In Iraq, respect for the Jews Baghdad: A tiny minority that has seen good days and bad is treated well under Saddam Hussein.

November 13, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- When the Jews of Baghdad met recently to mourn the deaths of two of their members, fewer than 10 -- the quorum needed to pray -- showed up.

But Ibrahim Yusef Saleh didn't let that stop them. The 75-year-old elder of the community knows what Jewish law requires. But another reality is at work. Only about 60 Jews live in Baghdad, a city where their ancient forefathers suffered or thrived, depending on the vagaries of one ruler or another.

Most who remain are elderly men like Saleh who chose to remain in the city of their fathers rather than join the waves of emigration from 1949 to 1951. They say they are protected under the regime of President Saddam Hussein. And rather than talk of emigrating to Israel, they speak of the time when other Jews can return to Iraq.

"We hope, God willing, the problems between the Palestinians and Jews will be solved and the Jews will come back to Iraq and find their properties and their businesses," said Saleh, who is known as Abu Yusef (father of Joseph) in the custom of Arab men.

Abu Yusef harbors a wish to travel abroad, but not necessarily to Israel. His wife and six children emigrated to London 25 years ago. Fragile and ailing, he says he wants only to seek medical treatment.

"By God's help, I will go abroad and receive treatment and come back," Abu Yusef said in a recent interview at his Baghdad home.

A shooting at the synagogue Oct. 4 focused attention on the Jews of Iraq, whose origins date back 2,600 years to Babylonian times. Two Jews -- Saheon Sha'wal Aboudi, 85, and Moshi Shalw Friam, 75 -- and two Muslims were killed when a Palestinian from Baghdad opened fire in the walled compound.

The Palestinian was arrested and the Iraqi government promised swift justice. The government placed police guards at the synagogue, Abu Yusef said. And the Iraqi Cabinet issued a statement, condemning the shooting. The Jews were "Iraqi nationals," the Cabinet statement said. "They are not Zionists who tour certain Arab countries to sabotage their political, economic, social and even health security."

Decades of good treatment

Abu Yusef says that the Jews of Iraq have been well treated during Hussein's 30-year rule. The Jews are among several religious minorities in the country. They worship freely, he said. Ten years ago, the government helped restore the Baghdad synagogue.

"The decrees of the president always say the Jewish community should be treated on the same level as the other community of Iraqi people," said Abu Yusef, who owns a clothing factory in Baghdad.

Despite this, access to the Jews of Baghdad is not easy. After repeated requests to meet Abu Yusef, a foreign journalist was taken to see him on the reporter's last night in the country, accompanied by two government press officers, including an Arabic translator.

The trio drove to an intersection in a Baghdad neighborhood, where they waited for a relative of Abu Yusef's to escort them. The group arrived at his house during the nightly power cut -- the government staggers such outages throughout Baghdad to conserve energy during these tough times of economic sanctions.

Abu Yusef, dressed in striped pajamas, was sitting on the porch of a large house with a garden. Illuminated by candles, he talked about the Jewish community and its recent history. He spoke in Arabic, with translation provided by the government aide.

The remaining Jews worship on Saturdays in services conducted by the elders, among the congregation's last Hebrew speakers. Their rabbi died two years ago. The community has a member who butchers meat in the kosher tradition. Other rituals of Jewish life are part of a bygone era.

The last marriage in the synagogue was 20 years ago; the last "bris" -- the circumcision ceremony performed on infant boys -- occurred 14 years ago, said Abu Yusef.

"Before this government, there was pressure on the Jews in Iraq and we were obliged to send our families abroad. Since 1968, when this government came to power, the situation was different. We have full liberty. We have open trade and business," said Abu Yusef. "We can sell and buy property. Our sons and daughters became students in the university."

Changing fortunes

That wasn't always the case for the Jews here. The modern history of Iraq reflects the trials and tribulations of what had been the largest, most prosperous Jewish community in the Middle East. After Iraq declared its independence from British rule in 1932, Jews held prominent positions in the country, according to Mordechai Ben-Porat, whose book "To Baghdad and Back" chronicles the emigration of the Jews from Iraq.

"The first minister of finance [Sasun Haskail] was a Jew," said Ben-Porat, in a telephone interview from his home in Israel. "The [Jews] had a very big influence until they left."

The Jews prospered in business and government. They worked as goldsmiths and money changers; the musicians working in the early days of Iraqi radio were Jews.

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