In Iraq, respect for the Jews Baghdad: A tiny minority that has seen good days and bad is treated well under Saddam Hussein.


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- When the Jews of Baghdad met recently to mourn the deaths of two of their members, fewer than 10 -- the quorum needed to pray -- showed up.

But Ibrahim Yusef Saleh didn't let that stop them. The 75-year-old elder of the community knows what Jewish law requires. But another reality is at work. Only about 60 Jews live in Baghdad, a city where their ancient forefathers suffered or thrived, depending on the vagaries of one ruler or another.

Most who remain are elderly men like Saleh who chose to remain in the city of their fathers rather than join the waves of emigration from 1949 to 1951. They say they are protected under the regime of President Saddam Hussein. And rather than talk of emigrating to Israel, they speak of the time when other Jews can return to Iraq.

"We hope, God willing, the problems between the Palestinians and Jews will be solved and the Jews will come back to Iraq and find their properties and their businesses," said Saleh, who is known as Abu Yusef (father of Joseph) in the custom of Arab men.

Abu Yusef harbors a wish to travel abroad, but not necessarily to Israel. His wife and six children emigrated to London 25 years ago. Fragile and ailing, he says he wants only to seek medical treatment.

"By God's help, I will go abroad and receive treatment and come back," Abu Yusef said in a recent interview at his Baghdad home.

A shooting at the synagogue Oct. 4 focused attention on the Jews of Iraq, whose origins date back 2,600 years to Babylonian times. Two Jews -- Saheon Sha'wal Aboudi, 85, and Moshi Shalw Friam, 75 -- and two Muslims were killed when a Palestinian from Baghdad opened fire in the walled compound.

The Palestinian was arrested and the Iraqi government promised swift justice. The government placed police guards at the synagogue, Abu Yusef said. And the Iraqi Cabinet issued a statement, condemning the shooting. The Jews were "Iraqi nationals," the Cabinet statement said. "They are not Zionists who tour certain Arab countries to sabotage their political, economic, social and even health security."

Decades of good treatment

Abu Yusef says that the Jews of Iraq have been well treated during Hussein's 30-year rule. The Jews are among several religious minorities in the country. They worship freely, he said. Ten years ago, the government helped restore the Baghdad synagogue.

"The decrees of the president always say the Jewish community should be treated on the same level as the other community of Iraqi people," said Abu Yusef, who owns a clothing factory in Baghdad.

Despite this, access to the Jews of Baghdad is not easy. After repeated requests to meet Abu Yusef, a foreign journalist was taken to see him on the reporter's last night in the country, accompanied by two government press officers, including an Arabic translator.

The trio drove to an intersection in a Baghdad neighborhood, where they waited for a relative of Abu Yusef's to escort them. The group arrived at his house during the nightly power cut -- the government staggers such outages throughout Baghdad to conserve energy during these tough times of economic sanctions.

Abu Yusef, dressed in striped pajamas, was sitting on the porch of a large house with a garden. Illuminated by candles, he talked about the Jewish community and its recent history. He spoke in Arabic, with translation provided by the government aide.

The remaining Jews worship on Saturdays in services conducted by the elders, among the congregation's last Hebrew speakers. Their rabbi died two years ago. The community has a member who butchers meat in the kosher tradition. Other rituals of Jewish life are part of a bygone era.

The last marriage in the synagogue was 20 years ago; the last "bris" -- the circumcision ceremony performed on infant boys -- occurred 14 years ago, said Abu Yusef.

"Before this government, there was pressure on the Jews in Iraq and we were obliged to send our families abroad. Since 1968, when this government came to power, the situation was different. We have full liberty. We have open trade and business," said Abu Yusef. "We can sell and buy property. Our sons and daughters became students in the university."

Changing fortunes

That wasn't always the case for the Jews here. The modern history of Iraq reflects the trials and tribulations of what had been the largest, most prosperous Jewish community in the Middle East. After Iraq declared its independence from British rule in 1932, Jews held prominent positions in the country, according to Mordechai Ben-Porat, whose book "To Baghdad and Back" chronicles the emigration of the Jews from Iraq.

