TORONTO — Iraqi Jews, the oldest continuous Diaspora in the world, lived under difficult circumstances throughout their 2,700-year presence in the region, but have a history and a community that they can be proud of, said Diana Mingail, born to Iraqi Jewish parents.
Earlier this month, Mingail, once an editorial assistant at ORT Canada, a non-governmental education and training organization, was invited by the Iraqi Jewish Association to present a lecture titled “Abraham to Saddam – The Jews of Iraq” at the Sephardic Kehila Centre.
Mingail, who was born in Calcutta, India, but currently lives in Toronto, recalled the day when she found her father crying over a letter he received from the family he left behind in Baghdad.
“I said, ‘Daddy, why are you crying?’ He told me that this letter contained the news that the Jews of Baghdad were being raped and pillaged and murdered and looted and that this was the last letter from his family… He never found out what happened to his family,” Mingail said, adding that her presentation about the “sometimes glorious and sometimes troubled history” of Iraqi Jews, which she had been preparing for a year, is a tribute to her family and her heritage.
She said Jews were in Iraq – then called Mesopotamia – about 2,500-2,700 years ago, and it is regarded as the birthplace of Abraham.
It wasn’t until 1,200 years ago that Islam was introduced to the region.
When the Arabs invaded Iraq in the seventh century, many big changes occurred. But the biggest change of all was for the Jews, who were regarded as infidels, as inferior.
“They were forbidden to ride horses, … they were not permitted to drink wine or to bear arms and they had no legal status… They had to wear yellow patches and their turbans had to be a different colour from the Muslim turbans.”
This carried on for six centuries. Conditions became even worse when there was a Mogul invasion in 1258, she said.
“They were a nomadic and barbaric people. They killed thousands of men, women, and children.”
But when the Persians came into power for the third time in the 16th century for the following 21/2 centuries, Jews enjoyed more freedom.
Living conditions for Jews remained stable when the Turkish Ottoman Empire began ruling the region in 1908, and Jews became Ottoman citizens.
“They were allowed autonomy and were no longer confined to ghetto neighbourhoods. They could serve in the law force and municipal councils,” Mingail said.
But when the Turks became allies with Germany in 1916, Britain took over Iraq and ended Ottoman rule.
“Britain promised the Arabs who helped fight alongside them that they would be rewarded and they told the Jews through the Balfour Declaration in 1917 that they would establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine.”
She said when King Faisal was appointed by the British to rule Iraq in 1921, the Jewish community continued to flourish.
“Under his rule, Jews lived in Baghdad, Basra, they spoke Arabic, and they lived in Jewish neighbourhoods.”
During the British mandate from 1922 to 1932, Jews were allowed their own educational, social and economic autonomy. About a quarter of Baghdad’s population was Jewish, she said.
“Jews were the educated elite.”
In 1932, when King Faisal died, Iraq gained independence and Jews were persecuted again.
“They restricted Jews from travelling abroad, there were restrictions on acquiring higher education, Jews were no longer allowed to teach and [it was said] that Zionism was a crime. On the streets, Jews were murdered three or four at a time.”
In 1942, Zionist emissaries came to train the Jews in self-defence and urged them to make aliyah to Palestine.
“At the start of World War II, the British had promised the Arabs that they would reward them for their help during the war, by restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine,” Mingail said, adding that after the war, Britain used its boats and planes to keep Holocaust survivors away from Palestine.
She added that when the United Nations announced that they were in favour of establishing a Jewish state, the surrounding Arab countries began recruiting for war.
“How did they raise funds for this process? They forced the Jews in Iraq to pay, what they called, contribution and if the Jews refused, they were accused of Zionism, which was a crime.”
She said that when Israel’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion declared Israel as an independent state in 1948, the situation worsened for the Iraqi Jews.
“Jews were publicly executed and tortured, and raped. Jewish property was looted, businesses were destroyed… Zionism was punishable by death,” Mingail said.
“Iraq forbade the Jews to leave and they said that if they wanted to go to Israel, they would have to pay them a ‘deposit’ guaranteeing their return – it was a bribe. Jews didn’t dare refuse to pay.”
She said that many Jews were smuggled into Iran where the Shah gave them silent consent to emigrate to Israel.
The Jews that left were forced to denounce their Iraqi citizenship and were forbidden from returning.
Between 1950 and 1952, Israel went forth with Operation Ezra and Nehemiah that airlifted more than 110,000 Iraqi Jews from Iran to Israel.
She said that in the early 1970s the rest of the Jews were quietly allowed to leave Iraq, but they had to leave everything they owned behind.
The estimated value of property left behind by Jews in Arab countries – including synagogues, community centres and private property – is about $30 billion, she said.
Today, only about 35 Jews remain.