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Iraq's Jewish exodus offers perspective on current sectarian fighting, rise of ISIS
Diplomatic Pouch / June 4, 2015

By Larry Luxner

Iraq, the birthplace of many Biblical prophets and the cradle of Jewish civilization for centuries, was home to 135,000 Jews in 1947, the year before Israel was established.

Today, exactly five Jews live there, not even enough to make a minyan.

The disappearance of this once-proud community and the demons now plaguing Iraq — mainly Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian violence and the rise of Islamic State (ISIS) fanaticism — was the focus of a recent lecture by local scholar Maurice Shohet.

“Unfortunately, what’s going on now is the worst I can remember in the last 60 years,” he said. “And we haven’t seen the end yet.”

Shohet, 65, is managing editor of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Arabic language website. He’s also an Iraqi Jew, born and raised in Baghdad. On April 22, he spoke at Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Rockville, Md., as part of the synagogue’s continuing “Members Teaching Members” series.

Since Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in 2003, some 220,000 Iraqis have died in ethnic bloodshed, Iraq’s war with the United States and the ongoing insurgency. But Shohet said official Iraqi hostility against the Jews dates back to 1941, when a pro-Nazi regime took power in Baghdad at the height of World War II.

“They had a plan to attack the Jews on Shavuot, which was June 1. They would mark the Jewish houses, and one of them was the house where my mother used to live,” he said, noting that ISIS employed similar tactics last year, when it marked Christian houses for destruction in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

Shohet said his grandmother asked her neighbors if they’d agree to protect them.

“The first one, a Muslim, refused out of fear. The second one said yes, and he brought his own security people to protect my mother’s family,” he said. “So when the mobs came to attack my grandmother’s house, someone pointed to the other house where the family had moved to. They escaped, and after 56 hours, the government collapsed and the British Army came in.”

Ultimately, he said, a debate ensued among the younger generation of Iraqi Jews.

“Some of them said communism was the only way forward for the Jews in Iraq. But others said no, they’d have to protect themselves by joining the underground — not to sabotage the country but to defend themselves in case something happened again.”

Few people know this, said Shohet, but in 1937, a young unmarried Iraqi woman got pregnant, “and because of her financial and social situation, she decided to have an abortion by throwing herself in front of a passing car.”

But the woman didn’t die — nor did she manage to abort her fetus.

“There was a Jewish family living in the area, so they took her to the best Jewish hospital in Baghdad, and after three months, she recovered,” said Shohet. “This woman turned out to be the mother of Saddam Hussein, who grew up playing with the children of that family.”

Most Iraqi Jews fled to Israel in the years following creation of the Jewish state, and by 1951, only 8,000 to 10,000 remained in Iraq. Shohet’s own family stayed behind after being told by relatives in Israel how difficult the economic situation was there.

Up until 1963, Jews were able to leave Iraq freely, but that year, the laws changed and Jews could no longer emigrate. The only way out was by escaping across the border to Iran, with the help of local Kurds.

In 1968, when the Ba’ath Party came to power, Saddam named his pro-Nazi uncle, Khairallah Talfah, governor of Baghdad. Years earlier, that uncle had written a pamphlet arguing that there were three things in the world God should not have created: Shi’ites, Jews and flies.

“He decided to elaborate on his old pamphlet by adding that World War III would erupt because the Jews would try to create dissent between Muslims and Christians,” said Shohet. “The doctrine of the Ba’ath Party was Nazi, and the fact that his nephew had been saved by a Jew didn’t matter. You cannot change the ideology.”

As a result, kidnappings of Iraqi Jews, mostly for ransom, escalated. Some Jews disappeared and others were publicly executed.

“My own uncle went into hiding. I was 18 years old, and my father was afraid,” Shohet recalled. “They didn’t accept Jews into schools or jobs, so we were doing nothing. I was hired by a Palestinian refugee living in Iraq. After three months, I finally came to him and asked why he had hired me. He replied that back in Palestine, the Jews were hard workers. But eventually, my family decided to escape from Iraq. We contacted the Kurds, who were more than happy to help us cross the border into Iran.”

