I am a forgotten Jew.
My roots are nearly 2,600 years old, my ancestors made landmark contributions to world civilization, and my presence was felt from North Africa to the Fertile Crescent — but I barely exist today. You see, I am a Jew from the Arab world. No, that’s not entirely accurate. I’ve fallen into a semantic trap. I predated the Arab conquest in just about every country in which I lived. When Arab invaders conquered North Africa, for example, I had already been present there for more than six centuries.
Today, you cannot find a trace of me in most of this vast region.
Try seeking me out in Iraq.
Remember the Babylonian exile from ancient Judea, following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE? Remember the vibrant Jewish community that emerged there and produced the Babylonian Talmud?
Do you know that in the ninth century, under Muslim rule, we Jews in Iraq were forced to wear a distinctive yellow patch on our clothing — a precursor of the infamous Nazi yellow badge — and faced other discriminatory measures? Or that in the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, we faced onerous taxes, the destruction of several synagogues, and severe repression?
And I wonder if you have ever heard of the Farhud, the breakdown of law and order, in Baghdad in June 1941. As an AJC specialist, George Gruen, reported:
“In a spasm of uncontrolled violence, between 170 and 180 Jews were killed, more than 900 were wounded, and 14,500 Jews sustained material losses through the looting or destruction of their stores and homes. Although the government eventually restored order… Jews were squeezed out of government employment, limited in schools, and subjected to imprisonment, heavy fines, or sequestration of their property on the flimsiest of charges of being connected to either or both of the two banned movements. Indeed, Communism and Zionism were frequently equated in the statutes. In Iraq the mere receipt of a letter from a Jew in Palestine [pre-1948] was sufficient to bring about arrest and loss of property.”
At our peak, we were 135,000 Jews in 1948, and we were a vitally important factor in virtually every aspect of Iraqi society. To illustrate our role, here is what the Encyclopedia Judaica wrote about Iraqi Jewry: “During the 20th century, Jewish intellectuals, authors, and poets made an important contribution to the Arabic language and literature by writing books and numerous essays.”