By Maher Chmaytelli, Jeffrey Heller and Stephen Farrell
Behind the high concrete walls of Baghdad’s Jewish cemetery, Violette Saul lies at rest under a weathered and cracked tombstone, one of the last memorials to an ancient community that is now all but extinct
The Iraqi nurse was buried a decade ago alongside thousands of others in the sands of a country where her community thrived for more than 2,500 years.
Drive west to the shores of the Mediterranean – just a day’s journey geographically but a world away politically – and there is a lament inscribed at the entrance to the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Centre in Israel – “The Jewish community in Iraq is no more”.
It is no accident that such a sombre epitaph to Iraq’s Jews should be found in Israel, where tens of thousands of them fled after 1948 amid the violent spasms that accompanied the birth of that state.
That transplanting of an educated, vibrant and creative community unquestionably enriched Israel, which celebrates its 70th anniversary on Wednesday.
But it also denuded Iraq of a minority that had long contributed to its political, economic and cultural identity.
In 1947, a year before Israel’s birth, Iraq’s Jewish community numbered around 150,000. Now their numbers are in single figures. And they are missed.
Ziyad al-Bayati, an Iraqi Muslim who looks after the rarely visited graveyard near the East Baghdad neighbourhood Sadr City, said his father used to reminisce about an Iraq in which ethnic communities lived together.
It was a time, Bayati said, that predated the turmoil around Israel’s creation, the wars of later years, and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and unleashed years of sectarian bloodshed.
“My father used to say it was the good times when people lived peacefully side by side,’ said Bayati, 48. “There is no concern shown for the cemetery, (even if) the culture of people here is to respect the dead and their graves.”
The chronology of Jews in Iraq stretches back some 4,000 years to the biblical patriarch Abraham of Ur, and to the Babylonian monarch Nebuchadnezzar, who sent Jews into exile there more than 2,500 years ago.
Key figures in that story are buried in the Baghdad cemetery, including Sassoon Effendi Eskell, Iraq’s first finance minister.
OLD LAND TO NEW LAND
The creation of Israel in 1948 and its successive defeats of Arab armies caused further bursts of popular anger and violence against Jews, an episode of history that is written in graves n the cemetery, where five Iraqi Jews accused of spying for Israel now lie side by side.
Between 1950 and 1952 about 125,000 Iraqi Jews were airlifted to Israel. Each came with one suitcase, and all had to give up their Iraqi citizenship.
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