Tag: Jewish refugees/Iraq

Iraq’s laws have discrimination against Jews baked in

Al-Hamadani is a lawyer in Iraq representing the interests of Iraqi Jews, who were stripped of their citizenship and had their property frozen. But as he writes in the Fikra Forum (Washington Institute) his work is hampered by the in-built bias against Jews in Iraq’s legal system and a Constitution that does not even mention Jewish rights. (With thanks: Michal)

A jewish-owned house in Bataween, Baghdad

Currently, I work to represent the cases of Iraqi Jews seeking to gain equal representation under the law. I do this work pro-bono out of a sense of duty to my country. In order to retain their privacy, I shall not mention the names of those Iraqi Jews who have authorized me to defend them before the politically-driven Iraqi judicial system.

The general situation is clearly visible within Iraq’s laws. Enacted in the early 1950s, these inhumane laws aimed to legalize the actions of the Iraqi government, which was engaged in pushing out Iraqi Jews, stealing their possessions, and removing their Iraqi citizenship.

The unfair legal structures which revoked Iraqi citizenship from Iraqi Jews were enacted during the Iraqi Hashemite monarchy, which passed law no. 1 in the year 1950 and law no. 12 in 1951. When these laws came into effect, many of Iraq’s Jews were forced into exile and their property and money were confiscated by the state as an additional form of punishment. What is disturbing is the fact that these two pieces of legislation are still in effect today. This is despite the political change that took place in Iraq in 2003, and despite the enactment of a new Iraqi constitution in 2005—which gave some hopes of change for Iraqi Jews in a democratic, federal, and multicultural Iraq.

Those who call themselves Iraq’s current leaders claim the new constitution respects all religions, values multiculturalism, and supports the rights of religious minorities and the equality of all Iraqis under the law.

Nonetheless, the current constitution has never outlawed the aforementioned, unfair acts—despite their contravention to the second section of article 18, part A of Iraqs current constitution. This section states, “an Iraqi citizen by birth may not have his citizenship withdrawn for any reason. Any person who had his citizenship withdrawn shall have the right to demand its reinstatement.” The constitution defines anyone born to an Iraqi father or an Iraqi mother as an Iraqi entitled to citizenship, and states that any Iraqi who has lost his citizenship for either political, racist or sectarian reasons has the right to request restoration of citizenship.

The two acts in question likewise breach the Iraqi citizenship act no. 26 of 2006, which secures the right of restoration of citizenship to all of those who have lost it for the reasons detailed above. However, this act excluded Iraqi Jews—who should have been included just like the rest of Iraqis. It is striking that the 1950 and 1951 acts against Iraqi Jews have remained, while other laws that been amended to conform to the 2005 constitution’s article 18. Nonetheless, Iraq Jews remain deprived of justice under the new Iraq, in clear violation of the constitution.

As for the issue of the property and wealth that the government forcibly confiscated, and which the Iraqi government and Iran-affiliated militias and parties have continued to make use of, the new constitution’s article 23 stipulates that “private property is protected,” and that “the owner shall have the right to benefit, exploit and dispose of private property within the limits of the law.” Article 2, parts A and C, additionally confirms that “no law may be enacted that contradicts the principles of democracy… [or] the rights and basic freedoms” stipulated in the Iraqi Constitution. Likewise, articles 3 and 7 of the constitution dictate that “any entity or program that adopts, incites, facilitates, glorifies, promotes, or justifies racism or terrorism or accusations of being an infidel (takfir) or ethnic cleansing… shall be prohibited,” and that “such entities may not be part of political pluralism in Iraq.”

What is most puzzling is that while the Constitution explicitly confirms the freedom of belief and religious practice of Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean Mandaeans, it does not address the Jews of Iraq as a basic religious group. This is another example of the legal inequality and injustice facing the Jews of Iraq. The denial of constitutional rights has been a general policy with Jews when it comes to their rights to citizenship and other measures. Those affected by these laws have the right to bring the case before the Administrative Court, which is supposed to be linked to the Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council and independent of the executive authority.

