You Cannot Make It Up: Saved Iraqi Jewish Collection to Go Back to Iraq

A rare collection of Iraqi-Jewish artifacts, Scriptures and books is slated for return to Iraq, where it faces almost certain destruction. One Iraqi-Jew and a small number of people are trying to save the collection, but they need help. This is the story of how the artifacts came to be in Iraq how they were saved, and may be lost again.

November 30th is the formal commemoration Day, correctly called ‘Mizrahi Jews Commemoration Day,’ remembering the expulsion of approximately 900,000 Jews from Arab and North Africa Moslem countries.

These Jews are called the forgotten Jews.

While the entire world was still leaking its WWII wounds and the Jewish nation was counting the Jews the Holocaust left alive, the Jews of Moslem countries were going through their own Kristallnacht and Pogroms.

Each year, at the Sephardic Tefe’ert Israel Synagogue, in Los Angeles, the Jewish community commemorates this second (in number) great expulsion of Jews. The first one was from Spain, in 1492.

The Story of the Jews of Iraq

Joseph Samuels Tells His Expulsion Story

Joseph Samuels, on December 31st, will celebrate his 87th birthday. He is an Iraqi Jew. He was born in 1930 in Taht Al Takia, in the Jewish quarter of the old city of Baghdad, Iraq.

Joseph Samuels
Joseph Samuels

His mother’s tongue is Arabic and his Arabic name is Yusef, [Joseph]. His father, Sasson Shumail Hacham Sasson, was a prominent Iraqi Jew textile importer.

Joseph Samuels' family, he is on far right
Joseph Samuels’ family, he is on far right

Baghdad was Joseph Samuels’ hometown and Iraq was his homeland.

Jewish roots in Iraq go back over 26 centuries, rooted in the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem and expulsion of the Jews to Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia is a historical region in West Asia, situated within the Tigris-Euphrates river system, in modern days roughly corresponding to most of Iraq plus Kuwait, the eastern parts of Syria, Southeastern Turkey, and regions along the Turkish-Syrian and Iran-Iraq borders.

The Biblical prophets Ezekiel and Jonah and the Jewish leaders Ezra and Nehemiah were all buried in Iraq. By the mid-20th century, one in four citizens of Baghdad was a Jew.

Jews in Iraq were an integral part of the Iraqi economy, many were of much wealth, education and the administration. In fact they were a stabilizing element of Iraq.

The Jews in Iraq believed in, “We are all Iraqis.” Zionism was a remote, far removed and a weak idea, and the conception of a state named Israel was only a dream. The thought of leaving Iraq was never on any Jew’s mind, hardly ever contemplated.

Then things began to rapidly change. Kristallnacht, Iraq style, hit the Jewish population.

On June 1st, 1941, Muslim mobs went on a rampage, looting and burning Jewish homes and businesses. The angry mob raped Jewish women and girls, robbed the men, and then killed many. The Iraqi government reported 179 Jewish citizens murdered and 400 more wounded that day. This violent outbreak became known as the ‘Farhud‘.

Iraq's mass grave of Jews, victims of the Farhud
Iraq’s mass grave of Jews, victims of the Farhud

Sadly, there were no arrests or convictions following this tragedy. For fear of retaliation and threats, Jews would not file a complaint against Muslims.

Joseph Samuels was ten-years-old when the Farhud took place. There was nowhere to run to. No country would take the Iraqi Jews in. Jews now lived in fear. When Joseph was 14-years-old he already faced death when two Muslim youths chased him with a knife.

On May 14th, 1948, the State of Israel was born. Jews in Iraq felt a spark of hope, a glimpse of possible safety, freedom and recharged dignity. After 2000 years of forced abandonment of the Jewish commonwealth in the land of Israel, Jews had a homeland again, to serve as a sanctuary for all Jews from persecution, humiliation and death.

As history attests, the day after David Ben Gurion declared the birth of the Jewish state, on May 15th, 1948, five Arab countries, including Iraq, declared war on the nascent state, Israel. Luckily, they failed, they lost the war. But the Iraqi government could not bear the defeat, it needed to vent its humiliation and the local Iraqi Jewish community was its target. Zionism sentiments were declared treason, and Zionist aspiration was punishable by death. Arrests, torture and public executions soon followed. Every Jew became a suspect.

A year after his graduation from Al A’a Dadiah high school, Samuel, now 19-years-old, was smuggled to Iran, and from there to Israel. He became homeless and a penniless refugee, just like all other Jewish refugees from Arab lands who were expelled and found refuge in poor and struggling Israel. With the minimum means, Israel built tent cities for these refugees and Samuel, as all other Jewish refugees, stood in line for a free meal, slept on a steel bed with a straw mattress, anchored in the hot sand.

