Iraq, Babylon, and Baghdad in Jewish History and Thought

Iraq, Babylon, and Baghdad in Jewish History and Thought

Steven Bayme, National Director, Contemporary Jewish Life Department


The recent Iraq war has once again focused world attention on Mesopotamia (literally, "the land between two rivers"), evoking the ancient and glorious history of that "cradle of civilization." As one might imagine, Mesopotamia has enjoyed a complex relationship with Jews and Judaism, beginning in biblical times and continuing through the end of the twentieth century. Indeed, Mesopotamia appears as early as the creation epic of Genesis. According to Genesis, the Garden of Eden was situated geographically near the river that separates to become the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, hence the name Mesopotamia.

Moreover, the ancient Sumerians told stories of creation and a great flood that invite both comparison and contrast with the Genesis narratives. Revealingly, the Sumerian creation epic views nature as resulting from a war of the gods rather than from the Divine order suggested by Genesis. Similarly, the Sumerian Noah, Utnapishtim, is saved from the Great Flood by dint of his physical prowess rather than because of the moral qualities embodied by the biblical Noah.

Yet the first tangible and historical contacts between Mesopotamia and biblical Israel date from the Babylonian invasion and destruction of the Temple of Solomon in 586 B.C.E. Jerusalem was initially captured in 597 B.C.E., resulting in the exile of the upper classes of the city. Subsequently, the prophet Jeremiah sends this remarkable letter to the exiles:

  1. Now these are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem unto the residue of the elders who were carried away captives, and to the priests, and to the prophets, and to all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had carried away captive from Jerusalem to Babylon;
  2. (After that Jeconiah the king, and the queen, and the eunuchs, the princes of Judah and Jerusalem, and the carpenters, and the smiths, were departed from Jerusalem;)
  3. By the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan, and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, (whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon) unto Babylon, saying,
  4. Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all that are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon;
  5. Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them;
  6. Take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished.
  7. And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.

Note the absence of hatred toward Babylon. Rather, Jeremiah articulates a political theory that affirms Jewish life in the Diaspora, including working for the betterment of the surrounding society. Babylon fell to Persia in 539 B.C.E. From that date until WWI, no independent state of Babylon or Iraq existed. Rather, Babylon would be forever linked with Persia. For Jews, this meant the Declaration of Cyrus in 537 B.C.E., authorizing the return of the Jews to their homeland and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple. Most Jews, to be sure, did not return, signaling a demographic ascendancy of the Diaspora over the land of Israel that continues to this day, although it is likely to change in the twenty-first century.

For Jews, Iraq now became home to a rich Jewish civilization that would give birth to the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud itself is replete with favorable references to Persia. For example, "We generally do not sell arms to gentiles; but we do sell to the Persians, for they protect us." Similarly, the arrival of the Persian cavalry in Palestine was taken as a sign of the imminent arrival of the Messiah. Finally, the rabbis praised Persian courts as free of bribe-taking.

In effect, Persia represented for rabbinic Judaism the "safety valve" theory of the Diaspora. According to the Talmud, it was beneficial for the Jews to become scattered, for if it grew too difficult for Jews in one area, the presence of an alternate Diaspora would provide a safety valve for Jews to escape.

Baghdad's Golden Age commenced with the Muslim conquest of 640 C.E. By 750 C.E. the Islamic world was united under a single Baghdad caliph. This unity of Islam provided a framework for the flourishing of Judaism, including scholars of the caliber of Saadiah Gaon, the ninth-century head of the Baghdad yeshivot, who was perhaps second only to Maimonides in medieval Jewish jurisprudence and philosophy. Benjamin of Tudela, a twelfth-century Jewish traveler, reported 40,000 Jews in Baghdad, who populated twenty-eight synagogues and enjoyed the friendship of the caliph.

Yet as the fortunes of Islam declined, the condition of Jewry deteriorated. Economic decline and the rise of a fundamentalist Islam meant that Jewish life in Baghdad virtually ceased to exist by the fifteenth century. After 1500, Iraqi Jews looked to Ottoman Turkey for protection, fearing the ascendancy of Shiite Islam in Persia. Jews cheered the Ottoman conquest of 1678 as a "Yom Nes," a day of a miracle.

Nonetheless, the Jewish population of Iraq continued to languish. By 1850 Baghdad hosted only 3,000 Jews, most of whom were impoverished. In 1853, Baghdad Jews joined with Muslims against a rebellion of Kurds in northern Iraq. French-sponsored Jewish schools of the Alliance Israelite Universelle brought some measure of relief and modernization to Iraqi Jewry. Prosperity, however, came only with the British occupation following WWI. By the 1930s the Iraqi Jewish population had grown to over 100,000, and Jews formed a full 50 percent of the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce.

That British protection would not last indefinitely. By 1931 Iraq attained independence and turned to Arab nationalism in the name of defending Palestine. By 1941 there was an effort to create a pro-Nazi regime in Baghdad, launching a pogrom against Jews in which 30 died and countless others lost limb, property, and human dignity. Little wonder that in the immediate aftermath of the birth of Israel (1948) some 127,000 Iraqi Jews had immigrated there by 1952 through "Operation Ezra and Nehemiah."

What then can we conclude from this brief survey of Iraqi Jewish history? First, the history of this community is one of change. We need to avoid locked-in scenarios in which we assume that no change is possible either in Iraq or in Iraqi-Jewish relationships. Secondly, in this diversified portrait, we encounter Iraqi regimes that were well-intentioned as well as those that were tyrannical. Judaism by no means adopted a passive stance toward tyranny and never endorsed the nonviolence of a Mahatma Gandhi. Given a regime of evil, Judaism counsels that there is no substitute for victory. Lastly, Iraq embodies a paradigm of Diaspora Jewish existence. At times, it serves as a model of stability. At other times, the Iraqi Jewish narrative suggests the precariousness of Jewish life in the Diaspora.

For further reading:

  1. Chaim Raphael, The Road from Babylon (Harper and Row)
  2. Steven Bayme, Understanding Jewish History (KTAV)
  3. Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam (Princeton).

Questions for discussion:

  1. How do you assess the "political theory of the Diaspora" in Jeremiah 29: 1 - 7?
  2. How do you assess the rabbinic "safety-valve" theory of the Diaspora?
  3. In light of the recent Iraq war, does historical research and historical memory have any relevance for postwar Iraqi policy?

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