In reality, however, the Administrative Court is officially connected to the executive authority and the government, as one of the joints of the Iraqi Ministry of Justice. This is in contrast to all other Iraqi courts, which are linked to the Supreme Judicial Council under the Iraqi constitution. Most courts are in accordance with the principle of separation of powers—whereas the Administrative Court acts as the judicial authority while being representative of the defendants. This is all the more so the case as the ministries involved are the Ministries of Finance and Interior, which implement the Nationality Law and therefore evaluate the complaints and grievances against the Minister of the Interior. It is only reasonable to conclude that this court is biased towards favoring the decisions of this ministry given its association with the government, while remaining indifferent to the interests of those affected. Many Iraqi lawyers have lost hope when it comes to realizing Iraqis’ rights and applying principles of justice given the politicized nature of the court.

It is unclear why the Iraqi legal system believes that the Administrative Court and the Supreme Administrative Court are competent to hear cases related to discrimination and appeals against the decisions of the Administrative Court. Its decision is binding on all parties involved, which are related to the executive authority (the government).

Returning again to the text of the constitution, there is a clear lack of legality regarding the Administrative Court’s relationship with the executive authority. Article 19 of the Iraqi Constitution stipulates that the judiciary is independent and has no authority other than the law. No authority may interfere in the judiciary and in the affairs of justice. Therefore, any lawyer who tries to trust and defend the Jews of Iraq before these two government-controlled courts will be threatened with blackmail and intimidation; with an opponent who is also the judge, lawyers cannot take the liberty of defending their clients. Therefore, issues remain floating in the court, because lawyers fear following-up.

The situation extends to the president of Iraq, as he has failed to exercise certain parts of the Constitution as detailed above. Responsibility also falls on the President of the Supreme Judiciary Council, President of the Federal Court, President of the House of Parliament, as well as parliament members themselves, due to their silence regarding the legal and constitutional violations against Iraqi Jews.

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Jewish property in Iraq falls prey to racketeers

Point of no Return exclusive

Update: The Iraq politician Mithal al-Alussi has corroborated this story in an Iraqi TV interview. The losses suffered by the Jewish community are colossal,  he says – if 1,000 sq.meters of land is worth $1 million, the  land and property owned by Jews is worth hundreds of millions. (With thanks: David K)

Iranian-backed militias  in Iraq may be stealing and misusing funds belonging to the Jewish community to finance their own terrorist activities.

Thafer Eliyahu was in charge of the Jewish community office before his death in March 2021

According to unconfirmed reports, the militias have been taking advantage of the vacuum left by the death of Thafer Eliyahu, the last Jew appointed to administer the community’s affairs,  to funnel rents and other income into  their bank accounts.

Thafer Eliyahu died, supposedly from a heart attack, in March  2021.  He had been appointed head of the ‘community’ by Sitt Marcelle, who administered the Jewish community office until her death in September 2020 aged 100. She collected rents from tenants living in Jewish property and distributed  the money  to  needy Jews still in Iraq. By June 2021, their number had dwindled to three.

As her hands were unsteady, Sitt Marcelle depended on a trusty employee, a Shia Muslim,  to stamp official documents on her behalf. It is not known if she also permitted him to sign these documents.

It is thought that the employee has been jacking up rents paid by Muslim tenants living in Jewish property. If the tenants could not afford the higher rents, he would evict them and replace them with others who could pay. According to one source, the employee  fraudulently claimed ownership of one building and sold it twice over.

The employee  was arrested. Along with his new $3 million property and $100,000 car, he was found to be  in possession of  ID cards issued by Iranian militias and a cache of weapons.

He was replaced by a man with links to an Iranian terrorist group operating in Iraq. The last three Jews in Iraq may be forced to work with him.

In 1951 Iraq passed a law stripping Jews who had left the country – 95 percent of the 150,000 -member community –  of their nationality and right to compensation. Private property was frozen but  is now being pilfered and vandalised.  Some of it has been taken over by the state, which is also demanding extortionate rents.

