The legacy of Iraq’s last Jews in danger

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Baghdad (AFP) – In a bustling neighborhood of Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, nothing distinguishes the faded brick building except for a Hebrew inscription above the entrance.

Iraq’s Jewish community was once one of the largest in the Middle East, but its members have dwindled to a handful outside the autonomous region of Kurdistan.

“Our heritage is in a pitiful state” and the authorities take no notice of it, said a member of the congregation who requested anonymity, fearing reprisals.

Their precious history, including the synagogue, is under threat in a country torn apart by decades of war, corruption and armed groups.

A local official said the 17th-century Sasson Synagogue, which is surrounded by rubbish, had been used as a residence Zaid AL-OBEIDIAFP

While historic treasures ruined by jihadists are being restored in Iraq, rare international efforts to save Jewish heritage have not been enough.

Baghdad’s Meir Tweig Synagogue, built in 1942, seems frozen in time.

Behind its padlocked doors, the benches are covered with white sheets to protect them from the sun. The walls of the two-story columned sky blue interior are crumbling.

Interior of the Sasson Synagogue – a study found that most of the 30 remaining Jewish heritage sites in Iraq are in poor or very poor condition
Interior of the Sasson Synagogue – a study found that most of the 30 remaining Jewish heritage sites in Iraq are in poor or very poor condition Zaid AL-OBEIDIAFP

The steps leading to a wooden cabinet containing the sacred Sefer Torah scrolls are falling apart.

Flanked by marble slabs engraved with seven-branch candelabras and psalms, the cabinet houses the scrolls hand-calligraphed on gazelle leather.

“We used to pray here,” the member said. “We celebrated our holidays and in the summer we studied religious classes in Hebrew.”

In Baghdad, Jewish roots date back around 2,600 years, but only a handful of worshipers remain
In Baghdad, Jewish roots date back around 2,600 years, but only a handful of worshipers remain Sabah ARARAFP

A synagogue in southern Iraq has been illegally occupied and turned into a warehouse, the woman added.

“Save this heritage,” she said, asking for help from the United Nations.

deep roots

Jewish roots in Iraq date back approximately 2,600 years, to the land where the patriarch Abraham was born and where they wrote the Babylonian Talmud.

More than 2,500 years later, in Baghdad under Ottoman rule, Jews made up 40% of the city’s inhabitants.

The Meir Tweig Synagogue in Baghdad was built in 1942 when the Jewish population of Iraq was around 150,000.
The Meir Tweig Synagogue in Baghdad was built in 1942 when the Jewish population of Iraq was around 150,000. Sabah ARARAFP

When Israel was created in 1948, they numbered 150,000, but three years later 96% of the community had left.

A report published in 2020 lists Jewish heritage sites in Iraq and Syria, some of which date back to the first millennium BCE.

The study identified 118 synagogues, 48 ​​schools, nine shrines and three cemeteries among Iraqi Jewish heritage sites. Most are now gone.

“In Iraq, only 30 of 297 documented sites still exist,” according to the report published by the London-based Foundation for Jewish Heritage and ASOR, the non-profit American Society of Overseas Research.

Jewish heritage is under threat in Iraq, torn apart by decades of war, corruption and armed groups
Jewish heritage is under threat in Iraq, torn apart by decades of war, corruption and armed groups Sabah ARARAFP

“Of these 30 sites, 21 are in poor or very poor condition,” he added.

The few remaining Jews in Iraq “worked very hard to protect and preserve their heritage, but the scale of the work was beyond their capabilities,” said Darren Ashby, who worked on the study.

“Over time, much of this heritage has been lost to seizure, sale or slow decay and collapse,” said Ashby, of the Iraq Heritage Stabilization Program. University of Pennsylvania.

glimmers of hope

In Mosul, Iraq’s second city and melting pot of various ethnic and religious communities, colorful paintings mark the ruins of the Sasson Synagogue at the bend of an alley.

The vault of the synagogue’s collapsed ceiling exposes stone arches and columns. But all around there is rubble, scrap metal and dumped garbage.

US funds helped restore the Prophet Nahum Synagogue in Al-Qosh
US funds helped restore the Prophet Nahum Synagogue in Al-Qosh Ismaël ADNANAFP

A local antiquities official, Mossaab Mohammed Jassem, said the 17th-century building had “served as a residence for a long time”.

He said he belonged to a local family who hold the title deed and asked the local authorities to buy it from them or restore it.

Aliph, the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Zones, based in Switzerland, has expressed its willingness to support a possible renovation project for the Sasson Synagogue.

There were other glimmers of hope.

In January, the US Consulate in Arbil, capital of the Kurdish region that has not seen the same level of infighting, announced $500,000 in funding to restore the small Ezekiel Synagogue near Akre.

Although some have converted to Islam, other families of Jewish origin live in the Kurdish area.

Joseph Elias Yalda of the Al-Qosh Heritage Museum shows old photographs depicting the Prophet Nahum's Synagogue
Joseph Elias Yalda of the Al-Qosh Heritage Museum shows old photographs depicting the Prophet Nahum’s Synagogue Ismaël ADNANAFP

US funds also helped restore the tomb of Nahum, one of Judaism’s minor prophets, as well as financial support from Kurdistan and private donors.

Surrounded by church spiers in the village of Al-Qosh, the stone shrine now looks almost new. Built in its current form in the 18th century, it could date back to the 10th century, according to local authorities.

Joseph Elias Yalda, an official at the Al-Qosh Heritage Museum, recalls stories told by local elders, who said Jewish pilgrims flocked for a week every June to pray.

“They came from all the provinces and even from neighboring countries,” says Yalda, in her sixties.

“After the religious commemoration, there was a party in the old town, with drinking and dancing.”

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