Israel's tent encampment for Jewish refugees from Arab lands (1950)
Israel’s tent encampment for Jewish refugees from Arab lands (1950)

In 1950 the Iraqi government enacted the Taskit, the permit for Iraqi Jews to leave Iraq. Those who registered to leave could only take with them one suitcase, and whatever assets they had were confiscated and they were stripped of their Iraqi citizenship. There was no way back. Most of the 135,000 Iraqi Jews applied to leave, and only about 10,000 remained.

Those who chose not to leave Iraq continued to face systematic discrimination, economic deprivation, persecution, arrests, jail sentences and torture.

After Israel’s victorious Six Day War of June 1967, the remaining Jews of Iraq faced worsening living conditions. On January 27, 1969, nine Jews were accused of spying for Israel and were hanged in the public square of Baghdad. In the years that followed, the remaining Jews were smuggled out of the country or somehow managed to leave.

In 1948, it is estimated that over 850,000 Jews lived in the Middle East and North Africa countries. The Arabs’ hostility toward Jews and their aggressive wars against the state of Israel brought about economic deprivation, harassment and discrimination against the local Arab-Jews. All ended up in expulsions across the entire region. Nearly 650,000 of these expelled Arab-Jews settled in Israel. The rest found refuge in Europe, Canada, the USA and other places around the world. Presently, it is estimated that only about 4,000 Jews are living in Arab countries, mostly in Morocco.

There was never a discussion about reparations for the Mizrahi Jews. In recent years, when the Arabs, most of whom ran away from Israel, at will, during the Jewish state War of Independence, started to demand reparations, expulsion of the forgotten Jews came up. The two matters are weighed equally; if Arabs demand reparations, then Arab-Jews must receive reparations as well.

The War on Iraq and the Jewish Artifacts

On May 6th, 2003, during the US invasion of Iraq, the United States Army were looking for weapons of mass destruction in the headquarters of the Mukhabarat, Baghdad’s feared secret police. Instead of weapons of mass destruction, in the flooded basement of the building they found a trove of heavily damaged Iraqi-Jewish artifacts and Scriptures and Jewish books. The trove was what Dictator Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party had confiscated and stole from dozens of synagogues, schools and communities’ properties, as well from individual Jews. This trove included 2,700 books and thousands of documents, some dating back to the 16th century.

Iraqi Jewish artifacts, a piece of an Iraqi Jewish book. Bill O'Leary-Washington Post
Iraqi Jewish artifacts, a piece of an Iraqi Jewish book. Bill O’Leary-Washington Post

The U.S. government brought this trove of artifacts to the US, and at a generous cost of $3 million restored and preserved them. The sad news is that these artifacts are scheduled to be returned to Iraq in September 2018. This means that this Jewish memorabilia will be treated as before, with total disrespect, somewhat considered Iraq’s retribution.

There is no high moral ground or justification to send these Jewish archives back to Iraq. Iraq is a place where no Jews live, which has no respect for, nor interest in Jewish heritage. Iraq allows no accessibility for Jewish scholars nor access to the descendants of those who once possessed these pieces of Iraqi-Jewish history.

At his age, energetic Joseph Samuels is actively pursuing efforts to stop these artifacts from being returned to Iraq. Returning them to Iraq is like leaving the cat to keep an eye on the milk. Joseph is publishing newspaper op-eds,’ writing to members of Congress – Congressmen and Senators alike – and now to President Trump to stop this miscalculated intention, this injustice. On October 19, 2017, The Washington Post published Joseph’s article titled, “The History of Iraqi Jews is in Jeopardy.”

We Must Take Action

The Middle East was full of valuable ancient historical relics, most were destroyed by insensitive, ignoramus and uneducated anarchist Islamic hooligans and terrorists.

Preserving what is left of Iraqi Jews’ history is not a political issue. It is an issue of preserving history for generations to know. It is about preserving the very few artifacts of Jews left from all Arab lands.

The enlightened world, the world that understands the core of this important case and cause, must take action and help stop these historical treasures from going to where they were saved from, from being returned to Iraq.

Joseph Samuels implores every decent human being to do what is just and right, help him in his mission’s efforts to save the testimonial archives of the history of his ancestors, the ancient community of the Jews of Iraq, from returning to the hands of Jewish foes.

Nurit Greenger
During the 2006 second Lebanon War, Nurit Greenger, referenced then as the "Accidental Reporter" felt compelled to become an activist. Being an 'out-of-the-box thinker, Nurit is a passionately committed advocate for Jews, Israel, the United States, and the Free World in general. From Southern California, Nurit serves as a "one-woman Hasbarah army" for Israel who believes that if you stand for nothing, you will fall for anything.

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