Jewish-owned property lost in Arab countries is estimated to be worth $300 billion  or land area equivalent to Jordan and Lebanon combined.

Miracles of the Great Synagogue in Baghdad

The Great Synagogue (Slat le-Kbiri) was the largest and oldest synagogue in Baghdad. Our resident historian, Sami Sourani, tells its amazing story going back 2,600 years, and how a mysterious explosion from its walls saved the Synagogue from being demolished in the 20th century. (With thanks: Lisette)

Rabbi Ezra Dangoor standing in front of the Echal (Ark) of the Great Synagogue

When the Jews were exiled to Babylon, the Prophet Ezekiel ‘s greatest achievement was building a synagogue. Ezekiel  buried in the foundations half the soil he had taken from the bag that the defeated King Joachim carried on his back to Babylon for burial in his tomb when he died.

This was the first synagogue ever known in the world and Ezekiel described it as Kehila Kedousha. It served as a unifying centre for the exiled Jews. They prayed in this synagogue under Babylonian, Persian and Greek rule, after Alexander the Great captured Persia and its colonies.

When  the Persians captured Babylon from the Greeks after the death of Alexander the Great, the Jews of Babylon lived peaceably, managing their own affairs under their own leader, the Resh Galuta,  the Head of the Diaspora. The Greeks translated the title to “Exilarch”.

After capturing Babylon, the new Persian Dynasty accused the Jews of collaborating with the Greeks, their enemies. This was an excuse to deprive the Jews  of self-rule and place them under their control. The new ruler abolished the position of  Resh Galuta and appointed a Persian ruler to manage the Jewish community, including the collecting of taxes. The title and its function,  abolished by the Persians, was restituted to the Jews, centuries later, by the Arab Invaders.
Resentful of their treatment by the Persians, the Jews revolted. This revolution was initiated by two brothers and a cousin of the Zutra family. The Persian arrested the three leaders and executed them. This is sound proof of the value of freedom among Jews. They were ready to sacrifice their lives for it.
The situation of the Jews became harsher under the Persian governors. The Jews had to find a way out. They moved secretly to a new area between the two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. They established a new city called “Baghdad” , a combination of  the two words ” Bagh”  (gardens ) and “Dad” ( city). The Jews secretly dismantled the synagogue in the city of Babylon and moved it, along with King Joachim’s bag of soil,  to Baghdad. It stayed in the same location until today. They called it Slat le-Kbiri,  the  Great Synagogue. The building consists of four walls but no roof, as they needed light to read the Torah during prayers, in the evenings and early in the morning. It is interesting to know that the walls of this synagogue were more than two feet thick. The question is, why?
When a Sefer Torah became so damaged that it could not be used for prayers, the Jews dug a big hole in the wall and buried the holy materials. Then they sealed the wall with whatever materials were available  in those days. According to tradition, the Sefer Torah is  so holy that it should be buried above our feet and not below.
 Over the centuries, the synagogue was repaired a number of times when the city was flooded by the Tigris river. Despite all the problems, the synagogue became the place of prayer for most Baghdadi Jews.
After WWI, The League of Nations put Iraq under British Mandate.  The British tried to improve public services when the need arose.
In the mid-920s, the flood water of the Tigris reached the Jewish quarter and the Great Synagogue. Many houses collapsed and became uninhabitable. The  City  Planner in  the British mandate government inspected buildings affected by the flood, including the Great Synagogue. He found that a wall in the Synagogue has caved in and become dangerous. He issued an order to demolish the wall. The Jews protested this decision, but to no avail.
The City Planner decided to send in a demolition  crew. They arrived as some Jews stood and prayed  for miracles.
The demolition crew approached the wall and prepared to drive their axes into the bricks. As they did so, a mysterious fire broke out, accompanied by a huge explosion. Workers’ clothing caught fire. The crew ran away to save their lives, shouting,” This is the God of the Jews. Do not upset the God of the Jews.”
As a result, the City Planner agreed to prop up the wall and not demolish it.
What caused  the explosion?  There is a possible  scientific explanation.  The Jews dug big holes in the wall to bury the unusable holy books. These were written on calf skin, an organic material. When organic materials are buried and tightly sealed, they develop methane gas. This gas explodes when exposed to air and sunlight. The Jews then said that this explosion was nothing but  the shehina (holy spirit) from Heaven. People believed this.  This is how the Great Synagogue was saved from demolition. It was a miracle!

