Memories as old as Babylon, hopes and fears as new as the headlines out of Baghdad, all blend together in the living history of Iraq’s Jews.
Eileen Khalastchy, 70, remembers falling asleep on the roof of her house near the Tigris River as a child in the 1950s, listening to “the sound of music and of people clapping; the sky was full of stars.” Now living in Britain, she longs to go back to Iraq, she says. Edwin Shuker, 48, member of the World Sephardic Congress, recalls living as if “we were in a big, virtual concentration camp” in Iraq in 1971. He was 16 when his family fled north through the mountains to freedom. “We were willing to lose everything,” he says. “You felt you were going to die anyway.” Yet he, too, wanted to return, and last month for a few days he did. “I was unable to control the tears,” he says. As he saw Baghdad from the air, he broke down. “I cried for our whole life, for our community, now dispersed all over the world, for all the people killed by Saddam Hussein.”
As the United States moved to oust the Iraqi dictatorship earlier this year, many partisans of the war imagined it would create a new Middle East where Israel could survive in security, where borders would open, trade would flourish. Even the road to peace among Israelis and Palestinians would go through Baghdad, it was said, as the city would become an example of prosperity, tolerance and coexistence. After all, less than a century ago a quarter of the city’s population was Jewish, and among their hundreds of thousands of descendants, many dared imagine they could visit their old homes, perhaps reclaim their birthrights, even build new businesses.
But Emad Levy, 38, who was born and raised in Baghdad and lives there still as the “acting rabbi” of a community that has dwindled to 26 people, shares neither the exiles’ nostalgia, nor any grand hopes for what’s to come. “We have no future here, believe me,” he says. Levy’s 82-year-old father was given the chance to leave with five other aging Jews in July, aboard a secret charter flight direct from Baghdad International to Ben-Gurion Airport. “Later I will follow,” says Levy, after he has sold off the house and other assets too difficult to take with him.
In the harsh reality of today’s Iraq, those Jews who remain are much freer than they were under Saddam, who watched them all as potential spies. But they say the remnants of their culture are in greater danger now, and so are their lives. Baghdad’s last open synagogue, behind a high wall in the district of Bataween, was locked and shuttered about two weeks before the American invasion began, and has not been used for regular services since. “We cannot let anybody enter the synagogue,” Levy explains, “because the neighbors see people and say, ‘They are Zionists.’ And, then, it is so easy to throw a bomb over the wall.”
The community has lived through millennia of persecutions and prosperity, panic, hope and despair. “We have been here for 2,600 years, from the time of Nebuchadnezzar,” says Levy, when the Babylonian tyrant carried thousands of Jews from Jerusalem into exile. (“By the rivers of Babylon,” says the psalm, “there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”) But they could not survive the frightening tumult of an Arab world inflamed for more than 60 years by anger against modern Zionism. And it’s that deeply cultivated hatred, now stoked again by television images of Israeli-Palestinian warfare, that makes high-minded plans to transform the region seem so remote from the reality on the ground.
"The people here, they blame everything on the Jews,” says Levy. He should know: his family persevered in Iraq as virtually all other Jews left. His father was alive to witness the atrocities committed against Iraq’s Jewish community in 1941, when hundreds were killed in riots. After 1948, more than 100,000 Jews left everything they had and fled to the new state of Israel. Perhaps 6,000 remained, among them the wealthiest. But a series of mysterious bombings persuaded most of those to leave as well in the early 1950s. The rage that followed Israel’s lightening victory in the 1967 war, then the rise of Saddam’s lethally paranoid regime and the public hanging of alleged Zionist spies, pared the community down to hundreds, then scores, and now only those couple of dozen who are left. Most are in their 70s or 80s. There’s not a single woman for Levy to marry.
Many Jews in Israel, Europe and the United States want to face down the hatred in Iraq. “There is a trend to demonize the Jew, and it has to be confronted,” says Shuker. “If we are fearful and we don’t do something about it, then we are contributors, too.” Author Joseph Braude, an American of Iraqi Jewish decent, argues that “exiles serve as an important bridge of mentality between their past country and their new country.”
But every report of Israeli business initiatives in Iraq, often in partnership with Jordanian or Turkish companies, feeds rumors on the street that the U.S. occupation is a Zionist plot to take the country away from the Arabs. Stories about a firm called the Iraqi International Law Group (IILG), for instance, are an anti-American propagandist’s dream: its president is Salem (Sam) Chalabi, nephew of Iraqi Governing Council member, Ahmad Chalabi, a Pentagon favorite. One of the partners of the company is Marc Zell, an American-born Israeli and outspoken advocate of the settler movement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
In July, Shiite cleric Ayatollah Kazem al-Husseini al-Haieri issued a fatwa demanding death for Jews who bought property in Iraq. Members of the so-called Army of Mohammed, one of the guerrilla groups attacking Americans, told NEWSWEEK they see their battle as one against Zionists as much as the United States. The 25-member Iraqi Governing Council, hand-picked by the United States, itself issued a statement last week flatly condemning Israel for bombing “the neighboring sister country Syria” in retaliation for the suicide bombing in Haifa.
“The people here are very angry,” says Levy one afternoon in the living room of the rambling house he’s getting ready to leave behind. The perceived symmetry between the U.S. occupation and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, he said, was a particular sore point: “They do not like to be turned into Palestinians.” And what of the Jews who dream of a land of promise, if not a promised land, in Iraq? Jews of Iraqi descent ” think that they would like to be in Iraq again,” says Levy. “They think that it is life in the 1950s, not the life that it is now.” Such dreams are easier to nurture, it seems, far away from the reality of today’s Iraq.
With Rod Nordland in Baghdad, Dan Ephron and Joanna Chen in Jerusalem.