WikiLeaks shakes security of Iraq’s tiny Jewish community

iraq-jews
The Rev. Canon Andrew White with his adopted Iraqi daughter, Lina
Photo By Roy Gutman

By Roy Gutman
The McClatchy Newspapers

BAGHDAD — An Anglican priest here says he’s working with the U.S. Embassy to persuade the handful of Jews who still live in Baghdad to leave because their names have appeared in cables published last month by WikiLeaks.

The Rev. Canon Andrew White said he first approached members of the Jewish community about what he felt was the danger they faced after a news story was published last month that made reference to the cables.

“The U.S. Embassy is desperately trying to get them out,” White said. So far, however, only one, a regular confidante of the U.S. Embassy, according to the cables, had expressed interest in emigrating to the United States.

“Most want to stay,” White said. “The older ones are refusing to leave. They say: ‘We’re Iraqis. Why should we go? If they kill us, we will die here.’”

The U.S. Embassy said it would take steps to protect the individuals whose names appear in the cables and suggested in a statement that should any wish to leave, the U.S. would help relocate them.

“Protecting individuals whose safety is at risk because of the release of the purported cables remains a priority. We are working actively to ensure that they remain safe,” the embassy said.

It slammed WikiLeaks for releasing the cables. “Releasing the names of individuals cited in conversations that took place in confidence potentially puts their lives or careers at risk,” the statement said.

A furious White also hit the website for publishing the cables. “How could they do something as stupid as that?” he said. “Do they not realize this is a life and death issue?”

WikiLeaks did not respond to a request for comment. Previously, WikiLeaks has said that it had no choice but to make its copies of the cables public after the publication in a book of a password that opened an encrypted version of the cables already available on the Internet.

“We had to warn them of the danger and tell them that we want them all to leave,” White said. “I never wanted the Jews to leave Iraq. They belong here.”

If White persuades Baghdad’s remaining Jews to leave it will mark the end of a 2,700-year presence that dates to the Assyrian conquest of the Judean Kingdom.

By the time U.S. forces invaded Iraq in March 2003, Baghdad’s Jewish community, which had numbered about 130,000 in the 1950s before most fled to Israel, was down to about 35 members.

Now there are so few Jews here that their sole remaining place of worship, the Taweig synagogue, is shuttered, even during the Jewish High Holidays that conclude with Yom Kippur on Saturday.

Emad Levi, who served as lay rabbi, kosher slaughterer, undertaker and community spokesman, recently emigrated to Israel.

One of the cables, some of 251,287 made public by the WikiLeaks website, recounts the deteriorating conditions one member of the community said Jews faced after U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, primarily because of the rise of al Qaida in Iraq.

Another was poignant in its assessment of the future:

“The Jews of Iraq do not appear likely to share in Iraq’s future as a nation,” the writer said. “They have no children, and cannot contribute culturally or even materially while unable to participate freely in Iraq’s public life. They remain in Iraq, but not of it, hiding at the center of a country whose majority may, one day, welcome them again, but does not accept them at present.”

The cable provides biographical sketches of each of nine Jews that the cable writer said then made up the entire complement of the Baghdad Jewish community. They ranged in age at the time from 40 to 82. One of them was Levi, the recent emigre to Israel. Another has since died, bringing the total number of Jews in Baghdad to seven.

Jews first arrived in the land now called Iraq in 721 B.C., exiled here after the Assyrian conquest of the Judean Kingdom. In 586 B.C., Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar attacked Jerusalem and destroyed King Solomon’s temple, then led tens of thousands of Jews into captivity, where they built the hanging gardens of Babylon.

The population survived repeated conquests of Iraq, by Alexander the Great, the Persians, the Arabs, the Shiite Muslims and the Turks, but over the centuries it flourished, producing the Babylonian Talmud, the Rabbinic work of law that supplements and interprets the Old Testament, the Five Books of Moses.

By the early 20th century, Iraqi Jews constituted one of the wealthiest communities in the country, serving as bankers, importers, retailers and academics. But Iraqi nationalists fighting British rule seized on Nazi ideology in the 1930s, giving rise to rabid anti-Judaic views.

The beginning of the end of a community then numbering some 130,000, was the Nazi-inspired pogrom in 1941, known as the Farhud, or violent dispossession, in which hundreds of Jews died at the hands of armed Iraqi Muslims. The creation of the State of Israel in 1948, followed by the declaration of war by Arab states including Iraq, brought more severe repression here.

The Iraqi government first made it a capital crime to be a Zionist, then reversed policy in 1950, after which more than 100,000 Jews emigrated to Israel. There was more repression in the 1950s and 1960s, and most of the remaining Jewish population emigrated to Israel in the early 1970s.

What will become of Iraq’s handful of remaining Jews seems a foregone conclusion.

One is a prominent surgeon, but most of the others rarely leave their dwellings, and many conceal their Jewish identity, according to the cables, one of which discusses the conversion to Islam of some members of the community.

“A 50-year old woman … reportedly converted to Islam after the fall of Saddam, as did a family of five,” the cable said. It quoted another member of the Jewish community as saying that “the members of this family will no longer speak to Jews in Baghdad.”

With Levi’s departure, the community lost its only public voice.

Reached in Israel Friday, Levi said the Jews who remain here are “afraid” and “don’t like to talk to anyone.”

Canon White, the Anglican priest at Baghdad’s St. George’s church, agreed.

“I can guarantee you that you cannot meet any of them,” he told McClatchy. “There’s not a chance in the world.”

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