Saturday, May 31, 2008

Baghdad Jews dwindle to a fearful handful

Stephen Farrell in The New York Times gives this melancholy update on the last Jews of Iraq, who are too few and too fearful to muster a prayer quorum or minyan. The Jewish Agency is standing by if and when they want to leave.

"Saleh’s grandson is now alone. His mother died two decades ago, his older brother left in 1991, and his father, now 87, was among the last handful of Jews taken from Iraq by the Jewish Agency after 2003, reducing the current community to single figures.

"Most of his other relatives departed in 1951, among more than 100,000 Jews who fled Iraq between 1949 and 1952, in the years after the state of Israel was created. Their exodus was code named “Operation Ezra and Nehemiah,” after the Jewish leaders who took their people back to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon beginning in 597 B.C.

"Some of the remaining handful of Iraqi Jews are middle class, including two doctors. Others, including Saleh’s grandson, are poor and unemployed, dependent on handouts.

“We see each other if there is something necessary, like a death, or to discuss some important things, or if someone needs help,” he wrote. “We take care about the people in the Jewish community only, not the half or part-Jewish. We don’t know about them after they left us.”

"Some Jews say they are too old to leave. Some do not want to leave their friends behind.

"The few remaining Jews ignore the entreaties of worried relatives and friends abroad and await an unlikely renaissance, demographic extinction or a more sudden end.

"Concern for their safety rose two years ago when one of them, a middle-aged man, was kidnapped. They have no idea whether he was taken because he was Jewish, wealthy, or whether the abduction was random.

“We don’t know anything about him, and don’t know the reason,” Saleh’s grandson said.

"His relatives voice frustration at his insistence on remaining in Iraq, saying he cannot be persuaded to relinquish the family home. He wants to sell it for $300,000 to help build a new life abroad but has had no takers.

“I talk with him all the time,” said his older brother, who lives in Europe and requested anonymity to protect his brother. “I call him every two weeks, and always I give him advice to leave, because it is dangerous, and because he needs to build his life and to find a wife.”

"The family argues that if buyers were going to come forward they would have done so long ago. They say that in Iraq’s current instability, an unscrupulous buyer could simply steal the money back, knowing that Saleh’s grandson would have no recourse without a tribe to protect him.

“Now there is nobody buying because of the situation in Sadr City,” his brother said. “I keep telling him, ‘Money is nothing.’ ”

"The Jewish Agency for Israel, an organization that arranges immigration to the Holy Land, has offered to relocate the entire group. “Should the remaining Jews in Baghdad request to immigrate to Israel, the Jewish Agency will immediately facilitate this request and also take care of their absorption needs in Israel,” said Zeev Bielski, the agency’s chairman."

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