Sandy Rashty

The tragedy of Iraq’s Jews

The dilapidated interior of the Sasson synagogue in Iraq's northern city of Mosul (Credit: Getty images)

Walk into my grandmother’s living room in north-west London, and you could be forgiven for thinking you had suddenly stepped into the Middle East. The coffee table is laden with treats, from homemade date-filled flatbreads to baklawa and nuts. Al Jazeera plays on the flatscreen, reeling off the latest news about the Israel-Palestinian conflict. In the corner of the room is a darbuka drum and my late grandpa’s backgammon set for anyone who fancies a game. In the kitchen there are two pots brewing: one making slow-steamed tea laced with cardamon, the other Arabic coffee ready to be poured into miniature cups. Unsurprisingly, my family are often here – along with the rest of Iraq’s displaced Jewish community. 

At my grandmother’s home, different generations gather to share memories, sing songs, and discuss politics. People who were once neighbours in Baghdad – but who are now scattered across the world from New York to Tel Aviv – catch up, before going on to celebrate a wedding, bar or bat mitzvah in London. Arabic, spoken with an Iraqi Jewish inflection, is the main language – though English and Hebrew are also spoken. Growing up in a flat above my dad’s shop on Edgware Road, known as London’s Little Beirut, my family were often mistaken for Christians because of their different dialect. 

Today, there are just three Jews living in the entire country

As the daughter of Iraqi Jewish refugees who fled Baghdad in the 1970s, I have always been aware of my family’s history. But as time passes, I am more conscious of how unaware people are of the plight of Jewish communities across the Arab world – who were dispersed within a generation after living in countries like Iraq, Egypt, and Syria for thousands of years. 

As a new book, reviewed last week in The Spectator, attempts to cast doubt on the reasons Jews were forced to leave Iraq, perhaps it is now time to talk about what happened to these Arab Jewish communities – why they left and why Israel is so key to their story.

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