Tag Archives: Babylonia

The Disappearance of Babylonian Jewry

The facade of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda is designed to look like an Iraqi house.
The facade of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda is designed to look like an Iraqi house.

Farhud is an Arabic word which means “violent dispossession.” To the Jewish community of Iraq in the 1940s and later, the word meant what happened in Baghdad on Shavuot 1941. The emphasis was on the violence.

Like most of the people in my course about the Second Temple period, I had never heard of the Baghdad Farhud. What we saw at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda surprised and shocked us.     

In  1941 the Jewish community of Iraq was one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. Today Iraq occupies the center of what was once the powerful Babylonian Empire. It stretched from Egypt to Turkey, with coasts on the Persian Gulf, and the Mediterranean, Black, Red, and Caspian Seas.  The first Jews there were exiles from the Kingdom of Israel, who arrived after Assyria conquered them in 720 BCE. Remnants of the ten northern tribes were still living by the rivers of Babylon when Nebuchadnezzar conquered the Kingdom of Judea in 586 BCE. He destroyed the Temple and took the leaders of that country into exile as well.

 In the early part of the first millennium, the community flourished as a center of Jewish scholarship. The Babylonian Talmud, the seminal work on which Jewish law and scholarship is based,  was composed and edited here. But later the community went through many difficult times. Most Iraqi Jews made aliyah after the founding of the State of Israel. By 2006, there were not enough Jews left to even call them a community.

When people make aliyah they bring their culture and artifacts with them.  Sometimes they establish a small museum or center dedicated to preserving their heritage. Many such institutions have been established throughout Israel. Allen and I have visited several, including the Memorial Museum of Hungarian Speaking Jewry in Tsfat and the Museum of Italian Jewish Art in Jerusalem. They are all small jewels. Their mission is to preserve history and culture, house focused research centers, and educate the general public about otherwise unknown pieces of our heritage. The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center is one such museum.

I first learned about the Babylonian exile in second grade Sunday school, so it seems like I have always been aware of it. I learned about the Babylonian Talmud a few years later. In high school I even studied some selections from Masechet Brachot, a portion of the Talmud dealing with prayers and blessings. The Babylonian academies of Sura and Pumbedita were major centers of Jewish learning for over 800 years. Most of the Rabbis quoted in the Talmud studied at one of them. The Babylonian influence on the development of Judaism is immeasurable. For hundreds of years, Jews all over the world looked to Babylonia for answers to questions of law and practice.

Model of a Babylonian Talmud academy at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, Or Yehuda
Model of a Babylonian Talmud academy at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, Or Yehuda

A room at the museum is devoted to the Babylonian academies. Several vitrines feature models of what they probably looked like. Two teachers stood in the front. The Gaon, the expert older teacher spoke Aramaic, and the Meturgam, the younger teacher with a louder voice, translated the Aramaic into Arabic, the language spoken by the people. The best students sat in front, with other students behind them. Ordinary people who came to hear the lectures stood on the back.

But contact between the Jews of what had been Babylonia and the rest of the world ceased after the Mongolian conquest of the area in the 13th century. In the 18th century, it was discovered that Jews did still indeed live in that part of the world. After the Alliance Français established schools for the Jews in the 18th century, their communities in Baghdad and other cities started to flourish again. Because the schools taught both French and English, the Jews were soon able to gain jobs in the government as the influence of France and Britain expanded in the Middle East.

As we walked through the museum, we saw exhibits that testified to the good life Iraqi Jews enjoyed: beautiful clothes, musical instruments and photos of Jewish orchestras, and skillfully made religious artifacts. The docent who guided us through the museum, pointed out one silver Torah cover, which had arrived at the museum tarnished and black. Assigned to figure out what to do with it, she brought her children’s electric toothbrush to the museum to painstakingly polish the silver. She laughed as she said, “I paid a woman to come clean my house so I could come here and clean.” She did a good job–the Torah cover gleamed, reflecting the spotlight that shone on it in its class case.

