Voices
Mindy Belz

No right of return

No one talks about the Jews forced out of Arab lands

Issue: "New faces of New Orleans," Aug. 15, 2009

Sami Jajouhana is the keeper of Nahum's tomb. The last of the Jews to leave al-Qosh in 1948 handed him the keys to the synagogue and a leather ledger, which he has used to this day to record visitors who come to peek at the site where they say the ancient prophet of Nineveh is buried.

When I met Jajouhana almost a year ago on travels through Iraq's Nineveh province, he asked me to sign the ledger as he produced a key to open the padlock of the door into the synagogue. Most of the recent visitors, I noticed, have been U.S. soldiers. They are Jewish, said Jajouhana, and traveled from Camp Freedom, their base outside Mosul, about 25 miles south.

Nahum's tomb lies under a sheltered area of a synagogue that is otherwise falling down. Most of its roof and some stone walls have crumbled. Hebrew scripture is plainly visible on the interior walls-blocky, precisely carved, unobtrusive, in contrast to loopy, flowing Arabic script that dominates most religious structures, even Christian ones, in the Middle East.

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But there is no one in al-Qosh to interpret them.

Jajouhana, who is a Christian, led me through the neighborhood rapping as he went on doors of homes once belonging to the town's Jewish families, now abandoned for 50 years. "Moishe, Saida, Sarah, Machea, Zacchaeus, Naji, Maurice," he recited, names of childhood friends he said "wanted to go, and they have now all died." The last to leave, a rabbi and his family, lived directly across the narrow street from the entrance to the synagogue of Nahum.

Jews settled in ancient Nineveh near the site of present-day Mosul after Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, conquered Samaria in about 730 b.c. In 1165 Benjamin of Tudela found 7,000 Jews living in Mosul. By the beginning of the 20th century scholars say their population had dwindled to between 1,000 and 4,500. Now the Jews of Nineveh cannot be found.

Further south near present-day Baghdad, the Babylonians led into captivity 18-year-old King Jehoiachin and thousands from Judah in 598 b.c. By the latest estimates, there are eight Jews in Baghdad, all elderly. They represent the entire Jewish population of what was once the largest Jewish diaspora in the world (Deuteronomy 28:25). As recently as 1904 Jews made up an estimated 30 percent of Baghdad's population-40,000 people-and led the city's cultural pursuits and commerce.

It is a common misperception-and one currently on exhibit at the U.S. State Department website-to link Jewish migration in the Middle East to the Holocaust, and to portray those who have settled modern-day Israel as outsiders, pretenders, or invaders. Little is said about the Jews forced out of their Arab homelands throughout the previous century, most notably since the creation of Israel, when 870,000 Arab Jews, known as Mizrahi, came to Israel as refugees.

Although Jews had lived in Mesopotamia 1,000 years by the time the Islamic armies conquered it, outlasting the Assyrian despots Nahum prophesied against, the Jews in al-Qosh by the 1930s lived under laws restricting their travel, employment, and education. With the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Iraqi Jews faced wholesale discrimination and if ever accused of being Zionists, the death penalty. It's no surprise that those not forced out simply left when given the opportunity. Jewish quarters across the Middle East-in Cairo, Damascus, and elsewhere-emptied. And the trend continues: This month the first of about 100 Jews from Yemen are scheduled to arrive in New York as refugees.

We are watching a similar attrition now of Iraq's historic Christian churches, their population halved since the U.S. invasion. And, as last month's bomb attacks on six churches demonstrated, pressure to leave comes from persistent violence and threats, if not by legal mandate.

But those who suffer are not only those who are persecuted. "Even the Muslims need historical references," said Antoin Odo, head of the Chaldean bishops of Syria and a man who traces his family roots to al-Qosh. Christians-and Jews-he told me, "represent something that comes before them."

If you have a question or comment for Mindy Belz, send it to mbelz@worldmag.com.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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