Friday, January 23, 2009

Jews of Iraq: don't forget your motherland

Dia Kashi has a dream: one day, a Jew would be President of Iraq.

His voice cracking, Kashi told of his dream on the day that President Obama was being sworn in on Capitol Hill.

Addressing an audience at the London launch of the book, Iraq's Last Jews, Kashi, a Shia Muslim exile living in London whose family had suffered badly under Saddam's regime, explained that a country which respected the rights of the Jews would respect the rights of all.

His dream sounds a touch fanciful. There are fewer than ten Jews still living in Iraq. Few Jews would consider ever returning, let alone standing for President.

But the Jews of Iraq, who settled there over 2,700 years ago, were central to Iraqi Identity. 'You are Iraq', Kashi told the audience. They were a force for modernisation as well as pluralism.

Aged 19, Kashi volunteered to fight for the Palestinians, but when told that in the event that he lost his weapon he should give himself up to the Israelis, who might jail him but at least keep him alive, Kashi experienced a 'Road to Damascus' moment. From then on he threw in his lot with the Jews, became close to a number of Jews in England, and in 1998, visited Israel. "When I arrived at the airport, I realised I was surrounded by human beings", he said.

Kashi's story parallels that of Mithal al-Alusi, who visited Israel twice. Although he paid a terrible price - his two sons were killed - Al-Alusi is a source of hope: he represents the constituency of Najaf, the centre of the Shi'a world. The devout Shi'ites of Najaf voted in as their representative a man who never hid his desire to build bridges with Israel.

On the other hand, Kashi was pessimistic about prospects for peace because the Bedouin culture infecting the Arab world legitimises stealing, lying, cheating and the rule of Mafia-style clans. Arab rulers had a vested interest in keeping their people backward and uneducated.
There can never be peace, only a truce.

Dia Kashi is the only non-Jew whose story is included in Iraq's Last Jews. The book contains 20 of 64 interviews conducted by editors Tamar Morad, Robert Shasha and Dennis Shasha. It reflects a cross-section of experience from Jews from all walks of life and backgrounds. At one end of the spectrum the prosperous bankers, like the Zilkha family; at the other, the poor, like Salim Sassoon, his life blighted by ill-health, and Salim Fattal, who turned to communism; writers like Sami Michael and Eli Amir; the artist Oded Halahmi; the famous musician Saleh Al-Kuwaiti described by his son Shlomo; the Zionists, like Mordechai Ben-Porat and Shlomo Hillel, who organised the airlift of some 120,000 Jews to Israel; those Jews who suffered torture and imprisonment under the brutal Baathist regime; and Jews who walked a political tightrope with the authorities while trying to safeguard the community's few remaining rights - like the last headmaster of the last Jewish school, Abdullah Obadiah, and the last leader of the Jewish community, Meir Basri.

Now that the Jewish community of Iraq has ceased to exist, the closing words of the book belong to Dia Kashi:

"I implore the Jews of Iraq not to allow the culture and contribution of your community to disappear in this generation and to ensure that you transmit as much as possible to your children and grandchildren. After all, Iraq was originally your country- Jews were there long before the Muslims set foot on its soil. Even if most of you have no intention of returning to the motherland, you owe it to your ancestors, those pillars who helped shape Iraq and its history, to perpetuate in exile, at least, your glorious past."


Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful and heartening story. Do you have a source for this story? A newspaper article perhaps?

bataween said...

Sorry, Victor - I wrote it myself