The Last Jews of Baghdad

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Mario Tama / Getty

Iraqi Jews sit in their home in the tiny remaining Jewish community in Baghdad, Iraq.

Baghdad was once one of the great cradles of Jewish culture and wisdom, but now, according to the Christian priest who has been looking after them, there are only eight Jews left in the Iraqi capital, and their situation is "more than desperate." The Rev. Canon Andrew White, the Anglican chaplain to Iraq, says that the small group is in considerable danger. However, the community has been unable to agree to emigrate as a whole. Some of its members, without identifying themselves as Jews, have attempted to leave individually, but have been turned down. White says that only one of the Jews, a woman, still regularly goes to a Baghdad synagogue, though he will give no details.

White provides the group (whose precise number was first reported as part of a related story in the Washington Times) with food and money once a month, some of which they give to local Muslims, he says. "Not because they are forced to," he says, "but because they care about them. These are wonderful people." He notes that the Iraqi Jews constituted one of the world's oldest Jewish communities, and that the country contains numerous important Jewish sites, such as the graves of the prophets Ezra and Ezekiel. The flourishing Jewish community in Baghdad also produced one version of Judaism's second-holiest book, the Talmud, in about 550 A.D.

The Baghdad Jews have not been able to agree to make an application to go to Israel together, says White. For people who have "spent [their] life in Iraq hearing awful things about Israel," he says, such hesitation would be natural.

White spoke from England several days after giving testimony in Washington before the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. White said that he had to leave Iraq temporarily for the safety of his staff. Earlier this month White reported that he had received a warning by al-Qaeda in Baghdad in April that "those who cure you will kill you." He later realized that it may have been a reference to the abortive July 4 terror attacks in London and Glasgow where medical personnel, including doctors, were among those arrested.

The Jewish population in Iraq began to disappear after 1948, when the founding of Israel resulted in anti-Jewish reprisals throughout the Arab world. Says Felice Gaer, one of the International Religious Freedom panel's commissioners and head of the American Jewish Committee's Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights: "I didn't know about this community until I heard about it from Canon White. I certainly intend to learn more about the situation. It's hard to believe that those who want to provide charitable assistance couldn't reach people anywhere in the world, no less in a country where he U.S. has 160,000 troops."

Both Gaer and White point out that the plight of the remaining Jews is not very different from the hardships faced in Iraq by other religious minorities such as Christians, Mandeans (a gnostic group to whom John the Baptist is a central figure) and Yazidis (whose faith draws from Zoroastrianism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity and other sources). However, the priest says that the Jews have not able to get any material aid from the Iraqi government, and have been advised by officials "to say that they are Christians or to become Christians, because it's a lot safer."

White says the Iraqi government is "scared about admitting that there are Jews there," for fear of Muslim response in the region. For similar reasons, he says that no Jewish organization could provide them with direct aid, although indirect help through a non-Jewish agent might be possible.

"I don't want them to leave at all because the Jewish presence here is very important," White says. "But unless we care for them, I dread for what is going to happen to them. I do not want them to leave, but I think that is the only way."