Thursday, August 2, 2018

Iraq and the Jews

Much of ancient and modern Jewish history has passed through Iraq. It can be argued that civilization, as we know it today, actually began in Iraq.

The mighty metropolis of Babel or Babylonia appears in the Bible, and centuries later, it was the Babylonians who destroyed Solomon’s Temple and exiled the Jews to its borders. While a minority of Jews immigrated back to Jerusalem about 70 years later, Iraq became home to a rich Jewish community in exile, that even featured Jewish self-governance through leaders known as exilarchs. Jewish centers of Torah study emerged and the Babylonian Talmud, the basis of Jewish law, or halacha, is studied and eventually codified in such Torah academies as Sura, Pumpedita and Nehardea. For the next 1,000 years, Babylon would be a major center of Jewish life. The Babylonian influence was so great, that the only language other than Hebrew in which the standard prayers were composed is Aramaic, the language of Babylon.

In the 12th century, 40,000 Jews lived between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Babylonia. During Ottoman rule over Baghdad, the Jewish population in the city surged to 50,000 by the year 1900, which represented 25% of the entire Jewish population of Baghdad.

With the establishment of the State of Israel, the Iraqi Zionist underground began illegally smuggling Jews out of Baghdad at a rate of 1,000 per month. In March of 1950, Iraq passed a law allowing Jews to leave on condition that they relinquish their Iraqi citizenship. In March 1951, Israel initiated “Operation Ezra and Nehemiah” airlifting Iraqi Jews to Israel. Between 1948 and 1951, over 121,000 Iraqi Jews left Iraq.

On July 16, 1979, Saddam Hussein assumed the presidency of Iraq, having conspired in the 1968 coup that brought Baath rule to Iraq. On this day in 1990, Iraqi forces invaded neighboring Kuwait, land that Saddam viewed as historically Iraqi territory, as Iraq’s 19th province. U.S. President George H.W. Bush recruited a coalition of nations who, through the United Nations, demanded that Iraq leave Kuwait or face war. When Iraqi forces did not leave by the U.N.-imposed deadline, the coalition went to war. Saddam Hussein threatened to launch scud missiles at population centers in Israel if coalition forces attacked Iraq. Despite sustaining an attack of 39 Scud missiles, President Bush successfully convinced Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir not to respond to the attack.


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