History of the Jews in Iraq

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The history of the Jews in Iraq (Hebrew: יְהוּדִים בָּבְלִים, Yehudim Bavlim, lit.'Babylonian Jews'; Arabic: اليهود العراقيون, al-Yahūd al-ʿIrāqiyyūn) is documented from the time of the Babylonian captivity c.586 BCE. Iraqi Jews constitute one of the world's oldest and most historically significant Jewish communities.

Quick facts: יְהוּדִים בָּבְלִים, Total population, Region...
Iraqi Jews
יְהוּדִים בָּבְלִים
Seated in the centre: Sir Sassoon Eskell, first Minister of Finance of the Kingdom with King Faisal I immediately to his left. The tycoon, Senator Menahem Saleh Daniel is seated on the far right of this shot.
Total population
156,000 (residing in Iraq in 1947)[1]
Regions with significant populations
Flag_of_Israel.svg Israel450,000[2][3]
Flag_of_Iraq.svg Iraq3-4 (2021)[4][5]
Mesopotamian Arabic
Related ethnic groups
Sephardic Jews, Kurdish Jews, Ashkenazi Jews, Persian Jews, Mizrahi Jews, Syrian Jews, Assyrians, Mandaeans

The Jewish community in Mesopotamia, known in Jewish sources as "Babylonia", traces its origins to the early sixth century BCE, when a large number of Judeans from the defeated Kingdom of Judah were exiled to Babylon in several waves by the Neo-Babylonian Empire.[6] A few decades later, some had returned to Judah, following the edict of Cyrus. During this time, the Temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt, significant changes in Jewish religious tradition were made, and the Judeans were led by individuals who made Aliyah from Babylonia, such as Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah.

Though not much is known about the community in Babylonia during the Second Temple and Mishnaic periods, scholars believe the community was still thriving and prospering at that time.[6] The Jewish community of Babylonia rose to prominence as the center of Jewish scholarship following the decline of the Jewish population in the Land of Israel in the 3rd century CE. It became home to many important Talmudic yeshivas such as the Nehardea, Pumbedita and Sura Academies, and the Babylonian Talmud was compiled there. The Mongol invasion and Islamic discrimination under the Caliphates in the Middle Ages eventually led to its decline.[7] Under the Ottoman Empire, the Jews of Iraq fared better. The community established modern schools in the second half of the 19th century.[8] Driven by persecution, which saw many of the leading Jewish families of Baghdad flee for India, and expanding trade with British colonies, the Jews of Iraq established a trading diaspora in Asia known as the Baghdadi Jews.[9]

The Iraqi Jewish community formed a homogeneous group, maintaining communal Jewish identity, culture and traditions. The Jews in Iraq distinguished themselves by the way they spoke in their old Arabic dialect, Judeo-Arabic; the way they dressed; observation of Jewish rituals, for example, the Sabbath and holidays; and kashrut. In the 20th century, Iraqi Jews played an important role in the early days of Iraq's independence.

Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, persecution against Jews culminated in increased government oppression and cultural discrimination. The Iraqi government, while maintaining a public policy of discrimination against Iraqi Jews, simultaneously forbade Jews from emigrating to Israel out of concern for strengthening the nascent Israeli state. In 1950, the Iraqi government reversed course and permitted Jews to emigrate in exchange for renouncing their Iraqi citizenship. From 1950 to 1952, nearly the entire Iraqi Jewish population emptied out from Iraq to Israel through Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. Historians estimate that between 1950 and 1952 range from 120,000–130,000 of the Iraqi Jewish community (around 75%) reached Israel.[10][11] The remainder of the Jewish population continued to dwindle in the ensuing decades; as of the 2020s, less than a handful of Iraqi Jews still reside in Iraq.

The religious and cultural traditions of Iraqi Jews are kept alive today in strong communities established by Iraqi Jews in Israel, especially in Or Yehuda, Givatayim and Kiryat Gat.[2] According to government data as of 2014, there were 227,900 Jews of Iraqi descent in Israel,[2] with other estimates as high as 600,000 Israelis having some Iraqi ancestry.[3] Smaller communities upholding Iraqi Jewish traditions in the Jewish diaspora exist in the United Kingdom,[12][13] Ireland,[14] Australia,[15] Singapore,[16] Canada,[17] and the United States.[18]

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