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Iraqi Jews Worldwide

 

 

Iraqi Jews in the United States

By

Maurice Shohet

(This article has been abridged by IJW)


Introduction

Jewish residents from Iraq began to immigrate to the American Continent at the turn of the twentieth century. The first known Iraqi Jewish immigrants to the United States arrived between the years 1900 - 1905. About twenty families immigrated from Baghdad to New York, among them the families of Darzi, Battat, Murad, Rashti, Kattan, Tweig, Haim, Nawi.

 

World War I (1914-1918), which resulted in the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, brought more Jewish immigrants from Iraq, who added to other Jewish communities in the United States during the two decades following the end of the war. Among them were at least sixty young individuals seeking education as well as business people looking for new and better opportunities.

 

With the eruption of World War II in 1939, more than seventy Babylonian Jewish families immigrated to the United States from Iraq. [1]

 

Other Jewish immigrants of Baghdadian ancestry arrived to Southern California from the Far East in the early 1920’s. They immigrated from India, Burma, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Surabaya - the Netherlands East Indies, known today as Indonesia.

 

After the turmoil of World War II, a combination of factors compelled Jews from Iraqi extraction living in every major seaport of the Orient to uproot themselves and seek new havens. A rising tide of native chauvinism, a curb on foreign exchange, a restriction on Jewish commercial endeavors, and curtailment of their freedom and cultural autonomy by the new native regimes, caused hundreds of Jewish families from Iraqi origin as well as other Sephardim to immigrate and strike roots in Southern California. [2]

 

The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the simultaneous rise of Arab nationalism were the major signals for departure for Iraqi Jewry. During the Israeli War of Independence, the Iraqi army participated in the invasion aimed at the destruction of the newly founded Jewish State. Martial law was declared in Iraq, and this marked the beginning of a new chapter in the life of the Jewish community. Blackmail, threats and arrests became commonplace. The Jewish businessman, Shafiq Ades, convicted of selling arms to Israel, was sentenced to death and hanged in Basrah in 1948. A special Bill was introduced in parliament in 1950,  that allowed Jewish citizens to leave the country on condition they renounced their Iraqi citizenship. All this led to the departure of most of Iraq’s prosperous Jewish community; more than 124,000 Jews left the country between 1948 - 1952. [3]

 

The majority of the immigrants settled in Israel and a small minority left for different countries among them was the United States. Since then, whenever a political upheaval in the Middle East threatened their existence, hundreds and thousands of Iraqi Jews left to Israel and the west as soon as they had the opportunity to do so.

 

In the United States, the vast majority of the new immigrants were able to manage independently from any organized association geared to help immigrants. But a very small minority was cared by H.I.A.S. (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), which helps new Jewish arrivals, guarantee that they would not become a charge of public funds, and settle them in the United States.

 

Statistics

Since most of the Iraqi Jewish immigrants in the United States did not settle in one state, but were scattered all over the country, it is difficult to reliably estimate their number. But from the different mailing lists that currently exist among the few Iraqi Jewish organizations in New York and Los Angeles, which do not cover all members of the community, it is estimated that their total number might exceed 15,000 people.

 

Apart form California and New York; the largest concentration of Babylonian Jews in the United States is in Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Smaller known groups of Iraqi Jews, but each is too small to run its own synagogue, can also be found in Arizona, Atlanta, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other States.


The Community at Large

Today, the Babylonian Jewish community in the United States is the largest and economically one of the most firmly-established communities of Babylonian Jewry outside Israel. In general, this community is not integrated into upper-class America, though when they arrived to the United States, its members were financially far removed from the poor Jewish immigrants that flocked the country during different times. The community members in general lead a well-balanced life as Jews and as immigrants who are somehow involved with the local communities surrounding them. They managed to achieve a rare synthesis between their own Jewish consciousness and the American Society around them. The community is mostly a self-contained society that maintains the social patterns of Baghdad. It has carefully preserved the customs and social patterns of its origins; and this seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future. [4]

 

Members of the community tend to live in the same neighborhood and move to larger affluent areas as soon as their means allow. Some of them, form closely-knit groups. Several families are organized in small "investment clubs" where they socialize, holiday and invest in the stock market together. There is something very special about the Iraqi Jewish communities worldwide. Wherever they settle, they preserve their traditional way of life and maintain their identity and close community relationship. Not only members of these communities choose to live close to each other, but they also holiday together, and in the United States it is specifically to Florida. Every year during Hanukah time through January, members of the Iraqi Jewish communities from London, Montreal, Los Angeles, New York, New Jersey, Boston and other cities in the west get together to "re-cement the bonds of friendship" and meet in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

