During Pope Francis’ recent apostolic pilgrimage to Iraq, many Iraqi political and religious representatives — including the country’s president, Muslim religious leaders, and Christians of various denominations — were present, except for one community: Iraqi Jews, who are also one of the world’s longest surviving Jewish communities, with a history of around 2,700 years. Writes Uzay Bulut
Pope Francis’ apostolic visit to Iraq took place from March 5 to 8. During his visit, the Pope met several religious authorities, including Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Al-Husaymi Al-Sistani, the principal spiritual leader of Iraqi Shia Muslims.
The Iraqi government, however, prevented Jews from participating in the Pope’s historic visit, as the Jerusalem Post reported on March 7:
The Iraqi government ignored the history of Iraqi Jews during the visit of Pope Francis last week, marring an otherwise unprecedented visit and wasting an opportunity to highlight the Jewish part of Iraq’s history.
The Vatican hoped that Jews would be part of the events attended by Pope Francis in Iraq, with Vatican News even noting that the pope met “representatives of the three Abrahamic religions at Ur of the Chaldeans in Iraq and urges Christians, Muslims and Jews to journey along a path of peace under the stars of the promise God made to Abraham.” However, a public delegation of Jews was not able to attend the event.
Iraqi-born Edwin Shuker said that “Baghdad wasted a historic opportunity to reconcile with its Jews by inviting them to attend the ceremony at Ur.”
A pressing question lingers now: Why did the Pope’s “interfaith dialogue” in Iraq exclude the Jewish community?
The Jews of Iraq
The territory known today as Iraq was under the Ottoman occupation between 1534–1704 and 1831–1920. Britain took control of Iraq during World War I and was granted a “mandate” — a kind of pre-independence trusteeship — by the League of Nations to govern the country in 1920. The Kingdom of Iraq under British Administration, or Mandatory Iraq, was created in 1921. The British then began transforming Iraq into a modern nation-state. Mandatory Iraq lasted until 1932, when Iraq became an independent state. Under Iraqi rule, Jewish citizens were exposed to pogroms, discrimination and antisemitic rhetoric.
In 1917, 40% of the population of Baghdad, approximately 80,000 people, were Jewish. In 2020, the U.S. State Department reported that as of 2019, fewer than 6 Jews remain in city.
The Jewish Virtual Library reports:
Following the end of the British mandate, the 2,700-year-old Iraqi Jewish community suffered horrible persecution, particularly as the Zionist drive for a state intensified. In June 1941, the Mufti-inspired, pro-Nazi coup of Rashid Ali sparked rioting and a pogrom in Baghdad during the Jewish Feast of Shavuot. Armed Iraqi mobs, with the complicity of the police and the army, murdered 180 Jews and wounded almost 1,000 in what became known as the Farhud pogrom. Immediately following, the British Army re-entered Baghdad, and success of the Jewish community resumed. Jews built a broad network of medical facilities, schools and cultural activity. Nearly all of the members of the Baghdad Symphony Orchestra were Jewish. Yet this flourishing environment abruptly ended in 1947, with the partition of Palestine and the fight for Israel’s independence. Outbreaks of anti-Jewish rioting regularly occurred between 1947 and 1949. After the establishment of Israel in 1948, Zionism became a capital crime.
In 1950, Iraqi Jews were permitted to leave the country within a year provided they forfeited their citizenship. A year later, however, the property of Jews who emigrated was frozen and economic restrictions were placed on Jews who chose to remain in the country. From 1949 to 1951, 104,000 Jews were evacuated from Iraq in Operations Ezra & Nechemia (named after the Jewish leaders who took their people back to Jerusalem from exile in Babylonia beginning in 597 B.C.E.); another 20,000 were smuggled out through Iran.
In 1952, Iraq’s government barred Jews from emigrating and publicly hanged two Jews after falsely charging them with hurling a bomb at the Baghdad office of the U.S. Information Agency.
With the rise of competing Ba’ath factions in 1963, additional restrictions were placed on the remaining Iraqi Jews. The sale of property was forbidden and all Jews were forced to carry yellow identity cards.
The Iraqi government, which had long oppressed and murdered its Assyrian, Jewish, and Yazidi minorities, used the 1967 Arab–Israeli War, or the Six-Day War, as another excuse to target its remaining Jewish citizens.
