Baghdad Jews: Exodus or extinction?

The Jews of Baghdad trace their presence in Iraq to the court of Nebuchadnezzar and ancient Babylon.

    Nidhal Salhi: I was born here ... why on earth should I leave?

    But a history that spans 2600 years is unlikely to last another 20.

    The community that once boasted numerous synagogues and played a major role in the skilled trades have lost all hope.

    There are fewer than 20 Jews living in Baghdad, almost all to be found in the al-Bitawin district. Down from

    over 125,000 less than 60 years ago.

    End of an era

    Nidhal Salhi, the community's youngest member, is in her late 40s.

    She could never marry as there were no eligible men under the age of 70. So did

    she ever think of leaving?

    Nidhal (C) in her late 40s is her
    community's youngest member

    "I was born here, I was brought up here, all my friends are here – why on earth should I want to leave? Sometimes I cry that I have no children and that I'm the last of my people – but I love my home and Baghdad.

    "I don't think the British

    would give me a visa in any case, would they?" she asked, laughing.

    Total tolerance

    Two other women come and sit down next to her, one a Muslim, the other a Christian.

    "All these houses used to belong to Jews, it was one of the more refined areas of Baghdad. But they have nearly all left over the last 60 years – London, America and Israel," said Subhiyya, Nidhal's neighbour and friend.

    The three women began talking about names of the great Jewish families that had left decades ago – a perfect picture of religious and ethnic diversity.

    Strangely enough, the Jews of Baghdad benefited a great deal from former President Saddam Hussein.

    He paid for the restoration of the Meir Tweg synagogue, the only standing place of worship in the whole of the country. It has not been used since the invasion and the collapse of public security.

    Nidhal also told me that it was Saddam Hussein's Jewish neighbours in Tikrit who had persuaded the former president's mother not to have an abortion.

    Women want Saddam

    Nevertheless, it was still a surprise when Baghdad's youngest Jew blurted out: "I wish Saddam could return."

    Up until now, I must have spoken to dozens of taxi drivers and café owners, policemen and imams – they all say the same: We are glad to see the back of Saddam Hussein and hope for his capture and death.

    A Jewish family home: Going out
    has become more dangerous

    But I had only been speaking to men.

    Here was the first person I had met who yearned for the clock to be turned back and former President Hussein to return – not a Baathist sympathiser, not a former member of the secret police - but a middle-aged Jewish woman.

    The other two women said they also wished for the return of the former president and swore all their friends felt the same.

    "In Saddam's day, there was the rule of law, there was safety. Now I dare not let my daughter out of the house. She won't be able to complete her studies. This is what the Americans have brought", said Subhiyya.

    Unwanted change

    I suggested that the security situation would improve, that there would be a new democratic government eventually.

    "What good is that to us. Look at our houses, look at the way we live … has democracy put food on our tables, safety on our streets, electricity in our homes. Saddam did all these things," Nidhal replied.

    Just as the call to the Maghrib (evening) prayer began to sound, a wizened old man bent double with age joined what had now become a group of six women.

    The few Jews left can only pray
    their community survives

    Despite the obvious pain in a man who may well have been Baghdad's oldest Jew, Yaqub told the gathering that no Jew would ever have left Iraq if it hadn't been for the British.

    Nidhal and the others all laughed, much to his irritation. "Yaqub always blames the British for the end of our community."

    Another relatively famous Iraqi Jew, Naeim Giladi, holds a similar opinion. He also maintains Zionists scared Jews into leaving Iraq as well. But I didn't want the conversation to end with history.

    Small expectations

    So I asked Yaqub if he thought the Americans would leave soon, as they have always promised.

    "I don't know. The British used to say the same. All we can do is hope."

    But unlike the men, Baghdad's women seem to have no fear in saying exactly what they think.

    Nidhal and the others – a group that had now grown to eight women and two babies - were all agreed and adamant. "The Americans will never leave."

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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