Iraq in no position to welcome back exiled Jewish community

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By Paul Iddon
An Iraqi woman walks through a former Jewish quarter of Baghdad. File photo: Karim Kadim/AP
The Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has recently reiterated that Iraq’s long exiled Jewish community “are welcome” to return to the country, “If their loyalty was with Iraq.”

As noted by Al-Monitor columnist Saad Salloum this isn’t the first time Sadr has made such a gesture. In 2013 he also declared that he “welcomes any Jew who prefers Iraq to Israel” adding that, “there is no difference between Jews, Muslims or Christians when it comes to the sense of nationalism. Those who do not carry out their national duties are not Iraqis even if they are Shiite Muslims.”

Such pronouncements are not surprising coming from Sadr, who has for the most part throughout this decade advocated Iraqi nationalism and loyalty over sect. However, given his influence and the electoral success of his coalition in the last Iraqi election his statements are worth evaluating.

They are far from unprecedented in modern Iraqi history. The Baathists, who were then touting their progressive and secular veneer, made a similar gesture in the late 1970s, a time when Iraq was an economic powerhouse, not yet embroiled in any major war and still retained substantial Christian and Jewish communities. Nevertheless, no Iraqi Jew in exile took up their offer, likely unconvinced they could reestablish themselves in the country unmolested.

In a fascinating documentary made in Iraq by Journeyman TV in 1990, just after Baghdad invaded Kuwait and just before the US coalition kicked it out in the Gulf War, several officials including representatives of the Christians and the remnants of the Jewish community, of which there were just 1,000 then, summed up their situation.

While the interviewees were always observed by the documentary team’s regime minders, and clearly terrified to say a bad word about the powers that were, they nevertheless gave some illuminating insights into the status of their communities.

One individual named Naji Salman Salih, who described himself as the deputy head of Iraq’s Jewish community, gave a very frank and accurate overview of the dispossession of Iraqi Jews in the 1950s – when there were approximately 150,000 Jews in the country – shortly after the creation of the State of Israel.

Salih stated he sought to endure those difficult circumstances since he loved Iraq, adding that he firstly considered himself Iraqi “with full rights and duties” and secondly as a Jew in accordance with his religion – arguing that “religion has nothing to do with politics” and that “there has been no anti-Semitism or discrimination” in Iraq over the preceding decade.

The filmmakers juxtaposed his latter statement with a prominently displayed Arabic copy of Mein Kampf on an Iraqi book stand.

Salih also claimed that Israel’s 1981 bombing of an Iraqi nuclear facility did not prompt any backlash against the community since Baghdad distinguished between its Jewish community and Israel before voicing his contention that Iraq should obtain nuclear weapons to challenge Israel, adding that he and the remnants of the community would support Iraq in any war with the Jewish state.

His statement that no anti-Semitism existed in the last decade is noteworthy, since the Baathists did publicly hang Iraqi Jews in a public square in Baghdad in January 1969 on the baseless accusation they were collaborating with Israel against Iraq.

It was clear that those 1,000 Jews had to toe a careful line of preserving their livelihoods, and lives, in Iraq by stressing their loyalty to the country and fealty to Saddam Hussein who they, along with the Christians, praised during the religious sermons in a sickly show of devotion.

The lot of Iraq’s minorities only got worse after the 2003 overthrow of Hussein. The hitherto tiny 1,000-strong Jewish community is now non-existent. The much larger quarter-million strong Christian minority has also pretty much been forced into exile due to the sectarian violence that has torn apart Iraqi society. Within Iraq’s federal borders, the Kurdistan Region is the only safe and secure place for Iraq’s Christian minority and the only place where any Iraqi Jew or their descendants could hope to return in the country and live safely.

While Sadr’s militia played a key role in displacing Iraqi Sunnis from Baghdad in the late 2000s, the same instability that essentially destroyed the hitherto large Christian community there, he has been consistent in recent years when it comes to advocating for the protection and status of non-Shiites in the country, notably voicing his support for the Sunnis’ right to protest in 2013 when the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was forcibly suppressing them.

Nevertheless, Iraq remains in no condition to welcome or be a safe place for Jews or pretty much any other minority.

While Baghdad has recently made the welcome and productive promise to rebuild Shingal, the devastated homeland of the Yezidis, it’s unclear if this will materialize or prove enough to convince that beleaguered and traumatized community that they can safely remain in the country. Baghdad’s seizure of the Yezidi region from Kurdistan’s control last October has now put the Yezidis in a position whereby, after ISIS has largely been defeated, they now fear persecution from the Shiite-majority Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary, which is now officially part of the Iraqi military, there.

Ultimately, without being able to conclusively demonstrate that the rapidly disappearing remnants of Iraq’s minority communities can live freely and safely in their own country, Sadr’s offer to welcome back the exiled Jews of Iraq amounts to little more than hollow rhetoric.