The British gained control in Iraq after the first World War.  Jews were granted the rights to vote and hold office in 1921, and several served in the legislature. They continued to do so when Britain granted Iraq its independence, under British supervision.

During the 1930s German representatives in Iraq encouraged anti-Semitism and formation of groups modeled on Hitler Youth. When World War II started, and the British were losing, Germany’s influence increased. Because it needed Iraqi oil to provide fuel for its planned invasion of Russia, it encouraged the Iraqi government to seize the oil fields in the late spring of 1941. The attempt failed. Britain, however, worried that it could lose control of its source of oil, invaded Iraq. The British army reached the outskirts of Baghdad on May 31.

While all this was going on, Nazi-influenced groups planned a Farhud, an action to destroy the Jewish community, to destroy Jewish businesses, kill as many Jews as they could, and expel those who remained from the country. They made lists of Jews in the cities, even marking homes and businesses owned by Jews with red handprints. It was planned for June 1. When the British came to Baghdad’s outskirts they did not enter the city because they did not want to upset the Arabs. The Jews believed they had been saved from destruction and decided to publicly celebrate the Shavuot holiday.

On June 1, a group of Iraqi soldiers met a group of Jews who were celebrating Shavuot. The soldiers attacked the unarmed Jews, killing several of them. The violence spread through the city. Gangs of armed Arabs rampaged through the Jewish neighborhoods for two days, killing men and boys, raping women and girls and then killing some of them, and burning Jewish stores and businesses.

The British on the outskirts of the city surely knew what was happening. Even if they had not been able to hear the sounds of violence, they most likely would have heard the gunshots, and surely saw the smoke of burning buildings. But they were under orders from London not to intervene. Stopping the killing of Jews could anger the Arabs and endanger the oil fields. When the rampaging and violence spread into Arab neighborhoods on the second day the British entered Baghdad and restored peace.

The final exhibit at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center is a Memorial to the Farhud. Two columns list the names of those killed, 148 men, women, and children.  Our group sat in this room, surrounded by blown up photographs of the Farhud, to watch a video in which several survivors talk about their experiences. They spoke about watching helplessly as enraged Iraqis broke through barricaded doors and about seeing their mothers raped and killed. They talked about running up to the roof, of racing across roofs trying to escape. Later in the week, they returned to  houses full of broken or burnt furniture, or to one totally stripped of all furniture, clothing, and kitchen contents.

The Jews in Iraq never felt secure again.

On May 15, 1948, Iraq declared war on the newborn State of Israel and declared aliyah illegal. But in 1950, Iraq allowed the Jews to leave. First they had to relinquish all their property, and give up their citizenship and the right to return. They could take almost nothing–66 pounds of luggage and the equivalent of $140. That’s not much to start life in a new country. The government allowed some Torah scrolls to leave the country. The scrolls had their own ticketed seats in the airplanes. Other Torahs were smuggled out, removed from their cases and carefully rolled up and hidden.

Israel organized a giant airlift to rescue the Jews of Iraq, Operations Ezra and Nehemiah. The airlift was named for the Biblical figures who led the Jews from Babylonia back to the land of Israel in 450 BCE.  American airplanes were used because Israeli planes were not allowed in Iraqi airspace. By the time these operations ended in 1952, 90% of Iraq’s  Jewish population, approximately 120,000 people, had been brought home. Most of the remainder gradually left Iraq as well.

When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, there was less than a minyan left. Emad Levy was one of the last Jews. He was the Rabbi, kosher butcher, and mohel (circumcizer), when there was a need for his services. But even he knew there was no future for him in Iraq. One day in 2007 he received an envelope containing a bullet; he made aliyah shortly thereafter. Among his first stops in his new country was the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center. Our guide welcomed him and as they talked she thought he would be a good match for her best friend. She was right, and the Israeli Iraqi community celebrated his wedding within the year. Emad still comes to the center to talk about Jewish life in Iraq.

Nonetheless, after over 2600 years, one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world has disappeared.        

The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center is located in Or Yehuda, Between Ben Gurion Airport and Tel Aviv (outlined in red on the map)