Highest Jewish population: c.150,000 in 1940s
There has been a continual Jewish presence in Iraq dating back at least 3,000 years. Iraq came under Ottoman rule in 1638. From this point onwards, Jews in Iraq were subject to dhimmi status and laws; their fortunes fluctuating with various rulers of the age. In the 18th century several regions of Iraq were unified under a single, centralised Ottoman government in Baghdad and a period of relative stability began. This attracted Jews from both Aleppo and Iran, who settled in Basra and Baghdad, respectively. The arrivals of these new communities, especially the large number of Sephardi Jews from Aleppo, influenced the customs of local Iraqi Jews who adopted many of these Sephardi customs.
Throughout the 19th century this period of economic stability continued, and Iraqi Jews pioneered trade with Asia. Several leading families moved to India, where they established so called ‘Baghdadi’ communities in Calcutta and Bombay. The Jewish population of Iraq began to centralise in the urban centres of Baghdad and Basra and by 1900 there was a sizeable Jewish community of up to 50,000 in the capital. The community primarily spoke Judeo-Arabic. Religious schools were established, and Baghdad became a powerhouse of Jewish learning in the Ottoman empire. Despite the stability this period brought, antisemitic incidents, small riots, and harassment were never far away.
In 1917, during the First World War, British forces captured Baghdad. At the end of the war, Iraq was declared the British Mandate of Mesopotamia. Jews held positions in government, were allowed to teach Hebrew in their schools, and several Zionist organisations were even permitted until 1929.
Iraq gained independence as a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Prominent Jewish figures were instrumental in the establishment of the new Iraqi civil service and civic development projects. Several Jews sat in the first independent Iraqi parliament and the first official musical band formed for Iraqi radio was comprised primarily of Jews. In 1933 Rashid Ali al-Gaylani was elected Prime Minister for the first time. Although on this occasion he only held office for eight months, his influence was far reaching. The German Chargé D’Affaires Fritz Grobba, was permitted to publish Mein Kampf in national newspapers, and in the north of Iraq entire Assyrian Christian villages were massacred.
From 1934 onwards a series of laws, inspired by Nazi Germany, restricted Jewish life in Iraq. Jews were required to pay an exceptionally high £50 deposit to travel abroad, and from 1935 Jews were no longer permitted to teach their children Hebrew, whilst all state secondary schools introduced quotas on Jewish children. By 1936, Jewish business owners were required to have a Muslim partner, and all Jews were dismissed from the civil service. Violent riots became more common, as did bombs in synagogues.
When WWII broke out the Iraqi government came out in support of the Axis Powers and denied Allied troops access through Iraq. In May 1941, a British-led Allied assault on Iraq began, and by the end of the month Allied forces had reached the outskirts of Baghdad. The Prime Minister Rashid Ali al-Gaylani, together with all the pro-Axis members of his government, fled for Iran and Baghdad was left without a government. At the same time, Jewish families were preparing to celebrate the festival of Shavuot. Inspired by broadcasts calling for the death of Jews on Nazi radio stations and incensed at the sight of Jewish families in holiday clothes as the British approached, a mob comprised of disgruntled Iraqi soldiers and angry citizens grew in the city.
On the evening of June 1st 1941, a violent pogrom, known as the Farhud, erupted in Baghdad. Over the next forty-eight hours the Farhud claimed the lives of 179 identified victims. Many more were buried in mass graves and it is estimated that up to 600 Jews lost their lives. It is estimated that another 1,000 Jews were injured or violated, and that over 900 homes, shops and businesses were looted or burned. Many of those who survived only did so due to intervention by their Muslim neighbours. The Farhud is now officially recognised as a Holocaust-related event. In their attempt to regain control of the city, British-led Allied troops arrested hundreds of people and executed the leaders of the event. The Farhud was the most violent and bloody pogrom that the Jews of Baghdad faced. However, it was not the last.
In 1948 Iraq joined several Arab League countries to fight against Israel in its War of Independence. Jews receiving letters from Israel were accused of Zionism, a crime that carried the death penalty. Jews were dismissed from positions in nationalised companies, for example the railways, and international banks. By the end of 1949, these restrictions had increased. Jewish newspapers were shut down, restrictions were placed on Jewish higher education, taxation of Jewish assets increased, and Jews were forbidden from selling property. Jews also were no longer permitted to leave the country, for fear that by doing so, they would strengthen Israel’s global position.
In 1950 the Iraqi government issued a temporary hiatus to this travel ban; from May 1950 to August 1951 Jews were allowed to leave Iraq, provided they relinquished their citizenship and forfeited all their property over to the state. In this period alone, 110,000 Jews were airlifted out of Iraq and taken to Israel. As most of Iraq’s national musicians had been Jews, several were detained until they had sufficiently instructed Muslim musicians, before they too were allowed to leave.
Following a coup d’état in 1958, the monarchy was abolished, and Iraq was declared a Republic. Under the new Prime Minister, Abd al-Karim Qasim, Iraq took a step away from policies of pan-Arabism. Communism was no longer outlawed and all discriminatory laws against Jews, including those prohibiting travel and higher education, were abolished. However, the new government failed to effectively deal with calls for Kurdish independence and in 1963 it was itself overthrown in a coup led by the Ba’ath Party.
The Ba’ath Party was a pan-Arab political movement with branches in several Arab countries. In Iraq, the Ba’ath Party re-instated all laws against the Jewish population, adding further restrictions including the requirement for all Jews to register and carry identity cards. After the Six Day War in 1967 the persecution of Jews in Iraq reached a peak. Jewish businesses were shut, telephone lines were prohibited, bank accounts frozen and curfews put in place. Jewish homes were put under constant surveillance, and arrests or ‘disappearances’ of Jewish men became common.
On 27th January 1969 an announcement was made on the radio in Baghdad calling on people to gather in a central square in the capital of Iraq to witness and celebrate the public hanging of nine Jews, two Christians and three Muslims accused of Zionism. They had been subjected to a televised show trial and were then publicly led to the square. Eleven of the victims were hung in Tahrir Square and the three Muslim men at a separate public location. Another two Jews were publicly hung in Basra on the same day. Two of those accused were under eighteen years old and had been forced to lie about their age so that they could be executed. It is estimated that 500,000 people came out to witness and celebrate the hangings. Over the course of the next year, at least fifty more Jewish men were hung, or imprisoned and tortured. Several more went missing and were never seen again.
From 1970 Jews began escaping Iraq with the help of Kurdish smugglers who took them across the border to Iran. However, due to international pressure spurred on by condemnation of the hangings, Jews in Iraq were now able to apply for passports. Between 1970 and 1973 the vast majority of the remaining Jews left Iraq, although they were required to leave all their assets behind.
In 2003 US troops reported that there were 35 Jews in Baghdad. It is estimated there are now less than five.