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Remnants of Babylonian Jewry Endure Tyranny of the Majority

The narrow, dusty streets of what was once Baghdad’s thriving Jewish quarter, called Betaween, are quiet on the mild spring morning. I visited them with Emad Levy, one of the last remaining Jews in the Iraqi capital.

“I am proud to be a Jew, and I tell everyone I’m Jewish. I’m not afraid of anything,” he said.

After a couple of days touring Baghdad in Levy’s company, I realized that this is a declaration he makes often — usually in public, and usually loudly. On one occasion, we were sitting in an empty ice cream parlor in the city’s Alwiya district, with the wait staff eying us suspiciously across a deserted sea of white Formica tables. Glaring directly back at them, an unapologetic Levy boomed, “I love my religion.”

When we visited the ancient shrine of Joshua the Priest on the outskirts of Baghdad, Levy whipped out his yarmulke from his jacket pocket, placed it on his head and began to pray in Hebrew — rocking gently back and forth on the soles of his feet. The two Muslim elders tending the shrine were clearly mortified. They exchanged quiet words but did not ask us to leave. Afterward, Levy said, “We’re supposed to be free now, so why shouldn’t I openly express my faith?”

However, for all Levy’s enthusiasm, since the end of the war one year ago, conditions in Iraq have worsened rather than improved. Even before the recent explosion of violence, Baghdad’s tiny community of indigenous Jews, now numbering just 22 people, was feeling the strain of living in a war zone. They couldn’t obtain kosher meat, something so essential to the spiritual and cultural life of any observant Jewish community. They were unable to come together to pray, and they could not properly observe funeral rites for two of their elders who died last year.

Now fear has immobilized them completely. As Jews around the world celebrated Passover last month, Baghdad’s Jews comforted themselves by reading their prayer books alone.

Jews have good reason to be watchful in today’s Iraq. Constantly denounced in the press and on Iraqi television, now more than at any time in recent history, they have become targets of a new hard-line antisemitism not seen in Iraq since the pre-Saddam era. Fearing the kind of terrorist attack that destroyed a synagogue in Istanbul last year, the community has barricaded up its remaining synagogue indefinitely. No service has been held there in almost a year.

The tragedy of the situation is that Levy and his co-religionists are inheritors of a great legacy. The first Jews of Baghdad were the original exiles, brought out of Judea as slaves in 586 BCE to work on Babylon’s irrigation canals in the reign of Nebuchadnezzer. Over the centuries the Babylonian Jewish community became the world’s largest and wealthiest — the center of Jewish learning and culture, birthplace of the Talmud — ruled over until medieval times by a descendant of King David, known as the Exilarch, who was a member of Baghdad’s royal court.

In more recent times, ever since the birth of the Iraqi state, Jews have figured prominently in shaping the nation’s fortunes. Most famously, in 1925, a leading member of the community, Sasson Hesqail, the country’s first finance minister, secured the payment of Iraq’s oil royalties in gold instead of cash, thus helping Iraq ride out the worst of the Great Depression.

The tide began turning against Iraq’s 150,000 Jews in the 1930s, as the Arab world rose up against Zionism — and subsequently against Jews in general. It didn’t matter that Baghdad’s Jews shunned Zionism as a foreign ideological movement that had little to do with them. In 1941, a pro-Nazi government orchestrated anti-Jewish riots that left 200 dead and thousands injured. After the birth of Israel in 1948, more than 135,000 Jews fled an increasingly intolerant Iraq in 1950 and 1951, with little more than the clothes on their backs. It was a mass exodus — the largest human airlift operation in history.

At age 38, Emad Levy is among the younger members of the straggling community who still remain in Baghdad. Most of them are now old and frail and more inclined to dwell on the past than to nurture hopes for the future. Tawfiq Sofaer, for example, can remember a time when Jews lived among the cream of Baghdad society.

Sofaer is now 95. He has spent the past 35 years living in a cupboard-sized room under the stairs of a shabby office building in the synagogue compound. He relies on his manservant, Mohamed, to care for him, and on the community’s charity. “I used to be a merchant. I had friends and family,” he says. “But now I am all alone. I am too tired to go on. What can I do?”

Emad Levy does not share this defeatist spirit. He is all energy and industry. In the absence of a rabbi, he considers himself the community’s spiritual leader. With Hebrew that was good enough to conduct services in the synagogue before the war, he now prays at his home and at other Jewish homes, blessing food and marking the Sabbath. He also cares for the elderly, taking food to Sofaer and to Ibrahim Shcoori (another frail soul dependent on community largesse) and helping them to wash. But the bulk of his time is consumed with supervising the ongoing project of repairing and renovating Baghdad’s Jewish cemetery.

