This weekend I had the privilege of attending a high school reunion like no other. A synagogue in Montreal, Quebec hosted roughly two hundred Iraqi Jews from around the world.
While they traveled from many parts of the world they all came of age in the same place.
Didn’t know there was a Jewish community in Iraq? They also go by the name Babylonian Jews because they date their origins to the exile of the ancient Israelites from Jerusalem two and a half millennia ago.
In the twentieth century, Baghdad was home to 130,000 Jews. They comprised a third of the city’s population and constituted the most affluent and integrated Jewish community of any Arab country. In fact, Jews were so central to its economy and culture that even Muslim businesses closed every Saturday for Shabbat. By the 1950s and 60s, when most of these alumni attended school together, the situation was far different. Most of the community left between 1950 and 1951 following a rise in state and popular persecution that came in the wake of Israel’s independence. Around the same time a new school opened its doors in Baghdad.
The Frank Iny School.
Named after its benefactor, the school had been one of many Jewish schools in the city but when it moved to a newly completed facility in the old Baghdad neighborhood of Alwiyah in 1951 it then served as the sole Jewish high school and, thus, a focal point of the now small Jewish community in Baghdad.
The school acted like a magnet, drawing its students and their families closer inward, strengthening the bonds of the community.
Meanwhile, the persecution that precipitated the mass migration abated significantly and the remaining Jewish community carried on working, going to school, and raising their families. Like other Iraqis in Baghdad, they swam in the cool waters of the Tigris and slept away the hot summer nights on their terrace rooftops. They tuned in to radio Baghdad as revolution brought an end to the monarchy in 1958. Regimes came and went in the decade or so following the revolution but daily life continued largely undisturbed for the residents of the Iraqi capital, including the Jews.
At the Frank Iny School the students tackled the most rigorous curriculum in the country, studying their subjects in English and French as well as their native Arabic. The program was so renowned for its quality education that a number of prominent Muslim families sent their children there. Jewish families, wary of what the future held for them in Iraq, sought education for their youth that would provide opportunities abroad, yet they continued to enjoy their lives in Iraq.
Attending the cinema with friends.
Weekend trips to the countryside.
Long evenings at the Jewish country club or at a local café playing games and socializing.
On weekdays many went to work alongside Muslim and Christian business partners and clientele.
Some Jews called this period in the 1950s and early 60s a “return to normalcy.”
Others “a golden age.”
Whatever they call it, they all agree that 1967 was a turning point.
Many Iraqis continued to conflate all Jews with the Zionist project in Israel, which Iraqis considered an affront to Arab independence. When Israel dealt a crushing blow to its Arab adversaries in the Six Day War of 1967, many Iraqis including some in the government once again turned on their Jewish neighbors.
Accused of espionage, their phone lines were cut.
Assets were frozen.
Arbitrary searches, surveillance, and arrests ensued.
Relationships with Muslim acquaintances were tested as associations with Jews could invite trouble.
The Ba’th Party coup a year later brought an escalation of this crisis as the new government played up the false claims that Jews were engaging in espionage for Israel. It fabricated evidence of an elaborate spy ring and brought several Jews up on charges in a widely publicized show trial. Nine Jews and three others were convicted and executed, their bodies displayed in public squares in Baghdad and Basra where thousands gathered to celebrate what the state touted as a victory against Zionism and Imperialism.
These were the events that precipitated the flight of Iraq’s remaining Jews from the country.
Some of them have truly harrowing stories of imprisonment, torture, and terror. These are survivors. Each one of them can name classmates that did not survive those perilous days in Iraq. For many of them the deceased include siblings or parents, and while they are remembered at the synagogue tonight, the terrors they faced are not the subject of discussion.
This is a celebration.
As the foyer of the synagogue fills I watch the faces—delayed reactions of friends slowly recognizing each other after an absence of more than forty years. The crowd grows and excited voices combine to create a roar of enthusiastic conversation. Countless discussions of who was in which class with whom. Who is related to whom. Who is present and who is not.
Friends cling to each other’s elbows as they talk, as if to prevent them from escaping for another decades-long absence.
The doors to the hall are opened and as some remain lost in conversations in the foyer, oblivious to the activities around them. Others filter in arm-in-arm with old classmates they’ve found and claim tables as they begin swapping stories of adolescent exploits and classroom antics from a half-century ago. I hear one teasing another about how he used to cheat off of a classmate’s work until a teacher caught him in the act and shamed him in front of the class. The memories are so fresh for them that the intervening decades seem to collapse as they are transported to the Baghdad of their childhood. Or, perhaps, Baghdad circa 1965 has suddenly materialized in Montreal, Quebec.
Conversations continue. English mingles with Judeo-Arabic, sustaining a hum of energy throughout the hall as a number of them take to the dance floor, dancing the twist with impressive dexterity as if the age has vanished from their bodies. When they begin to form groups and pose together for class pictures I am overcome by the sense that I am witnessing a historic event.
In the days surrounding the reunion I have the privilege of joining many of these Iraqi Jews for breakfast at the hotel or dinner in old Montreal. I even get to interview a few of them. Despite their positivity, the sense of loss is palpable. Though they express thanks to God that they escaped “that hell,” as one refers to it, their sense of dislocation and loss lingers just below the surface. Their lost homeland is a source of both nostalgia and grief. For some, there is resentment that history has largely forgotten them. Apart from myself and a few others (Henry Green of the Sephardi Voices Project, which documents the stories of Jews from Arab countries, is one such person), few from outside of their community are aware of their history in the region, of their loss, or of the incredible assemblies like this one that bring the members of this lost community together.
Of course, the older generation of Iraqis still living in Baghdad have first hand memory of the city’s Jewish community but for many years they found the youth of Iraq to be an unreceptive audience to their recollections. Perhaps the idea of an indigenous Jewish population in Iraq was hard to fathom. More likely the fact of their displacement is an uncomfortable reality. Either way this seems to be changing recently. Many Iraqis old and young have begun taking to social media in recent years to remember the days of Jewish Baghdad, telling and hearing personal anecdotes about lost Jewish friends. One young man in Baghdad commented on a video I posted to Facebook during the reunion. “Sending all love to them. Can’t wait to meet up with Iraqi Jews in person. Hug them as much as you can from me!” For Iraqis like him, the stories of Iraq’s Jews are a reminder that Iraq was once home to a diverse kaleidoscope of ethnic and religious communities. Perhaps remembering this past helps twenty-first century Iraqis to imagine a future where such coexistence could be possible again?
When I finished my tour in Baghdad with the Army in 2005 I was woefully unaware of any of this rich history, but I felt as though I was taking a piece of that city with me, knowing I would never be the same. It was this combined sense of ignorance and of being touched by my experience there that led me to study the region’s history. Before I had even left Baghdad, I already sensed a strong desire not only to learn, however, but to return—to interact with the people in a way I hadn’t been able to as a soldier.
I never imagined it would happen like this.
I may have yet to step my feet on the streets of Baghdad again, but I’ve now entered into a piece of Baghdad’s history that even those living in the city today can’t experience—the community of Iraqi Jews whose history speaks to the country’s cosmopolitan past.