Jewish refugees from Iraq leave Lod (today Ben-Gurion) Airport, 1951. Credit: GPO via Wikimedia Commons.
Jewish refugees from Iraq leave Lod (today Ben-Gurion) Airport, 1951. Credit: GPO via Wikimedia Commons.

One man’s mission to document Mosul’s Jewish history

The Tomb of Jonah was not presented to him as a Jewish site, Iraqi historian Omar Mohammed says.

While ISIS has been driven into the shadows in Syria and Iraq, it continues to operate an active insurgency, particularly in rural areas. The Sunni terrorist group that committed the Yezidi genocide, ethnically cleansed Christians, sexually enslaved women and beheaded journalists, also destroyed countless archeological treasures.

Iraqi historian Omar Mohammed, known for his Mosul Eye blog, now an NGO, is well-known for documenting life in his city under ISIS rule. He has started a new project, “Reviving the Jewish history of Mosul.”

Under ISIS rule, the tombs of the Prophets Jonah and Daniel were both destroyed, as were the local mikvah ritual bath and a couple of synagogues. In a recent talk that Mohammed gave to Qesher, he emphasized that what happened to the Tomb of Jonah was not only a tragedy for the Jewish people but for all of the people of Mosul.

“I used to hear stories about the Prophet Jonah. The people of Nineveh were the only people who heeded his warning,” said Mohammed. “After three days of studying the offer from God, they decided to follow God’s message and received divine protection. Unfortunately, this divine protection left us in 2014, when Mosul was overrun by ISIS, who systematically destroyed the cultural heritage of Iraq.”

The ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh was located in what is now the city of Mosul in northern Iraq. Today, Nineveh is a common name for the half of Mosul that lies on the eastern bank of the Tigris River.

Heritage demolished

Mohammed said that the Tomb of Jonah was not presented to him as a Jewish site. “I learned everything about Jonah except for his Jewish heritage. Later on, I went to a school and learned that it was once the Jewish school. I did not know. In 2000, it was demolished to the ground by Saddam Hussein and then they built a new structure.”

Mohammed first learned about the Jewish heritage of Mosul from Iraqi Jewish historian Sami Ibrahim. Mohammed was still living under ISIS rule when Ibrahim managed to send him a book in digital form that really inspired him. “It ignited my curiosity to learn about Jewish Mosul. I always ask when people ask about diversity: Where are the Jews? For diversity, you have to believe in inclusion. Why are the Jews not included in the schoolbooks in Iraq and the discussions we have on a daily basis?”

The Jewish people’s history in Iraq dates back to antiquity. In 568 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed ancient Israel and deported the Jewish community to Babylon, in today’s Iraq, where in later centuries its members would produce the Babylonian Talmud. In 641, Caliph Ali confiscated synagogues and forced Jews to wear special badges, which were similar to what the Nazis forced Jews to wear. In 1260, under the Mongol occupation, most of the Jews either were killed or fled.

Although the situation improved under Ottoman Turkish rule, a plague in 1743 wiped out most of Iraq’s Jewish community. In 1932, Iraq gained independence from Britain. Its first finance minister, the Jewish Sir Sassoon Eskell, was instrumental in the creation of the Kingdom of Iraq. Mohammed claims he is still greatly respected by Iraqis today. At that time, 40% of Baghdad was Jewish.

Farhud pogrom

However, with the rise of Nazism in Europe, the situation of Iraqi Jewry significantly worsened.

“In the 1930s, antisemitism grew due to the relationship between the German government and the king of Iraq,” Mohammed said. “German teachers working in the region used to publish antisemitic articles in the local newspapers. The Iraqi Jews felt it on a daily basis. The rabbi would be stoned by children and they would hear antisemitic slurs.”

This would eventually lead to the Farhud pogrom of June 1-2, 1941, in which almost 200 Jews were killed and over a thousand wounded, 900 Jewish homes were destroyed and extensive looting took place. “People went into the streets. Whoever was Jewish was killed or had their property confiscated,” Mohammed said.

After Israel achieved independence in 1948, the plight of Iraqi Jewry further deteriorated.

“[Jewish businessman] Shafiq Ades, convicted of selling goods to Israel, was hanged. Zionist activity was punishable by death. Jews were forbidden to engage in banking or foreign businesses. Jews were dismissed from government posts. $80 million in property was confiscated.”

In 1950, the Jews were permitted to immigrate to Israel but only on the condition that they renounce their Iraqi citizenship and allow the government to seize everything they owned. Under these conditions, 121,633 Jews left Iraq with just one suitcase each.

When the Ba’ath Party came to power in 1968, the situation further deteriorated for the Jews who remained in Iraq. It was at this time that the Iraqi Jewish Archives were confiscated by the government. In the 1970s, most of the remaining Jews left the country. Only several Jews remain there today. According to Mohammed, Mosul is “known for the Tigris River and the Jewish, Christian, Yezidi and many other religious and ethnic groups that lived within its walls.”

Diversity boast

However, he said, “Showing that you once hosted or held the diversity and inclusion does not give you the right to brag about living in diversity. It is more of a responsibility to confront history.”

He continued, “The Jews of Mosul were really active. In 1946, they produced a play called Bayn Narim. It addressed the issue of arranged marriages, arguing that a wife should choose her husband and a husband should choose his wife. Nevertheless, they did not feel safe. Both Christians and Muslims were always attacking them.”

He also noted that their attempt to establish a Jewish cultural club was denied due to the fear that it was connected to Israel.

Today, the remnants of Mosul’s Jewish past are hardly visible. “Bir El Tabirah Mikvah is a very sad picture. Nothing is being done to restore it. Little remains of the Mosul Synagogue. Many parts were actually removed. There are some inscriptions left,” Mohammed said.

“After the deportation of the Jews from Mosul, people found Hebrew inscriptions, which were used to build other things. In 2017, when Mosul was partially liberated from ISIS, I did something at the Prophet Jonah ruins. I hired a violinist to play a concert to show that Mosul still had God’s protection,” he said.

Efforts to revive Mosul’s Jewish heritage sites have faced many obstacles.

“The restoration of Jonah’s Tomb is complicated due to the discovery of an Assyrian palace beside it and the Sunni endowment, which wants to build a mosque in the area. If they build the mosque, they are blocking the Assyrian palace, an ancient church and Jonah’s Tomb,” said Mohammed.

“There is a debate about opening a museum on this site and establishing a mosque nearby. I hope we can establish an exclusive site, but that is a dream.

“There are another two ancient synagogues. There was an attempt to rebuild Sassoon Synagogue, but it was stopped by the government. Iraq passed a law that any kind of talk with Israelis is seen as collaboration with Israel. It criminalized my dialogues with Iraqi Jews. That is why the synagogue is at a high risk of being demolished yet no action has been taken yet,” he said.

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