Jews are first documented in Iraq in the 500s BCE, although it is likely there was a community in the area before this. Throughout the period of the Roman Empire, many Jews were forced into exile from Judea and chose to settle in Iraq, where the Jewish community flourished as a centre of learning for nearly 600 years. Jewish life continued with only minor incidents after Arab conquest in the 630CE. It was not until 720CE that the first laws restricting Jewish life came into place. Despite all of these laws, it was not until the Mongol invasion of 1200CE that Jews began to leave the war-torn city of Baghdad in large numbers, seeking a more peaceful existence elsewhere in the Middle East.
Following the re-conquest of Iraq by the Ottoman Empire in 1638 the Jewish population of Iraq began to grow again and in the 18th century following a succession of Chief Rabbis from Aleppo, Iraqi Jews began to adopt more general Sephardi customs. Over time, the situation of the Jews worsened and many leaders of the community moved to India. However, the population continued to grow, supplemented by Jewish immigration from elsewhere in the Middle East. By 1900 there were over 50,000 Jews living in Baghdad alone.
The British Mandate of Iraq began in 1918. Jews played a prominent role in public life and Zionism and Zionist activities were legal until 1929. In the early days of Iraqi independence, Jews were closely involved in the development of civic life, especially in the expansion of Iraqi judicial and postal services. The first Minister of Finance was a Jew, and Jews were well represented in Parliament and the civil service. In addition to this, Iraqi Jews played an important cultural role in founding the first Iraqi musical bands.
The situation changed rapidly from 1933 when the new Iraqi Prime Minister stoked growing resentment of Jewish prominence and welcomed Nazi propaganda into the country. Jews were dismissed from the civil service and harsh laws and quotas were set to bar Jews from many forms of employment and secondary education.
This all came to a head on the night of June 1st 1941. Following the British invasion of Iraq and rumours that the Jews had helped their success, a violent pogrom, known as the Farhud, broke out in Baghdad. Nearly 300 Jews were killed, over 1000 injured and property, worth over £40million in today’s money, was damaged. Several Iraqis were hung and hundreds jailed in the attempt to regain control by the new British-Iraqi government. Over the next ten years Jews were subject to rioting, looting and violence.
In 1948 Iraq went to war with Israel and several laws were passed against Jews. Zionism was illegal and punishable by death, Jews were dismissed from many public companies, including the railways and Jews were prohibited from any sort of foreign banking. Furthermore, emigration by Jews was forbidden for fear this would strengthen Israel’s position and Jews began to leave Iraq illegally. In 1951, for one year only, Jews were allowed to legally leave Iraq, provided they renounce their citizenship and hand over all their assets to the State. In this year over 120,000 Jews were airlifted out of Iraq to Israel. Only 10,000 Jews remained in Iraq after 1952.
Conditions for Iraq’s remaining Jews briefly improved from 1958 to 1963, however the situation rapidly deteriorated once again when the Ba’ath Party came to power. After the Six-Day War in 1967 Jews experienced severe persecution. Business permits were revoked, employment was shut off, telephones were banned, Jews were under constant surveillance and arrests were common. This culminated in 1969 with the public hanging of 14 men, 9 of them Jews, falsely accused of spying for Israel. International condemnation of the celebrations in Iraq around this public hanging meant that in the 1970s Jews were allowed to quietly leave Iraq.
Today less than ten Jews live in Iraq.