Jews Must Emigrate Or They Will Die
The first transport of Iraqi Jews to Israel has arrived recently, and more are expected. The Iraqi government set conditions stating that all the Jews who wish to leave this “blessed” Arab land must do so by March, 1951. It’s hard to say how many Iraqi Jews will want to swap their ancient fatherland for Israel. At any rate, it’s likely to come to tens of thousands.
No Israeli powers that be, nor Israeli consulates exist in Iraq. Until recently, emigrating from Iraq was done illegally, via Persia. In Persia there are around 12,000 Iraqi Jews currently awaiting transportation to Israel. A while ago there were about 20,000. Due to the fact that Iraq has not yet recognized Israel, Jewish emigration from there has required a lot of hardship and expense.
Under normal circumstances, the distance to Israel from Iraq isn’t great. And it would likely be inexpensive, too. The closer and more affordable approach, however, passes through Jordanian territory. But why should it be easy for the Jews? And why make it so costeffective? They are forced to emigrate by plane via Cyprus, and from there to the Israeli airfield.
After the United Nations decided to divide Israel and create a Jewish state in one part of the country, Jews were forbidden from leaving Iraq and were made to sell off their assets. Monetary fines and arrests began, essentially enabling the confiscation of those assets.
After Iraq declared war against Israel, persecution against Jews increased. After the British left Israel, they sent over the mail to Iraq from Israel via Cyprus. The Arab government took the mail under its control. Every Jew who had a letter from an Israeli Jew or who had a message from Israel was put on military trial. Two major wealthy patrons were sentenced to heavy fines. Hundreds were tried and ordered to pay up to $10,000. Prison sentences of three to 10 years were meted to 1,450 people. Every Iraqi Jew who has some net worth knows well enough who among their neighbors or government officials lies in wait for their goods. Iraqi Jews are in danger of being exterminated, not merely robbed of their material possessions. Their emigration is an urgent necessity that mustn’t be delayed. The Jewish community in Iraq will sooner or later disappear, sooner or later cease to exist.
The Jewish community in Iraq is an ancient one. Babylonian Jews occupied an important economic position in agriculture, trade and business. The Talmud speaks of Jewish agricultural towns of Babylonia. They existed already in the first centuries after the Islamic conquest in 640. At a later point, they vanished.
From the second half of the 19th century on, Baghdad’s Jewish population grew at a faster pace than the surrounding populace, as the Jews were better able to heal from disease and to avail themselves of modern medical developments. Despite immigration to India, China and America, and aliyah to Israel, the Jewish population of Iraq didn’t decline. Jews concentrated mainly in the large cities, especially in the capital city Baghdad. There were about 150,000 Jews in all of Iraq, 3% of the general population of 4 million. In Baghdad itself, about 100,000 Jews reside, representing about 30% of the capital’s populace.
From the mid-19th century until recently, Iraqi Jews were mostly engaged in business and finance. About 15% were in the trades: tailors, shoemakers. In one, they really had nearly a monopoly, and that is the ancient Jewish craft of goldsmithing.
In the 1930s Iraq began a systemic expulsion of Jews from all their economic positions, from governmental positions of leadership, where under the British authority Jews had a very visible role from business, and in all the free professions. In order to obtain permission to work in their professions, Jews had to take on Arab partners. The Jew worked and the Arab received a part of the profits, aside from bribery monies that Jews always had to pay everywhere in Muslim countries to their partners and government officials. Anti-Jewish pogroms in Iraq were a frequent occurrence. The biggest pogrom took place in 1941, when hundreds of Jews were murdered and Jews’ assets into the millions were plundered.
It would be a mistake to consider all Iraqi Jews to be impoverished. There is a sizable sector of extremely wealthy Jews. Those patrons would certainly not be among those who immigrate to Israel, as they would surely want their wealth to follow them. As for moving Jewish assets out of Iraq, it’s not even possible to consider. Wealthy children, a slim sector of them, receive a modern education in European schools. The majority, however, of the Jewish population, the masses, are uneducated and frequently illiterate, as are the surrounding Arab populace.
With the immigration of Iraqi Jews to Israel, a long and sad chapter of Jewish history is sealed.
‘Their emigration is an urgent necessity that must not be delayed.’
Chaim Avrom Hurvitz, the son of a Lithuanian rabbi from Smorgon, began his journalism career writing for a Bulgarian-Hebrew journal. In 1941 he arrived in New York City, where he became a full-time staffer at the Forverts.