Meszár Tárik
Eurasia Center of John von Neumann University; MCC PhD Program

The Story of the Iraqi Jews in a Nutshell

The history of the Iraqi Jews spans a period of several thousand years. The Jewish presence in Mesopotamia dates back to ancient times, so that Mesopotamia and later Iraq hosted one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world until the early 1950s. Their history is marked by alternating positive and negative phases, during which they experienced persecution, hate propaganda and expulsion, but also prosperity, a cultural mediating role, fruitful economic relations with foreign countries and the attainment of high social positions.

The roots of the Jewish community in Mesopotamia go back to the time of the Babylonian exile. This was in the 6th century BC, when the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judah and deported a considerable number of Jewish citizens to the southern part of Mesopotamia. This deportation policy had already existed during the New Assyrian Empire (911 BCE-612 BCE), when conquered cities were in many cases destroyed and then rebuilt, and peoples who had been conquered in other areas of the empire were settled there.

During the exile, Babylon became an important center of Jewish science. Over the centuries, the Jewish community in Mesopotamia flourished and developed a unique cultural identity. Under the rule of the Parthians, who succeeded the Babylonians, the Jews enjoyed relative autonomy and participated in trade, agriculture, and intellectual activities. The rise of the Sassanid Empire in the 3rd century, however, was a turning point for Mesopotamian Jews. The Sassanids introduced restrictive policies against non-Zoroastrian communities, which included the Jews, leading to the decline of their social and economic status.

The conquest of the territory of present-day Iraq by the Muslims in the 7th century brought significant changes in the life of the Jewish community. Initially, Jews, like Christians and other religious minorities, were free to practice their faith under Islamic rule. During the Abbasid period (8th-13th centuries AD), there was a renaissance of Jewish culture and scholarship, and Baghdad became the center of Jewish studies. Jewish scholars such as Saadiah Gaon made significant contributions to the development of Jewish philosophy, theology and law during this period.

As for the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, it can be said that the fury of the Mongols in storming Baghdad hit the Muslims the hardest. This is clearly shown by the fact that the most important mosques and religious sites of the Muslims were destroyed. According to the sources, most minorities escaped being killed by the invaders because the Mongols, in their attacks on new territories, tried to gain the support of the often oppressed social minorities. In this way, they found allies in a foreign land that they could use for their imperial administration.

During the rule of the Ottoman Empire in Mesopotamia from the 16th century (1534–1917), Jewish life began to flourish. They were granted religious freedoms that allowed them to manage their own affairs within their communities. However, it is important to note that in many cases tolerance towards the Jews also depended on the local ruler. Regardless, they were granted dhimmi status, which meant that in return for paying taxes, they received protection and were free to practice their faith. Although they could be considered second-class citizens in this sense, they were entitled to certain rights as “People of the Book”. “People of the Book” (Arabic: Ahl al-Kitab) refers to the religions considered by Muslims to be religions of revelation. In the Quran, they are equated with the Jews, the Christians, the Sabaeans/Mandaeans, and-according to some interpretations-the Zoroastrians. Returning to the Ottoman period, it must be emphasized that the Ottoman Empire was also a safe haven for Iberian Jews who fled persecution in Europe and made an important contribution to the economic development of the Empire.

In the 20th century, the situation of Iraqi Jews changed significantly. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of British rule, the British preferred to employ minorities (such as Jews and Christians) in building their administration and in their businesses, which caused great resentment among the Muslim population. Also contributing to the deterioration of the situation of Iraqi Jews was the fact that the country was swept by a wave of nationalist sentiment in the Middle East, and with the spread of Arab nationalism and anti-Zionism, tensions between the Jewish and Arab communities continued to increase. The rise of Nazi Germany and the spread of anti-Semitic propaganda further fueled hostility toward Iraqi Jews. In 1941, Baghdad experienced a violent pogrom, the Farhud, in which hundreds of Jews died and some of their property was destroyed. This event marked a turning point in the history of Iraqi Jews, as it triggered a mass exodus. In the following years, discriminatory laws were enacted, Jews were dismissed from government positions, and their property was confiscated. The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 intensified the persecution of Iraqi Jews, and in many cases their freedom of movement was even restricted. During Operation Ezra and Nehemiah in 1950-1951, tens of thousands of Iraqi Jews were airlifted out of the Arab country and transported to Israel via Iran and Cyprus. (The operation was named after Ezra and Nehemiah, who had led the Jewish people from Babylonian exile back to Israel.) Most of the $4 million cost of the operation was funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The majority of Iraqi Jews, some 130,000 people, left their ancestral homeland in search of safety and a new beginning.

By the late 1970s, there was only a small Jewish population left in Iraq. The rise of Saddam Hussein’s regime further marginalized and persecuted this community. Jewish institutions were closed, and the remaining Jews were subjected to constant surveillance and harassment. It was not until the early 2000s, after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, that the last remnants of the Iraqi Jewish community left the country. The departure of the remaining Iraqi Jews marked the end of their millennia-long presence in the region. Today, the once vibrant Iraqi Jewish community lives mainly in the Diaspora. Iraqi Jews and their descendants have settled in various parts of the world, with significant populations in Israel, the United States, and Europe. Despite dispersion, they have managed to preserve their cultural heritage, traditions and religious practices.

About the Author
Since September 2020, I have been a PhD student of the Arabic Studies program of the Doctoral School of Linguistics at Eötvös Loránd University. From March 2021 I am a researcher at the Eurasia Center of John von Neumann University, and from September 2021 I am a participant in the Mathias Corvinus Collegium PhD Program and a researcher at the Migration Research Institute, where I study the situation of ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East, mainly Iraq and Egypt. I also deal with the Arabic language and its dialects, as well as the international relations of the Arab world and its role in the world economy.