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.
After arrest warrants were issued and public death threats were made against many of the 300 Iraqi Muslim leaders calling for their government to make peace with Israel at a conference held in late September in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, Jewish activists of Iraqi origin are voicing support for those in Iraq who seek peace with Israel.
“It is depressing that the conference participants have been bullied in this way,” said Lyn Julius, a Jewish activist of Iraqi descent and co-founder of Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa based in the United Kingdom. “They were very brave to have taken part in the first place but may have underestimated the risks they were taking.”
The conference, which was held in the city of Erbil, drew widespread condemnation from officials in Iraq’s government, who called it an “illegal meeting.” According to the Iraq News Agency, some Iraqi authorities also announced that they would arrest all 300 participants once they had been identified.
Likewise, an arrest warrant was issued for Wisam al-Hardan, leader of the “Sons of Iraq Awakening” movement, who had demanded that Iraq join the Abraham Accords and, at the conference, also encouraged establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel. Following widespread public condemnation in Iraq, al-Hardan later issued a recorded apology and withdrew his support for the event.
Moreover, arrest warrants were issued against other conference speakers, including former Iraqi politician Mithal Al-Alusi, and a senior Iraqi Culture Ministry official named Sahar al-Tai. Later, Al-Alusi, who has long called for peace between Iraq and Israel, claimed not to have attended the conference at all. Additionally, several other conference participants also backtracked from their earlier pro-peace statements.
Iraq has officially been at war with Israel since Israel’s establishment in 1948, and the country’s decades-old laws call for the immediate arrest and imprisonment of anyone dealing with Israelis or having any ties to Israel.
After 1948, members of Iraq’s Jewish community, which once numbered 150,000-strong, were stripped of their citizenship, had their assets confiscated by the government and were forcibly expelled from the country. The majority of Iraqi Jews resettled in Israel, though some immigrated to Europe and North America. Today, experts estimate that only a handful of Jews still live in Iraq.
Linda Menuhin, an Israeli peace activist of Iraqi background who spoke via Zoom to the Iraqi activists at the Erbil conference, said many attendees are now recanting their statements of peace with Israel out of fear of physical harm to themselves or their families from the Iranian regime’s militias operating in Iraq.
“I believe that Iran indeed is the biggest challenge on the way because Iraq’s regime cannot practice its free sovereignty and has many stakes currently in Iran,” said Menuhin, who made a 2013 documentary film, “Shadow in Baghdad,” about the abduction and killing of her father, Jacob Abdel Aziz, by Iraqi officials in the 1970s.
Nevertheless, she said she remains optimistic about the prospects of peace in the future between Iraq and Israel.
“I do believe there is hope for peace in the future due to the fact that millions are yearning to release themselves from Iran’s strongholds directly or through its militias,” she said. “The young are looking to build a future free of enmity based on good relations with all the neighbors.”
Other Iraqi Jewish activists living in the United States and Canada said Israelis and Jews living in the West can help encourage peace with Iraqis by engaging in possible business ventures or beginning a dialogue through social media.
“The best role of the Mizrahi Jews, in this situation, is to establish commercial contacts and develop business for the benefit of all sides,” said Sami Sourani, an Iraqi Jewish activist living in Canada.
Indeed, one Jewish nonprofit group based in San Francisco, “Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa” (JIMENA), has long been educating groups in the United States and throughout the world about the plight of nearly 850,000 Jewish refugees who fled or were expelled from the Arab and Islamic countries during the 20th century.
JIMENA’s leadership recently released a statement applauding the Erbil conference and calling for future similar events to be done with caution to protect peace advocates in Arab countries.
Born Farouk Sayig in Baghdad, Baruch Meiri was one of the 120,000 Jews airlifted to Israel from Iraq seventy years ago. He has not let poverty and the difficult conditions his family experienced on arrival in Israel deter him from fulfilling his aspirations.”Don’t let the world tell you that you can’t do something – just do it,” he says. The Media Line reports: (with thanks: Lisette):
Born in 1940 in Baghdad, Baruch Meiri was the eighth of nine children. Like tens of thousands of other Jews living there, Meiri and his family escaped from Iraq as part of a mass exodus that saw some 130,000 Jews airlifted to Israel via Iran and Cyprus from 1950 to 1952, in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.
An Iraqi law mandated that they had to renounce their citizenship and could never return. “I was 10 years old,” Meiri said. “We took a taxi to the airport and I remember that there was a very long line at the entrance. We barely had anything on us – no money or gold – because we didn’t have anything.
“We flew on one of the first flights out from Baghdad to Cyprus,” he continued. “But the plane had a mechanical issue and we stayed in Cyprus for an additional two days before getting to Israel.”
Operation Ezra and Nehemiah came after years of violence and persecution. Nazi propaganda during World War II and rising Iraqi nationalism stoked anti-Semitic sentiment in the country during the 1940s, with the hatred reaching a fever pitch shortly after Meiri was born during the Farhud, a violent event that took place on June 1-2, 1941.
The Farhud was a Nazi-inspired pogrom that broke out in Baghdad over the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. Hundreds of Jews were killed or raped and 1,000 injured, though exact casualty figures remain unclear.
“During the pogroms, my parents fled to the house of the neighbors, who were community leaders,” Meiri said, recalling the event and his Muslim neighbors. “My mother managed to save our family.”
Growing up, Meiri’s family was very poor. In order to make some extra pocket money, the young Farouk bought a few cucumbers at the local market and began selling them to other schoolchildren at a profit. In this way, he was able to buy sweets and pastries for himself. “I learned to become self-reliant,” Meiri said. “Don’t let the world tell you that you can’t do something, just do it.”
“This is how I acted when we immigrated to Israel as well and we were in a transit camp, a place that later became Or Yehuda,” a city in central Israel, he added. The newly arrived immigrants to Israel were all given new names when they were sent to live in a transit camp. Farouk Sayig became Baruch Meiri.
Due to the large influx of Jewish immigrants pouring into the nascent state of Israel, which had only been established a few years prior in 1948, conditions at the transit camps were very poor. The camps also referred to as ma’abarot, were meant to be a temporary shelter for lack of better housing options.
They were marred by poor sanitation, overcrowding, and limited supplies of water and electricity. The majority of immigrants inside Meiri’s camp were Iraqis, however freshly arrived Turkish and Libyan Jewish families also lived in the Or Yehuda camps. In the winter of 1951, Israel suffered its harshest winter in a century, making life in the ma’abarot particularly unbearable.
“The tent, which was our house, drifted into the Ayalon River and we were left with nothing,” he recounted. “Big trucks came and took all the children in the camp to Givat Brenner, a kibbutz. Every winter, for three months, we would be sent away from our parents to this kibbutz.”
The Meiri family was upgraded to more permanent lodging a few years later and Baruch’s father, who had been a jeweler back in Iraq, was sent to work as a farmer, an area in which he had no experience.
For his part, at 16 years old Baruch Meiri got his first serious job working as a newspaper delivery boy for Maariv, one of Israel’s most important daily newspapers. He would later rise up in the ranks of the paper and became the manager of Maariv’s Jerusalem branch.
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.
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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