The violent persecution and near genocide of Iraq’s Yazidis and Christians have made headlines around the world. Less well-known is the story of Iraqi Jews, who face near eradication. As millions flee Islamic militants in Iraq, one man has emerged to help rebuild the Jewish remnant.
When I met with Sherzad Omar Mamsani, the Jewish representative to the Kurdish government, in December 2015, he proudly wore his kippah in public — an act of bravery and defiance against those who would see him and his people wiped out in Iraq. He told me that, contrary to reports of only a half dozen, there are as many as 430 Jewish families left in the Kurdish region of Iraq.
Although most of these Jews have kept a low profile in public, they experienced a renewed sense of hope with Sherzad’s appointment by the Kurdish government. Sherzad is working in the relative safety of the Kurdish zone to rebuild Iraq’s remaining synagogues and Jewish holy sites, and is helping rewrite the Jewish portion of Kurdish school lessons on Iraq’s religious history.
That history matters because Iraqi history is Jewish history, too.
Iraq has been home to Jewish people since the destruction of their first temple — 2,600 years ago — and their subsequent exile to Babylon. Considered the center of Jewish learning, Babylonia — modern Iraq — was home to Ezra the Scribe, a priest who led a group of exiles back to Jerusalem in the sixth century b.c.e.. Babylonia is also where the Talmud was compiled.
By the mid 20th century, the Jewish community in Iraq numbered approximately 150,000. But with the rise of Arab nationalism and the end of the British mandate in Iraq, a pro-Nazi coup ushered in an era of violence toward the Jewish community. In 1941, a pogrom in Baghdad during the festival of Shavuot killed 180 Jews and injured 1,000. By 1948, with the establishment of the State of Israel, Zionism had become a crime in Iraq — punishable by death.
The Jews that remained in Iraq have been persecuted relentlessly through show trials, public torture, and public executions.
The year 1951 was a breaking point. The Iraqi government agreed to allow the Jewish community to leave the country within a year, provided they forfeited their Iraqi citizenship. All Jewish property was frozen. Jews were able to leave with only $140 in their pockets and 66 pounds of luggage — reducing their memories into two suitcases. In an intricate airlift that became known as Operations Ezra and Nehemiah, Israel transported 120,000 Iraqi Jews to their new home in the State of Israel.
The following year, Jewish emigration was banned. Since then, the Jews that remained in Iraq have been persecuted relentlessly through show trials, public torture, and public executions. Until recently, fewer than five Jews were thought to have remained in the entirety of Iraq — too few to form a minyan (the number of men needed to perform most Jewish rituals).
#share#After years of persecuting the Jewish people, now ISIS is doing its best to also erase ancient Jewish sites that date back thousands of years to early biblical times and are central not only to the Jewish faith, but also to Christianity and Islam. The Tombs of Jonah and Seth were destroyed and rebuilt as mosques in July 2014, followed by the Tomb of Daniel in July 2014.
Thus far the history of Jews in Iraq has been one of resilience and persistence in the face of relentless hostility and violence, especially in the 20th century. Today, they are on the brink of annihilation. But the story is not over yet. Sherzad is but one man who seeks to revive the story of Iraq’s Jews for centuries to come. He urgently needs our help.
Thus far the history of Jews in Iraq has been one of resilience and persistence in the face of relentless hostility and violence.
To remain alive and experience true freedom to practice their religion, Iraq’s Jews need the assistance of the U.S. and the Iraqi central government. Saddam Hussein forced Jews (and other minority religious communities like Yazidis) to abandon their religious affiliation on their national identity cards. Ever since, those who remained in Iraq have been forced to identify as Muslims and have been subjected to frequent harassment. Sherzad — and many other minority-faith communities — wants the central government to reverse this policy. But his Kurdish allies are facing pressure from Baghdad to abandon reforms to the identity-card law currently under debate in parliament.
Sherzad has been personally attacked three times by Islamic radicals, yet he still pushes for reforms that will make him and his fellow Jews full citizens of a free and peaceful Iraqi society. In the first century, the Persian ruler of modern-day Erbil (the capital of Kurdistan in northern Iraq) converted to Judaism, and sent funds to help rebuild the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. In a unique turn of events, it is now the Kurds who are helping the Jews rebuild in Iraq. Similar support has not been forthcoming from the Baghdad government.
Iraq is now facing a critical turning point in its nation’s history. The last historic Jewish community and countless other minority faiths are at risk of disappearing. The U.S. and United Nations need a robust policy that recognizes the departure of these communities as the result of more than just the existential security challenges from Islamic militants. Iraq’s government must treat Jews — and every minority group within its borders — as full and equal citizens or they will disappear in the Middle East.