The discrete and inconspicuous Jews of Iraq

David Sheena, who left Baghdad in 1955 for the US, describes the gathering storm of anti-Jewish oppression as he was growing up. Extracts follow from his article of 7 December in the Jewish Advocate (with thanks: Israel B).

“As a child, I was not aware of the long and rich history of our people, but I was aware that I was comfortable, and a part of that people. Even so, I was keenly sensitive to our position as Jews in a Muslim country. We were educated, economically well-off, and part of the cultural elite of Iraq. Our life was rich and substantial, but we had to be discrete, watchful and inconspicuous. We could not expose our Judaism; there were no Jewish stars, no openly displayed Hebrew and our talitot had no overtly Jewish symbols.

“I began to sense that something was not right, that all was not in place.(..) I felt around me the tangible fear as the witch hunt began for Zionists around 1949 and 1950.

“I remember the vague apprehension that was felt everywhere and the stories being told around 1950 of houses being targeted for searches for any Zionist connection. I recall my mother and father sanitizing our house and burning anything that could be incriminating. It was obvious that this was the ‘revenge’ of the Iraqis on the native ‘enemy’ Jewish population; after all the Iraqi Jews were also the people of Israel who had just humiliated Iraq – among other Arab countries – in Israel’s war of independence in 1948.

“In 1950 after outbreaks of anti-Jewish riots, Iraqi Jews were compelled to renounce their citizenship and leave for ‘parts unknown’ (Israel would never be publicly acknowledged to exist) under the Law of ‘Surrender of Iraqi Nationality’. After virtually the entire Jewish population registered to leave, the state froze all assets and property, effectively robbing the Jews of their life savings. Only Israel was willing to rescue the Iraqi Jews during this ‘second exodus’. (…)

“It was such a surprise for me in America to first hear someone say publicly out loud: ‘give this to the Rabbi’. That is when I knew I was in America.”

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