After the Six Day War, more repressive measures were imposed: Jewish property was expropriated;… Jews were dismissed from public posts; businesses were shut; trading permits were cancelled and telephones were disconnected. Jews were placed under house arrest for long periods of time or restricted to the cities.
Lily Shor, the Director of External Relations and Events of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center (BJHC), said:
In the 1960s, following the Six-Day War, the Iraqi regime’s revenge developed into severe persecutions against the Jews. Many lost their jobs, were not allowed to study in universities, their bank accounts and property were frozen, others were arrested, and many were murdered in prison or in their homes. In January, 1969, nine Jews were executed publicly in the Tahrir Square in Baghdad while tens of thousands of Iraqis who were invited by the government and brought to town in special buses came to celebrate this barbarian act and danced around the bodies of the Jews who were hanged there.
In Basra, too, Jews were murdered and executed. Hundreds of Jews decided to flee, leaving everything behind, locking their doors and taking only a small bag with them. Almost all the community escaped. The schools were shut down and only one Synagogue served the few hundreds who remained there. Those Jews found a way to leave Iraq in the following years.
An Iraqi Jew (who later escaped) wrote in his diary in February 1970:
Ulcers, heart attacks, and breakdowns are increasingly prevalent among the Jews…The dehumanization of the Jewish personality resulting from continuous humiliation and torment…have dragged us down to the lowest level of our physical and mental faculties, and deprived us of the power to recover.
According to the Jewish Virtual Library, “In response to international pressure, the Baghdad government quietly allowed most of the remaining Jews to emigrate in the early 1970’s, even while leaving other restrictions in force. Most of Iraq’s remaining Jews were too old to leave. They were pressured by the government to turn over title, without compensation, to more than $200 million worth of Jewish community property.”
Jews from Iraq are still exposed to legal discrimination:
Iraqi law provides constitutional guarantees for the reinstatement of citizenship to individuals who gave up their citizenship for political or sectarian reasons; however, this law does not apply to Jews who emigrated and gave up their citizenship under a 1950 law.
Many Jewish homes were seized by the Iraqi state before 2003, and Jewish schools, shops and synagogues across the country are mostly crumbling from lack of maintenance.
The attacks and persecutions against Iraqi Jews – as well as in other majority-Muslim countries – appear to largely stem from Islamic antisemitism, which is sanctioned in Islamic scriptures. One statement issued by the Iraqi government in 2000, for instance, referred to Jews as “descendants of monkeys and pigs, and worshippers of the infidel tyrant.”
Dr Andrew Bostom, author of the book The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: From Sacred Texts to Solemn History, notes that Jew-hatred is readily identifiable in the Koran:
[The Quranic verse] 5:82 is an important motif but it is hardly the most important. The central anti-Jewish motif in the Koran is found in verse 2:61, repeated at verse 3:112. This is where the Jews are accused of slaying the Prophets and transgressing against the will of Allah, and so they are condemned and cursed eternally. Verse 2.61 says ‘shame and misery’ are ‘stamped upon them.’ And this verse is coupled to verses like 5:60, and other verses about the Jews being transformed into apes and pigs, which is part of their curse. Verse 5:78 describes the curse upon the Jews by David and Jesus, Mary’s son. There is a related verse, 5:64, which accuses the Jews of being spreaders of war and corruption, a sort of ancient antecedent of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. (Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas cited this verse during a diatribe against the Jews of Israel, in 2007.) More generally, the Koran’s overall discussion of the Jews is marked by a litany of their sins and punishments, as if part of a divine indictment, conviction, and punishment process.
These central motifs are still being taught. That’s the point. There is no large and respected corpus of reformist doctrine that has given alternative ways to understand these verses.
Antisemitism is also promoted in the sira, the earliest Muslim biographies of Muhammad. Dr Bostom refers to Islam’s prophet’s treatment of Jewish communities such as Banu Quaynuqa, Banu Nadir and Banu Qurayza.
Muhammad’s failures or incomplete successes were consistently recompensed by murderous attacks on the Jews. The Muslim prophet-warrior developed a penchant for assassinating individual Jews, and destroying Jewish communities – by expropriation and expulsion (Banu Quaynuqa and B. Nadir), or massacring their men, and enslaving their women and children (Banu Qurayza).
