Iranian-backed militias in Iraq may be stealing and misusing funds belonging to the Jewish community to finance their own terrorist activities.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Sheikh Jarrah controversy – where Arab tenants have refused to pay rent to Jewish owners claiming restitution of the property they live in – has spotlighted a larger issue: legal discussions regarding restitution of properties lost in the course of the conflict tend to arise only on the side where Israel has the power, argues Jonathan Spyer in the Jerusalem Post:
Jewish pilgrims in 1927on their way to visit the tomb of Simon the Just in Sheikh Jarrah
For Palestinians and their supporters, the Sheikh Jarrah issue has become emblematic of what they regard as the built-in injustice of arrangements put in place by Israel following the 1948 and 1967 wars.
Property abandoned by Palestinian Arabs in the 1948 war was transferred in its entirety to the Custodian of Absentee Property, in line with the Absentee Property Law of 1950. An amendment to the law allows Arab-Israeli citizens and residents of east Jerusalem to claim monetary compensation for properties transferred to the Custodian, on the basis of the properties’ value on November 29, 1947.
But no legal path for the restitution of properties exists.
Backers of the Jewish efforts to reclaim property in eastern Jerusalem, meanwhile, maintain that they are following existing legal means in an attempt to right an injustice – namely, the refusal of the protected tenants to pay rent, as required by law.
They further assert that this process is being undertaken without reference to any other situation or larger political context.
These legal niceties aside, there is a harsher, less diplomatic reality which is the reason that many Israelis may feel few pangs of conscience with regard to events in Sheikh Jarrah.
Legal discussions regarding restitution of properties lost in the course of the long conflict between Jews and Arabs tend to arise only on the side where Israel has the power.
Where Arab participant countries in the 1948 war had and have jurisdiction, the matter of any claims to properties lost in the 1948 war by Jews expelled from these areas is regarded as closed. With regard to properties lost by Jews to Arab states, the law is the familiar one of greater force. The states in question, all dictatorships, are not interested in discussing the rights and wrongs of the issue. They have the capacity to enforce this preference. Hence no such discussions take place.
During the period of 1948-67, for example, when Jordan ruled east Jerusalem and the West Bank, no legal avenue for recompense was available to Jews who had lost property as a result of their expulsion by Jordanian forces.
The combined value of lost Jewish-owned properties in the Arab world and Iran, according to an Israeli investigation carried out in 2019, may amount to $150 billion. But these properties, many of them owned by Jews expelled from Arab participant countries in the 1948 war such as Iraq, remain beyond the reach of their legal owners. No path for compensation is available.
An Iraqi Jew seeking to petition, for example, the current government in Baghdad for compensation for loss of property incurred during the expulsion of Iraq’s Jews in 1951 would rapidly discover the futility of any such effort. For anyone with knowledge of the Middle East, the very idea of such an attempt indeed sounds absurd.
From this point of view, the apparent imbalance thus reflects a larger balance. Where Israel is in control, the matter is subject to discussion, and necessarily imperfect but existing legal process. The tenants at Shimon Hatzadik, for example, may find it unfair or unjust that they are required to pay rent to the property’s owners. But should they prove willing to do so, their residence rights will be protected by law.
There is no reflection of this on the other side, where the automatic assumption of the absolute justice of the Arab Muslim position translates into a similarly automatic dismissal of any legal process for individuals associated with the enemy camp. This is the harsh, usually unstated accounting of ethno-religious conflict.
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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Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries
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