 

Although they had become somewhat lax in their religious observance, the members of the Iraqi Jewish Community in New York, still maintain a firm ethnocentrism, and mostly marry among themselves. [5]

 

The current small social activities of the community in New York and Los Angeles are taking place at their congregations’ center. Larger gatherings are being held at other Jewish Centers. The community has preserved its own very special identity far longer than the other groups of Jewish immigrants from the Middle East, - except probably for the Syrian community - who merge more readily with each other and with the American Jewish community. Unlike other Jewish immigrants, the Babylonian Jews were for many years not involved in public activities. Their identity was jealously guarded in private social groups and rarely in communal institutions, which they were content to leave to others.

 

In circumstances where the Iraqi Jewish community in the United States had become a small minority, widely dispersed amongst numerous Jewish groups, its members accept the philosophy that an effective system of Iraqi Jewish tradition is vital to secure continuation of the Babylonian Jewish consciousness. [6]

 

Public Activities

Although the Iraqi Jewish community in the United States is not active in public life, it always took actions and helped its community members worldwide, whenever it felt the urgency to do so. Two known such activities are:

 

In 1948, and with the instigation of the Iraqi Embassy in Teheran, the Iranian authorities were arranging to have the Iraqi Jews[**] residing in Iran, be expelled to Iraq and their assets confiscated. At the time, the Shah of Iran was visiting the United States. The Iraqi Aid Society approached several individuals with good contacts to the Iranian leadership, to have the matter brought to the attention of the Shah. The Shah instructed his government to stop promoting the idea of expelling the Iraqi Jews[**], and the matter was settled without any harm to the Iraqi Jewish community in Iran [7].

 

N.B. It is very possible that the writer meant the Iraqi Jewish "refugees" residing in Iran at the time, since in 1948, hundreds of Jews arranged to be smuggled across the border to Iran, on their way to Israel. (M.S.).

 

In 1969, after the Iraqi Government began to abduct, assassinate and execute Jews in Iraq, the Iraqi Jewish community in New York organized rallies and held demonstrations in front of the United Nations headquarters. The "American Committee for Rescue and Resettlement of Iraqi Jews, Inc." was established, to help the Babylonian Jews in Iraq who were suffering from persecution. In 1970, the Committee succeeded in saving the lives of two Jews whom had been condemned to death in Iraq, and securing the release of others. In 1971, another successful effort by the Committee, was in tying conditions for signing the "Grain Contract" agreement between Canada and Iraq, with permitting Iraqi Jews legal exit from their country of birth [8].

 

Since the mid 1970’s, the community had made partial concessions to the cultural climate of the city of New York. In 1976, the Babylonian Jewish community in New York joined the World Sephardic Federation. It was only comparatively recently that members of the community started to come forward and occasionally have held positions in the American Sephardic Federation.

 

Summary

Though the ancient Babylonian Jewish community of Iraq has almost completely disappeared from its country of origin, probably for ever (only 76 Jews are known to be currently living in Iraq), those of its former members who immigrated to Israel and to the west have brought original Babylonian Jewish culture to their new settlements. In New York and Los Angeles these members are again taking pride in their heritage and seeking deeper knowledge of their roots. They are making great efforts to hold together the community's social structure, which tries to place a strong emphasis on family values.

 

We hope that this community will be able to perpetuate its centuries-old tradition for generations to come.

 

3, Nisan, 5758

March 30, 1998

Source: Iraqijews.org


  Click For Maurice Shohet Profile

Notes:
[1] The Babylonian Jews in the Diaspora - Hebrew - By Dr. Avraham Ben-Ya’acov
 
[2] [7] Kahal Joseph Shofar - January 1978.
 
[3][11] The Story of an Exile - A Short History of the Jews of Iraq - By Nir Shohet
 
[4] The Newsletter Of The Babylonian Jewish Center - (http://www.bjcny.org)
 
[6] "THE SEPHARDIM" - Their Glorious Tradition from the Babylonian Exile to the Present Day - Lucien Gubbay And Abraham Levy.
 
[8] "Dispersion And Liberation" - Album Jewry of Iraq - By Abraham Tweina