Just before subduing the Medinan Jewish tribe Banu Qurayza and orchestrating the mass execution of their adult males, Muhammad invoked perhaps the most striking Koranic motif for the Jews debasement – he addressed these Jews, with hateful disparagement, as “You brothers of apes.” Subsequently, in the case of the Khaybar Jews, Muhammad had the male leadership killed, and plundered their riches. The terrorized Khaybar survivors – industrious Jewish farmers – became prototype subjugated dhimmis whose productivity was extracted by the Muslims as a form of permanent booty. (And according to the Muslim sources, even this tenuous vassalage was arbitrarily terminated within a decade of Muhammad’s death when Caliph Umar expelled the Jews of Khaybar.)
Muhammad’s brutal conquest and subjugation of the Medinan and Khaybar Jews, and their subsequent expulsion by one of his companions, the (second) “Rightly Guided” Caliph Umar, epitomize permanent, archetypal behavior patterns Islamic Law deemed appropriate to Muslim interactions with Jews.
Dr Bostom notes that hadith, the authoritative record of the acts and sayings of Muhammad, also sanctions hatred towards the Jews:
In the Hadith the Jews are associated with the Islamic AntiChrist, or Dajjal. The Dajjal is even identified as being Jewish in some hadith, and regardless, is always accompanied by Jewish minions. It is the slaughter of the Jews that is mandated for the end of times to be ushered in, which is central to both Shiite and Sunni eschatology. During the modern era, the canonical hadith containing this annihilationist motif was consistently invoked by the ex-Mufti of Jerusalem Hajj Amin el-Husseini, since the 1930s, was incorporated into Hamas’ Covenant in 1988, and at present, as Professor Moshe Sharon has observed, ‘Not one Friday passes without this hadith being quoted in sermons from one side of the Islamic world to the other.’”
Bostom also reminds the readers of another anti-Jewish pogrom in Baghdad:
Anti-Jewish riots and massacres by Muslims accompanied the 1291 death of Jewish physician-vizier Sa’d ad-Daula in Baghdad – the plundering and killing of Jews, which extended throughout Iraq (and likely into Persia) – were celebrated in a verse by the Muslim preacher Zaynu’d-Din ‘Ali b. Said, which begins with this debasing reference to the Jews as apes: “His name we praise who rules the firmament. These apish Jews are done away and shent [ruined].”
Although antisemitism in the West has been widely studied and discussed in academia, antisemitism in Muslim countries has not been investigated closely enough. However, it is a pressing problem that has been ongoing for centuries. According to many polls and surveys, Islamic antisemitism is widespread both in the Muslim world and in Europe. For instance, according to a 2010 survey by Pew Research Center:
In the predominantly Muslim nations surveyed, views of Jews are largely unfavorable. Nearly all in Jordan (97%), the Palestinian territories (97%) and Egypt (95%) hold an unfavorable view. Similarly, 98% of Lebanese express an unfavorable opinion of Jews, including 98% among both Sunni and Shia Muslims.
Negative views of Jews are also widespread in the predominantly Muslim countries surveyed in Asia: More than seven-in-ten in Pakistan (78%) and Indonesia (74%) express unfavorable opinions. A majority in Turkey (73%) also hold a critical view.
According to the current data of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Muslims are more likely to hold antisemitic views than members of any other religion.
Hatred towards Jews still appears to be deeply prevalent in much of the Muslim world, including in Iraq as it was demonstrated during the Iraqi government’s rejection of the Jewish presence during the Pope’s visit. As the Iraqi government cannot even tolerate a few Jewish representatives on its soil, its messages of “tolerance” and “coexistence” in the presence of the Pope (despite its many past crimes against its own minority citizens) appear to be just a photo-op to promote the image of Iraq across the international arena.
The Pope could have challenged the Iraqi government’s bigotry against Jewish people, but he did not. Neither did he openly address the extreme persecution to which Iraqi Christians have been exposed for decades, or the ethnic cleansing against Iraq’s Jews. Sadly, the Pope’s visit does not appear to have helped or empowered the true victims of oppression and genocide in Iraq.
Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara.