Opinion | Jews vanish from Iraq, but still have no closure

Lyn Julius
Lyn Julius (Via JNS.org)

By Lyn Julius

The oldest Jewish Diaspora in the world, that of Iraq, edged closer to extinction on March 15, with the death of 61-year-old Dhafer Fouad Eliyahu — an orthopedic surgeon at al-Wasiti Hospital in Baghdad.

A plethora of tributes to the “last Jewish doctor” appeared on Iraqi social media upon the announcement that Eliyahu had passed away after suffering a stroke.

Known as the “healer of the poor,” he ran a private clinic but treated those who could not afford medical care for free. His mother was among the first female doctors in Iraq. She had her own private clinic in Baghdad in the 1950s. In spite of intensifying persecution, her family stayed behind. Eliyahu, too, stayed on to serve his Iraqi compatriots when “tens of thousands” had left. He had sacrificed his personal life to remain in a country where there were no Jewish girls left to marry.

Before their mass exodus in 1950-51, Jews contributed beyond their numbers to modernity in 20th-century Iraq. Jews comprised 40% of the medical profession. When the Royal Medical College opened in 1927, seven out of 21 students were Jews. In 1932, only 12 graduated, though all seven Jews stayed the course.

One of the most eminent graduates was Dr. Jack Aboudi Shabi, who specialized in neurology and psychiatry. Shabi practiced in his first-floor clinic in Baghdad. So identified with mental illness was he that the expression “send him to the first floor” became a byword for “this person is crazy.”

Another Jewish doctor known for his compassion and loyalty to his patients was Dr. David Gabbay from the city of Amara. In spite of his popularity and good works, Gabbay was jailed and tortured by dictator Saddam Hussein in 1969. Eventually, he fled Iraq on foot and resettled in London.

Eliyahu’s death leaves just three Jews still living in Iraq. With his passing, a question mark hangs over the issue of who will manage the community’s assets and maintain cemeteries and synagogues. Jewish affairs were administered by Marcelle Azra, who died in her 90s this past September.

The origins of the community go back to the Babylonian exile following the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Rabbis at the pre-Islamic academies of Sura and Pumbedita wrote the Babylonian Talmud, the most authoritative source of Jewish law.

In 1948, the community numbered 150,000 Jews and a quarter of the population of Baghdad was Jewish. They were seen as a fifth column after the establishment of Israel and suffered extortion, execution and a series of discriminatory laws.

The vast majority fled to Israel in 1950-51. They were stripped of their Iraqi citizenship and much of their property was frozen without compensation.

The most recent bone of contention has been the so-called Iraqi-Jewish archive. The U.S. administration has pledged to return to Baghdad this random collection of Jewish books, correspondence and school reports, which was seized from the community by the Iraqi regime but shipped in 2003 to the United States for restoration.

Iraqi Jews have been fighting to keep this last vestige of their former lives, arguing that their memorabilia are of no interest or value to the rest of the Iraqi people.

While Iraqis themselves are increasingly acknowledging the selfless loyalty of Jews like Eliyahu, the return of the archive to Iraq would rub salt in the wound, adding yet another injustice to a very long list.

Lyn Julius is the author of “Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight” (Vallentine Mitchell, 2018). This originally ran on JNS.org.

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