Baghdad Jews fear Wahabi terrorism

One of Emad Levy’s first memories is the image of Iraqis picnicking beneath the bodies of 11 Jews swaying gently from the gallows in downtown Baghdad.

That was in 1969. Now the images of body parts strewn in the street beside Istanbul’s two synagogues are cranking up feelings of insecurity here among Baghdad’s 24 remaining Jews.

With the tenor of threats from Iraq’s Wahabi mosques increasingly acid and incitement rank in the country’s newspapers, Levy, 38, custodian of the dying Iraqi Jewish community, wants out.

Increasingly Baghdad is no place for Jews, and Levy scoffs at those who would come back to reclaim some 1,600 Jewish properties across the city.

In a September headline the local paper Ashiraa blamed inflation on “the Jews, thieves, and immigrants.” Accompanying the article was an objection by Sheikh Iyad Jamal Idin to the appointment of “the Jew” Ezra Levy to the Governing Council. Ezra Levy, Emad’s father, had been out of the country for three months.

Sunni Wahabi clerics in the city, believed to be in cahoots with the insurgents, openly accuse “the Jews” of instigating the American invasion to sap Iraq of its oil and have issued fatwas (religious decrees) ordering the execution of any Jew who purchases property in Iraq, or any Muslim selling property.

As if the shrill calls of the Wahabi imams is not sufficiently clear, Levy pulls the pin of an imaginary grenade lodged in his fist, and lobs it over an imaginary Jewish compound.

“It’s that easy,” he said. “Every Jewish site is a target.”

This type of anti-Jewish fervor is hardly new here. A catastrophic anti-Jewish riot in 1941 punctuated two and a half millennia of Jewish life in Iraq leaving 200 Jews dead and property damage in the millions. The riots sparked panic, triggering a mass exodus rivaled only by Nebuchadnezzar’s expulsion of Jews to Babylon in 586 BCE.

The community’s influence and population peaked in the early 1940s at about 150,000. But then the establishment of Israel, and the resounding victory of 1967 shocked a humiliated Iraqi leadership into slapping further restrictions on the Jews. By then 125,000 had fled. Saddam Hussein’s terror-driven regime followed. In its maniacal paranoia the regime hanged 11 Jews, some of Iraq’s most prominent, as Israeli spies.

Thousands more abandoned their homes and livelihood for a sliver of security in Israel or abroad.

Oddly enough it was Saddam’s paranoia that kept simmering anti-Jewish hatred from boiling over. He used terror and the long arm of the Mukhabarat (secret police) to spy, and keep tabs on, the Jews here, providing a measure of security as a by-product.

Blackmail was the tyrants’ favored means of control. Levy’s phones have been bugged for as long as he can remember. Visitors to the synagogue were always accompanied by Mukhabarat agents. There were times when the Mukhabarat had attempted to induce him to sleep with prostitutes so they could use the photos for blackmail.

“But they could never get me. I was too smart to go for their offers, too quick for them,” he said with pride.

The Jewish Agency has offered to fly him out but his motto remains: “I must leave, but do it in my own time, wisely.” He craves security, kosher food, reunification with his family, but above all the thing unavailable in Iraq: a Jewish woman to marry.

Secrecy, a necessity for being Jewish here, has burrowed itself deeply into Levy’s personality. One minute he will pronounce himself “free, really free,” the next he will caution against going near the synagogue or revealing his identity to those outside a tight circle of confidants.

He is selling the family property piece by piece, almost obsessively careful to gather all the necessary receipts and contracts.

Levy’s responsibility as the de-facto custodian of one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities, dating back to the days of Nebuchadnezzar, has kept him bound to the handful of Jews left, and their legacy. He acts as the community’s last rabbi, its ritual slaughterer, its undertaker, accountant and social worker. Several times a week he braves Baghdad’s lethal roads to visit the 23 other Jews scattered about this sprawling city.

The last vestiges of this community are a motley crew if ever there was one. Among them are Nidal and Khalida Ezra, whose behavior and habits have earned them disrepute in the community, and some 20 other seniors whose ties to their 1950-era radios and their wretched hovels bewilders Levy.

With the help of HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) Levy had arranged for the Ezras to fly to Israel, via Austria. But with the chartered plane on the runway of Baghdad International Airport the two balked. According to Levy, they refused to fly after one of their neighbors sniped: “So you want to go live in the land of [Israeli PM Ariel] Sharon?” The two ragged women, both in their 30s, continue to sleep in any patch of spare floor they can find in Batawin, amid the crackle of gunfire and mounds of rotting vegetables.

Levy says all the Jews are well cared for, but refuse to meet with the media. Most of them hide the fact they are Jews; not even their closest friends know their identity. The Jewish nursing home which had cared for the aged lost its last resident when the Jewish Agency and HIAS flew her to Israel in October.

Barely ambulatory, the community’s oldest resident, Tawfiq Sofer, has moved out of the nondescript dun-colored synagogue and into the home of a loyal Shi’a caretaker.

All of Levy’s friends are long gone. Worse yet, there are no marriage prospects. His only choice, said Levy, with a rush of excitement offset by barely concealed anxiety, is Israel. He pumped this reporter on the Jewish state: How much does meat cost (mutton preferably)? What kind of salary could he make? Under what conditions may an Israeli travel abroad? Finally, “Can you get shwarma?” (Though an Iraqi specialty, shwarma in Iraq is patently not kosher, he explained.)

Iraq is populated by some 25 million people who awoke to a mind-boggling new reality when Saddam’s regime tumbled down in April. The world they saw was carefully framed by the Mukhabarat, which had a white-knuckle grip on Iraq’s media.

Gentle eyes cast open with delight, Levy fiddled with this reporter’s Swiss Army knife. He erupted in a guffaw – mustache twitching upwards – at finding a magnifying glass and tiny pen tucked into the knife.

In other ways Levy is becoming a man of the world. He is a new aficionado of the Internet: “I now browse to see what happens all over the world.” A voracious reader, he is currently embedded in Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem, a gift from one of the many journalists passing through.

Levy’s only friends remain his faithful English pointer, Rico, and two men who guard an office building next door. One of them, a rough-looking former soldier named Ahmed, is so devoted to his Jewish companion that he is “willing to fight for him if he is attacked to the last drop of blood in these veins,” said Ahmed pinching a forearm.

In parting, Levy’s darting eyes fixed on his interlocutor’s. “You reporters don’t stay in Iraq; nothing happens to you if people know you are Jewish, but I, I am surrounded.”


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Jerusalem Post, Israel
Dec. 12, 2003
Matthew Gutman, Jerusalem Post Correspondent

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday December 13, 2003.
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