"The first minister of finance [Sasun Haskail] was a Jew," said Ben-Porat, in a telephone interview from his home in Israel. "The [Jews] had a very big influence until they left."

The Jews prospered in business and government. They worked as goldsmiths and money changers; the musicians working in the early days of Iraqi radio were Jews.

But in 1941, amid rising Arab nationalism, mobs vandalized Jewish homes and businesses. The climate worsened after the United Nations decided in 1947 to create a homeland for Jews in Palestine. Iraqi soldiers joined the Arab legions invading the new Jewish state in May 1948. And the Jews of Iraq became embattled at home.

They were arrested and jailed for treason. Their homes were searched, their businesses ransacked. Doctors were barred from practicing. Students were expelled from universities. And immigration to Israel was outlawed.

Operation Ali Baba

In 1949, Ben-Porat returned to Iraq as an undercover agent for the Jewish state. His job was to organize an airlift of Iraqi Jews. The government eventually rescinded the emigration ban, but it confiscated the property of any Jew who left for Israel.

"The Iraqis let them go freely and they left everything behind," said Ben-Porat, who was caught by the Iraqis, tried, convicted as a spy and sentenced to death.

Of the 137,000 Jews in Iraq at the time, 121,000 reached Israel in what became known as Operation Ali Baba. Ben-Porat escaped and returned to Israel in 1951. He went on to serve in Israel's parliament and as a minister in two governments.

By 1957, less than 5,000 Jews remained in Iraq.

Rouben Al-Moshe, 72, was an accountant for a fuel company in Baghdad. He remembers when life in Iraq was good. "No one harassed us. People didn't feel they were Jewish," he said.

But problems surfaced after Israel's victory in the 1967 Middle East war. In 1969, 14 Jews were hanged "just because they were Jews," said Al-Moshe, whose brother was killed in last month's synagogue attack. "There was fear," he said. "People were snatched in the streets, and no one knew what happened to them. That's why the others fled."

Many drove to northern Iraq, supposedly for a brief holiday, and Kurdish tribesmen smuggled them to Iran, then ruled by the pro-Western shah. From there, they received papers that enabled them to continue to Israel. Al-Moshe obtained a passport that allowed him and his immediate family to go to Lebanon, and they left in 1972.

"We closed the door [to our apartment], threw away the keys and fled," said Al-Moshe, 72, who lives now in south Tel Aviv.

Nadim Cohen, who was a textile importer in Iraq, left in 1995 after bribing Iraqi officials to obtain a passport. Now living in Ramat Gan, the Israeli city that bore the brunt of the Iraqi Scud missile attacks during the Persian Gulf war, he recalled difficult times in Baghdad.

After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, he could not trade or travel abroad. The authorities temporarily disconnected Jews' phones, barred them from withdrawing money from bank accounts and banned them from selling homes and cars.

Bribes and passports

Cohen sent his son to Israel in 1973 and obtained passports for the rest of his family, but the authorities blocked his departure.

"They said I am a Zionist and that I am heading for Israel," he recalled. "I said: 'I don't want Israel. I want to go to London.' "

"You don't have enough money to live in London," he remembered them saying. Cohen said he paid a hefty bribe and obtained the coveted passport. He left through Jordan.

Since the United Nations imposed sanctions against Iraq for the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the only way to leave is overland through Jordan.

But Ben-Porat said the Iraqi Jews are "very satisfied" with Hussein's government.

"The biggest problem now is everyone who leaves the country to Jordan has to pay $400. And $400 is not easy to collect for those Jews. The other problem is, they don't know what they would face if they come to Israel or other countries," said Ben-Porat, who founded the Center for the Culture of Babylonian Jews in a Tel Aviv suburb.

Today, more than 250,000 Israelis are Iraqi Jews. Among the more well-known is Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai.

Abu Yusef, the leading elder in Baghdad's Jewish community, has never left the country.

"My passport is ready -- I can go anytime," he said. But he added, "I live here happily and am respected."

Pub Date: 11/13/98

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