What has become of the Great Synagogue since the mass exodus of the Jews of Iraq in the early 1950s? Sami Sourani adds:

The Synagogue is now under the Custodian of Absentee Property of the Government of Iraq. This department manages all Jewish assets frozen by the Iraqi government in 1951. Many Jewish schools and synagogues are now used as government warehouses, but there is little information about this Synagogue.We do not  know how the Iraqi government is managing Jewish property and whether it is  being maintained.

Some Jews are rumoured to have asked for UNESCO to declare the Great Synagogue a World Heritage site. An architect, Kanan Makiya, published a book about ancient buildings in Baghdad but mentioned nothing about old Jewish buildings, except for a general footnote. However, he did mention the Chaldean church not far away.

In 1950, the Iraqi government issued laissez-passers to departing Jews from the Meir Tweg synagogue in the Bataween district, and not from Slat le-Kbiri. When it was  their turn  to leave Iraq, they gathered at the Massouda Shemtov synagogue. From there they were driven by bus to Baghdad International Airport.

After 1950, the Great Synagogue in downtown Baghdad in a district that was once populated by  Jews, was never used again for prayers. Neither were  the rest of the downtown synagogues.

Allan Daly adds: I was in Slat le-Kbiri in 1971 when I was 14 accompanying my Dad, Youssef Khdhoury Daly z”l, to complete some government paperwork required at the time. It was a sunny day, and all along the surrounding wall,  covered by a little roof,  scrolls of leather Sefarim lay open on the ground and scattered on the wooden tachtaat (benches). I went to investigate and my dad immediately called  me back, fearing that it would be realised that we might know the Hebrew language. That was the first and last time I was in Slat le-Kbiri.

Sami Sourani comments: A hand-written Sefer Torah in Baghdad is usually kept in  a Tik –  a case made of silver or gold or both. It is very tempting for thieves to break in and steal them. Perhaps, the Iraqi Government decided to gather  the Sefarim from all the synagogues in Baghdad and store them in one place – Slat le-Kbiri. This is the logical explanation.
I heard from the late Anwar Shahin that the Iraqi Jewish Community in the UK requested the Iraqi Government to release a few Sefarim to Iraqi -Jewish communities in Europe and North America. The Iraqi Government agreed to release some and send three to the Jewish Community in the UK, three to the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Montreal and three to a synagogue in New York. I have no more details.
It is not known whether the Sefarim that Allan Daly saw in that Slat Le Kbiri stayed there or were stored somewhere else by the Iraqi government.

More from Sami Sourani

Tent camp bride Shafika has died

It was a photo that captured the moments of  joy, tempered by the trials and tribulations, experienced by  a whole generation: an invitation to a wedding in a  ma’abara, or tent camp.
Bridal photo and (inset) invitation to the wedding of Shafika and Sa’adia Massa


Guests were invited to attend the wedding of Shafika with Sa’adia Massa in a shed in the Skia B passage.
Shafika and Sa’adia were refugees from Iraq in 1951. The Israeli government had nowhere to house the hundreds of thousands who arrived from the Arab world at this time. It built tent camps, or ma’abarot. Some of the refugees spent months or years in the tent camps, which slowly turned into towns or cities.

Shafika went on to become a model housewife and a great cook. Her daughter Yaffa assembled a book of Shafika’s recipes. Cooking, cleaning, shopping at the market, doing the laundry, took up most of Shafika’s time.