Visitors to the Jewish cemetery in the turbulent Shia neighborhood of Sadr City, the scene of some of the most vicious fighting in recent weeks, have been stoned more than once by school children. But the day I visited with Levy, we were peacefully received. Like the synagogue in Betaween, the cemetery lies hidden behind towering concrete walls and can only be entered via a thick metal door. There are 3,200 graves here, lying side by side in hundreds of neat rows and, one by one, each grave is being carefully remolded in concrete. Muslim laborers who have been at work here for the past three months already have repaired roughly a quarter of the graves, and so far the Jewish community has spent 20 million Dinar ($15,000) on the renovations.

“The cemetery has suffered more than 30 years of neglect, because in Saddam’s time, we could do nothing. We couldn’t even visit the graves to pay our respects to the dead,” Levy explains. Under Saddam, Baghdad’s Jews were not actively persecuted. Indeed, it was said that the former dictator had a soft spot for the Jews because his destitute mother was taken in by a Jewish family in Tikrit in 1937 when she was pregnant with the future dictator.

But the Jews nonetheless lived in constant fear that Saddam’s regime would repeat the Ba’athist witch hunts of the 1960s, which culminated in the public hanging of nine Jews in 1969. At the time, Jews were arbitrarily arrested on trumped-up charges, deprived of their business licenses and passports; telephone lines to Jewish households were cut permanently.

For years, Levy, who is convinced that Saddam’s secret police had him tailed for much of the 1980s and 1990s, was too frightened to visit his own mother’s grave. Now he faithfully offers her a prayer. Pointing out the marble tablets affixed to each grave on which peoples’ names and dates are engraved, he tells me that this is the only Hebrew writing publicly displayed in all of Baghdad. Some tablets are just fragments, not much bigger than postage stamps. Some bear only half a name, or just a date, and some tablets have eroded away completely. All in all, it’s a meager testament to a once vibrant community that played so vital a role in building Iraq.

Outside of his duties within the community, Levy’s life is somewhat in disarray. Most importantly, he has not worked in months. “I used to have a business buying and selling cars, but since the war, I’ve stopped it,” he says. He would have me believe that this was purely a matter of choice, but Iraq’s open borders have meant that cheap cars are flooding in from all over the globe, making it impossible for Levy to compete.

Still, Levy isn’t too bothered by the slump in trade, as he is preparing to leave Iraq. “Once I manage to sell my house and wind up my affairs, there’s nothing keeping me here. I have no future in Iraq.” Levy’s brother is already in Holland, and his father was airlifted to Israel by the Jewish Agency for Israel last summer. As refugees of the war, Levy’s father and five other elderly Jews were free to leave Iraq. But if Levy wishes to follow suit, he will have to hurry because the window for emigration is fast closing. After the new Iraqi government assumes power this summer, Jews will no longer be classified as refugees of war.

Levy is not the only Jew desperate to leave Iraq. Farah Masri, a dentist, who lives in Baghdad’s Al-whada district with her mother and brother – who are both doctors — wants more than anything to make a new life for herself in England or Holland. Masri, who turns 38 this year, has lived in the same house all her life among Christian and Muslim neighbors. As a school girl in the 1970s, she recalls how many of her classmates were Jewish. She didn’t stand out then. But over time, as the Jewish population steadily thinned, her awareness of being different grew.

“No one likes the Jews here,” she says. “I remember going to church with my neighbor one Easter, and even the priest denounced the Jews for killing Jesus.”

Masri shares Levy’s feeling that the Jews are better off now than they were under Saddam, because in theory, at least, they are free to practice their faith. However, the complete lack of security in post-war Iraq has generated a culture of fear that Masri can escape no more than any other Iraqi citizen. She is too afraid to visit the synagogue on her own, and she refuses to go out anywhere after dark.

“I pray to my God for help,” Masri said. “I have to leave. The community is very small; my mother is sick and old, life is difficult and we have no relatives here.”

Despite all the obstacles facing them, Levy and Masri strongly identify as Jews. However, despite their shared struggle, they do not really identify with each other — perhaps the final defeat of a once proud and strong community.

Masri, for example, was reluctant to speak to me in Levy’s presence. She complained bitterly that he never let anyone in the community talk freely to foreigners. Levy, for his part, doubted Masri’s commitment to improving her life: “A lot of people say they want to go, but they change their minds at the last minute and I get into trouble because I’ve helped make arrangements for them. Farah, for example, will never leave without her mother.”

Levy insists that he, by contrast, has the courage of his convictions and that a new life, perhaps including a wife and family, awaits him elsewhere. “I feel glad to be alive, and every day I become more faithful,” he says.

Who, I wonder, will lead his small ship to a safe port once he’s gone?

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