country. In 1950 the ban was lifted and the Iraqi government issued an edict allowing the Jews to leave the country if they gave up their Iraqi citizenship. The edict decreed that each Jew of age ten and up could take a limited amount of money with them as they left. Many Jews were forced to leave their significant property behind for free.
Many of the Jews of Iraq felt rage and frustration at their loyalty to the state being doubted. Shalom Darwish, the secretary of the Jewish community in Baghdad, for instance, refused to renounce his Iraqi citizenship and chose to flee the country covertly. “I inherited my Iraqiness from my fathers and grandfathers just as I inherited the blood in my veins,” he wrote. “I could not turn my citizenship into a piece of paper that you hand to a clerk to be put together with hundreds of others. My Iraqi citizenship was born thousands of years ago, before the grandfathers of those claiming Iraqiness ever came to Iraq.”
In 1950 the government of Israel, the Jewish Agency and the Joint Organization combined to carry out “Operation Ezra and Nehemiah”, in which 120,000 Jews were brought to Israel from Iraq.

2014 | 60 Jews

In 1952 the Iraqi government closed the borders of the country once again and did not allow the remaining Jews to emigrate. 11 years later, in 1963, the newly established Baath government imposed further restrictions on the Jews. In 1967, following the Six Day War, the treatment of Jews worsened. Some 3.000 of them were arrested and fired from their jobs, Jews' bank accounts were frozen, Jewish-owned businesses were closed down, trade deals signed by Jews were voided, and many telephone lines in Jewish homes were disconnected.
On January 27th, 1968, 11 Jews accused of spying for Israel were executed. The accused were put on staged sham trials, at the end of which they were sentenced and hanged in public squares in Baghdad. Due to international pressure, the Iraqi government allowed the remaining Jews to leave for Israel. As of 2014 there were only an estimated 60 Jews living in Baghdad.