Years later, in 2002, Shohet was attending the bat-mitzvah of a cousin’s daughter in Canada when an unfamiliar guest came up and jokingly reminded him of pranks from Shohet’s adolescence in Baghdad that he himself barely remembered. The mystery man later admitted that he was one of four Iraqi government intelligence agents who had been assigned to spy on his family.

By 2000, said Shohet, only 50 Jews were left in Iraq. In 2004 — with the country under U.S. military occupation — Shohet returned to the land of his birth for the first time since his escape 34 years earlier. He arrived on a Sunday, with plans to visit Jewish holy sites, including the tombs of the prophets Nahum and Ezekiel. But that Monday, two insurgencies erupted, a Shi’ite insurgency in Najif and a Sunni one in Fallujah — site of one of the bloodiest battles involving U.S. troops since the Vietnam War.

Three years ago, Shohet met Masoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Regional Government, when the latter came to Washington on official business.

“They used to get help from Israel, so to help the Jews get out of Iraq they didn’t see as a big issue,” he said. Today, there are reports that some Israeli companies are even doing business in the relatively calm region of Iraq under KRG jurisdiction.

Yet the rest of the country is in chaos — in large part because of the continuing war against ISIS militants, who have slaughtered thousands of civilians and beheaded dozens of foreign hostages.

“Those who are running ISIS in Iraq and Syria today are members of the security apparatus of the Ba’ath Party established by Saddam Hussein,” he said. “These people lost their jobs, and their pensions, and were kicked out of the army due to the situation that the war caused. But they had no source of income to feed their families. So when al-Qaeda started recruiting in 2006, they were the first to come and help — not only as retribution against the Shi’ites who had taken over, but also to make a living. The fact that they’re treated like dirt by the ruling Shi’ite government only made things worse.”

Last year, 20,000 foreign fighters came from all over the world to Iraq to help ISIS, which at the moment is ravaging Ramadi, capital of Anbar, Iraq’s largest province.

In mid-April, Shohet met with a visiting delegation led by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who came here looking for financial and military support. Iraq currently faces a budget deficit of at least $20 billion, aggravated by lower world oil prices and the increasing costs of the war against ISIS.

“One of the ministers asked me if there is a chance the Jews would come back to Iraq. I said no,” Shohet recalled. “They look at the period when the Jews used to live there as a golden age. We get Iraqi satellite channels, and there are so many programs in the Iraqi media now, trying to tell new generations about the contributions of the Jews.”

But Shohet also monitors ISIS propaganda videos on YouTube. In one of those videos, an ISIS spokesman warns that “we will address of the issue of the Shi’ites before the Jews and the Christians.”

This, he said, “coincides with what Saddam’s uncle wrote in his pamphlet, that the Shi’ites were the first group God should not have created.”

Not all the Ba’athists were evil, however.

“One of those men, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri — the No. 2 man during the rule of the Ba’ath Party under the leadership of Saddam Hussein — was born in 1942, in the same town where Saddam was from. He came to Baghdad to look for a job, and found one at a Jewish-owned business,” said Shohet.

“In 1964, the government nationalized that company. The owner died, and in 1968, when the Ba’ath Party took power, his wife was surprised to hear that her former employee had become the minister of agriculture, living in a house provided to him by her late husband. This Jewish lady wanted to leave Iraq, but not illegally, so she went to see the minister. He was a Ba’athist, but he helped her anyway and gave them passports to leave. It was reported that this man I’m talking about was killed by the Iraqi Shi’ites last Friday.”

Shohet added, sadly: “In a way, we Jews were lucky that we left Iraq in 1970. If we were still there now, with all that’s going on, we’d be the first to pay the price.”

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