Dhafer Eliyahu’s death hit Iraq hard, not only because the doctor treated the most needy free of charge, but because with his death only four Jews now remain in the country.
At the Habibiya Jewish cemetery in the capital Baghdad, wedged between the martyrs monument erected by former dictator Saddam Hussein and the restless Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, an elderly Muslim man still tends the graves, but visitors are few and far between.
On the day of Eliyahu’s funeral, “I was the one who prayed at his grave,” the doctor’s sister told AFP.
“There were friends” from other faiths who also prayed, each in their own way, she added, refusing to give her name.
Hearing outdoor Jewish prayer is rare now in Baghdad, where there is only one synagogue that only opens occasionally and no rabbis.
But the Jewish roots in Iraq go back 2,600 years.
According to biblical tradition, they arrived in 586 BC as prisoners of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II after destroying Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem.
In Iraq, they wrote the Babylonian Talmud on the very land where Patriarch Abraham was born and where the Garden of Eden is considered by some to be located, in the heart of the Mesopotamian swamps.
More than 2,500 years later, in Ottoman-ruled Baghdad, Jews were the city’s second largest community, accounting for 40% of its inhabitants.
Some were very important members of society like Sassoon Eskell, the very first Iraqi finance minister in 1920, who made a big impression on British adventurer and writer Gertrude Bell.
– ‘Not well received’ –
At the beginning of the last century, the day of rest and prayer was Saturday, according to Jewish tradition, and not Islamic Friday, as it is today.
Today, “we pray at home,” said a Baghdad resident with knowledge of the city’s Jewish community, who also chose to remain anonymous.
And when people with Jewish names deal with the administration “they will not be well received,” he added.
According to Edwin Shuker, a Jew born in Iraq in 1955 and exiled in Great Britain since the age of 16, “there are only four Jews of Iraqi nationality who are descendants of Jewish parents” in the country, not counting the autonomous Kurdish region.
A turning point for Jewish history in Iraq came with the first pogroms in the mid-20th century. In June 1941, the Farhud pogrom in Baghdad killed more than 100 Jews, properties looted and homes destroyed.
In 1948 Israel was created in the midst of a war with an Arab military coalition that included Iraq.
Almost all of Iraq’s 150,000 Jews went into exile in the years that followed.
Their identity cards were removed and replaced with documents that made them targets wherever they showed them.
The majority preferred to sign documents indicating that they would leave “voluntarily” and renounce their nationality and property.
Even today, said Shuker, Iraqi law prohibits the restoration of their citizenship.
By 1951, 96% of the community had left.
Almost all of the others follow the public hanging of “Israeli spies” in 1969 by the Baath Party, which had just taken hold of a coup.
The “promotion of Zionism” was punishable by the death penalty and this legislation has remained unchanged.
– “Normal life” elsewhere –
Decades of conflict and instability – with the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the invasion of Kuwait, an international embargo, the US invasion of 2003 and the violence that followed – completed the erosion of the community. Jewish.
At the end of 2009, only eight members remained, according to a US diplomatic cable.
And the bleeding didn’t stop there.
A jeweler threatened by militiamen who coveted his work as a goldsmith went into exile, followed by Amer Moussa Nassim, grand-nephew of renowned writer and economist Mir Basri, in 2011.
At 38, Nassim told AFP he left Baghdad to finally live “a normal life” and get married because the only Jewish women left in the city of millions were two elderly women.
Six months ago, one of the two, known as Sitt (lady in Arabic) Marcelle, a tireless advocate of the community, passed away.
And on March 15, she was followed by Elyahu, 61.
Israel, by contrast, is now home to 219,000 Jews of Iraqi descent.
They left behind homes and synagogues in Iraq which, until 2003, “were in perfect condition and each owner identifiable,” Shuker said.
“It only takes one vote in parliament” to give everything back to families.
But today, the buildings are still empty, padlocked and neglected in ruins, carrion for war profiteers in a country rife with corruption and mismanagement.
© 2021 AFP