Visiting Shafika’s daughter Yaffa in their house in Independence Street, Or Yehuda, to do homework together,  Rachel Yona recalls Shafika’s kindly face, the memories, the flavours and the smells. The table was set with half a loaf of bread full of all goodness, fresh seasoned chicken liver, vegetables, sauces and more . Rachel asked Yaffa if all the food was for her or  for the whole family? Shafika was concerned that Rachel was hungry and too embarrassed to eat. She would not give up until she had seen for herself that Rachel was actually eating.

Shafika told stories about the immigration to Israel. Despite the hardships, better days would come.

The wedding photo can be viewed as part of the Absorption exhibition at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda.

Shafika Massa z”l

Sheikh Jarrah and asymmetrical property claims

While many observers are in uproar about Jewish owners reclaiming their property in Sheikh Jarrah (Shimon Hatsaddik in Jerusalem), all avenues leading to restitution for Jews in Arab countries are closed. Lyn Julius writes in JNS News:

The Cecil Hotel in Alexandria: only example of restitution to its Jewish owners

If you believe most Western media, it all started with Sheikh Jarrah: the neighborhood in Jerusalem that has become the symbol of the “injustice” to Palestinian residents under threat of eviction. The matter has been misrepresented as a bigoted attempt by Israel to evict “hundreds” of Palestinians by Jewish “settlers.”

In fact, it is a long-running private dispute between Jewish landlords and Arab tenants. The tenants are at risk of eviction for not paying the rent. 

 A mirror image of the Sheikh Jarrah case occurred in Iraq recently. There, a tenant in Baghdad, fearing his home would be bulldozed, appealed to the Jewish owners of the land, now living in Canada, to sue a developer who had falsified the ownership deeds. 

 But even if they had won a legal case, the Jewish owners would not be able to claim back their property, since they had been de-nationalized—stripped of their rights when they fled the country. 

While discussions can take place where Israel has the power, Jonathan Spyer, writing in The Jerusalem Post, points out a fundamental asymmetry: All avenues leading to restitution of Jewish property seized in Arab countries are closed. “Might is right” in dictatorships that persecuted Jewish citizens, scapegoated as Zionists. For Jews, even to entertain the idea of reclaiming their property is considered ludicrous. 

 Billions of dollars’ worth of property has been seized from Jews evicted from Arab countries. (Some Jews expelled from Egypt after the Suez crisis, British and French citizens, received some compensation from the U.K. and France, but the vast majority got nothing.) 

 There has only been one example of property restituted to its Jewish owners, the Metzgers—the Cecil Hotel in Alexandria. An Egyptian court ruled in 1996 that the hotel should be restituted to Albert Metzger, but the ruling was not implemented for fear that it would establish a precedent for the restitution of nationalized Jewish property.

 It was only in 2007 that the Egyptian government proposed a deal whereby it would implement the ruling, but would immediately buy back the hotel from the Metzgers. 

 When a Property Claims Commission was set up in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq to deal with claims by Iraqis stripped of their property, the timeline was set at 1968, the year when the Ba’ath regime took power. This excluded the vast majority of potential claimants—the 130,000 Jews who left in 1950-51.

 A Claims Commission was due to have been implemented under the terms of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. But it was never established. 

 Jerusalem is an exception. When the city came under Israeli jurisdiction after 1967, Jews evicted by the Jordanians in 1948 were presented with the opportunity to recover their properties in the Old City and eastern Jerusalem. 

 A 1970 lawenables Jewish owners to sue for restitution. But there is one important caveat: The law protects tenants who pay rent. In the Sheikh Jarrah case, they refuse to do so.

 In Israel itself, a partial exchange of property occurred: Jewish refugees from Arab lands were resettled in abandoned Palestinian homes and villages. Conversely, Palestinians were re-housed in Jewish quarters, social clubs, schools and synagogues in Iraq, Libya, Lebanon and Syria. 

 The thorny issue of property claims for refugees on both sides awaits a comprehensive peace settlement. The fairest solution might be compensation, rather than restitution. But in light of recent events, that prospect seems some way off.


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This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

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