They survived fifty years of persecution. Now

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Posted by Jeff from LTU-207-73-65-29.LTU.EDU ( on Friday, April 18, 2003 at 3:02PM :

They survived fifty years of persecution. Now Baghdad's last Jews have some hope
By Andrew Buncombe in Baghdad
18 April 2003

In their poor, crumbling house of blackened walls and floor tiles soiled by pigeons, Yacob Youssef and his two nieces were planning their usual evening meal, consisting of little more than rice.

The family are one of the very last of Baghdad's once thriving Jewish community and, with last night marking the Feast of the Passover, they would normally have prepared a seder meal of unleavened bread and said prayers at the synagogue just two streets away.

But with the rabbi having left for England several months ago, many of the community lying low through fear of persecution and with no electricity to light their prayer house, Mr Youssef and the two women felt there was little they could do but stay at home. "It is just another day," he said wearily. "We are angry because there is no electricity and even with candles it is too dark in the synagogue."

It was not always so. Mr Youssef, 70, claimed he could remember when there were 400,000 Jews in the city and most estimates suggest that even as late as 1948, after Israel's war of independence, there were still up to 180,000. Now Mr Youssef and his nieces, Kalda and Nudal Saleh, can barely count 30. With the old synagogue next to the Tigris river near Rashid Street now locked up and empty there is only the one near their house now operating. And there has not been a service there since December. The story of the decline and virtual disappearance of Iraq's Jewish population is one of ruthless persecution of a group that once accounted for 95 per cent of the city's business community and provided the country's first finance minister after its independence from Britain in 1932. It started during the Second World War when the government strongly influenced by Nazi ideology permitted several hundred Jews to be killed. In the 1950s, there was a programme of mass migration to America or Israel. Each person was allowed to take one suitcase and 100 Dinars.

But probably the worst persecution came after the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 when countless Jews were executed in public hangings, having been accused, without merit, of spying. "I remember that time. They were hanging people in the main square," said the old man, who used to run a store.

Kalda, 38, and her younger sister both work at the synagogue, sweeping the floor and cleaning. Over the years, she has seen many of her Jewish friends leave the city. "Many have gone to London," she smiled.

Most of the other Jews in the city appear to be lying low. When we called at the house of the man supposed to be the community leader, Naji Diwaniyah, we were informed he had just left and gone to the northern city of Mosul, almost 400km away. Even the neighbours who passed on the story did not appear to believe it but it was clear that Mr Diwaniyah did not feel at ease given the current state of lawlessness and chaos. "He does not want everyone to know that he is Jewish," said one man.

But there are some in the neighbourhood who have stood by the last remaining Jews in the country which was the birthplace of Abraham. Last week, when the gangs of looters roaming the streets of Baghdad were at their most feverish, a group of Muslims who live close to the synagogue saw off one group when they tried to break into the walled compound.

"The Jews have always lived here in this house and it is only normal that we should protect it," said Ibrahim Mohammed, one of those who had fired warning shots above the heads of the gang. "We were defending the synagogue and all the other houses on the street. We will not let them touch it," Mr Youssef and his nieces are grateful for the support of neighbours, saying that they have never experienced any problems. "They were very helpful. They are good people," said Kalda.

The future of the Jewish community of Iraq is at best unclear. There is speculation one of the first steps the new government under pressure from the US will take, will be to recognise the state of Israel. There is no doubt great hope among many in the wider Jewish community that new spirit and life could be injected into the community in Iraq, returning some of the lustre of its former glory.

But Mr Youssef and his nieces seemed unsure such a turnaround could happen. The two women are among the youngest members of the small Jewish community. Everyone else, they said, is old and they realise without new blood it is almost certainly only a matter of time before one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world is marked only by entries and footnotes in history books.

"I have no regrets," said Mr Youssef. "I have lived my life here. But sometimes we do get lonely."

-- Jeff
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