In 722 B.C.E., the Kingdom of Samaria was defeated by Assyria and some Jews were taken to what is now known as Iraq. A larger community was established in 586 B.C.E., when the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judah and enslaved the Jews.
Iraqi Jews constitute one of the world’s oldest and most historically significant Jewish communities. These Jews distinguished themselves from Sephardim, referring to themselves as Baylim (Babylonions). The Jewish community of Babylon included Ezra the scribe, whose return to Judea in the late 6th century BC is associated with significant changes in Jewish ritual observance and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Three times during the 6th century BC, the Jews of the ancient Kingdom of Judah were exiled to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. These three separate occasions are mentioned (Jeremiah 52:28-30). The first was in the time of Jehoiachin in 597 BC, when, in retaliation for a refusal to pay tribute, the temple of Jerusalem was partially despoiled and a number of the leading citizens removed (Daniel 5:1-5). After eleven years, in the reign of Zedekiah—who had been enthroned by Nebuchadnezzar, a fresh revolt of the Judaeans took place, perhaps encouraged by the close proximity of the Egyptian army. The city was razed to the ground, and a further deportation ensued. Finally, five years later, Jeremiah records a third captivity.
Philo speaks of the large number of Jews resident in that country, a population which was no doubt considerably swelled by new immigrants after the destruction of Jerusalem. Accustomed in Jerusalem from early times to look to the east for help, and aware, as the Roman procurator Petronius was, that the Jews of Babylon could render effectual assistance, Babylonia became with the fall of Jerusalem the very bulwark of Judaism. The collapse of the Bar Kochba revolt no doubt added to the number of Jewish refugees in Babylon.
Babylon would become the focus of Judaism for more than a thousand years, and the place where Jews would acclimate themselves as a people without a land. The Jews of Babylon would even for the first time, write prayers in a language other than Hebrew such as the Kaddish, written in Judeo-Aramaic, a harbinger of the many languages Jewish prayers would come to be written in such as Greek, Arabic, and Turkish in the diaspora.
After the overthrow of Babylonia by the Persians, Cyrus gave the Jews permission to return to their native land (537 BC), and more than forty thousand are said to have availed themselves of the privilege.
The year of which has been recorded as 530 of the Seleucidan, or 219 of the common era, is considered to mark the beginning of a new era for the Jewish People. This is seen as the initiation of the dominant rôle which the Babylonian academies played for several centuries, for the first time outmoding Judea and Galilee in the quality of Torah study. Most Jews to this day rely on the quality of the work of Babylon during this period over that of the Galilee from the same period.
The key work was the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud, around the year 520, though rougher copies had already been circuated to the Jews of the Byzantine Empire. Editorial work continued on this texts grammar for the next 250 years; much of the text did not reach its “perfected” form until around 600-700 AD. The Mishnah which had been completed in the early 3rd century AD and Babylonian Gemara together form the Talmud Bavli (the “Babylonian Talmud”).
The three centuries in the course of which the Babylonian Talmud was developed were followed by five centuries during which it was intensely preserved, studied, expounded in the schools, and, through their influence, discipline and work, recognized by the whole diaspora. Sura and Pumbedita were considered the seats of diaspora learning; their heads and sages were the weighty authorities, whose decisions were sought from all sides and were accepted wherever diaspora Jewish communal life existed.
The first legal expression of Islam toward the Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians after the conquests of the 630s were the poll-tax (“jizyah”), the tax upon real estate (“kharaj”) was instituted. The first caliph, Abu Bakr, sent the famous warrior Khalid bin Al-Waleed against Iraq; and a Jew, by name Ka’ab al-Aḥbar, is said to have fortified the general with prophecies of success.
Omar and Othman were followed by Ali (656), with whom the Jews of Babylonia sided as against his rival Mu’awiyah. Ali made Kufa, in Iraq, his capital, and it was there that Jews expelled from the Arabian Peninsula went (about 641). The capture by Ali of Firuz Shabur, where 90,000 Jews are said to have dwelt, is mentioned by the Jewish chroniclers.
The proximity of the court lent to the Jews of Babylonia a species of central position, as compared with the whole caliphate; so that Babylonia still continued to be the focus of Jewish life. The time-honored institutions of the exilarchate and the gaonate—the heads of the academies attained great influence—constituted a kind of higher authority, voluntarily recognized by the whole Jewish diaspora.
Mesopotamia and Iraq came into the hands of the Ottoman Turks, when Sultan Suleiman II in 1534 took Tabriz and Baghdad from the Persians, leading to an improvement in the life of the Jews. The Persian reconquest in 1623 during the Ottoman–Safavid War (1623–39) led to a much worse situation, so that the re-conquest of Iraq by the Turks in 1638 included an army with a large population of Jews, some sources say they made up 10% of the army. The day of the reconquest was even given a holiday, “Yom Nes” (day of miracle).
From the Babylonian period to the rise of the Islamic caliphate, the Jewish community of Babylon thrived as the center of Jewish learning. The Mongol invasion and Islamic discrimination in the Middle Ages led to its decline. Under the Ottoman Empire, the Jews of Iraq fared better. The community established modern schools in the second-half of the 19th century.
In the 20th century, Iraqi Jews played an important role in the early days of Iraq’s independence. Between 1950-52, 120,000-130,000 of the Iraqi Jewish community (around 75%) were transported to Israel in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.
In 1884 there were 30,000 Jews in Baghdad and by 1900, 50,000, comprising over a quarter of the city’s total population. Before the anti-Jewish actions of the 1930s and 1940s, overall Iraqi Jews “viewed themselves as Arabs of the Jewish faith, rather than as a separate race or nationality”. In the 1936 Iraq Directory, the “Israelite community” is listed among the various other Iraqi communities, such as Arabs, Kirds, Turkmen, Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and Sabeans, and numbering at about 120,000. Hebrew is also listed as one of Iraq’s six languages.
During the British Mandate from 1918, and in the early days after independence in 1932, well-educated Jews played an important role in civic life. Iraq’s first minister of finance, Sir Sassoon Eskell, was a Jew, and Jews were important in developing the judicial and postal systems. Records from the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce show that 10 out of its 19 members in 1947 were Jews and the first musical band formed for Baghdad’s nascent radio in the 1930s consisted mainly of Jews. Jews were represented in the Iraqi parliament, and many Jews held significant positions in the bureaucracy, which often led to resentment by the Muslim population.
In a speech at the General Assembly Hall at Flushing Meadow, New York, on Friday, 28 November 1947, Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Fadel Jamall, included the following statement: Partition imposed against the will of the majority of the people will jeopardize peace and harmony in the Middle East. Not only the uprising of the Arabs of Palestine is to be expected, but the masses in the Arab world cannot be restrained. The Arab-Jewish relationship in the Arab world will greatly deteriorate. There are more Jews in the Arab world outside of Palestine than there are in Palestine. In Iraq alone, we have about one hundred and fifty thousand Jews who share with Moslems and Christians all the advantages of political and economic rights. Harmony prevails among Moslems, Christians and Jews. But any injustice imposed upon the Arabs of Palestine will disturb the harmony among Jews and non-Jews in Iraq; it will breed inter-religious prejudice and hatred.
Only one synagogue continues to function in Iraq, “a crumbling buff-colored building tucked away in an alleyway” in Bataween, once Baghdad’s main Jewish neighborhood. According to the synagogue’s administrator, “there are few children to be bar-mitzvahed, or couples to be married. Jews can practice their religion but are not allowed to hold jobs in state enterprises or join the army.” The rabbi died in 1996 and none of the remaining Jews can perform the liturgy and only a couple know Hebrew. The last Jewish wedding was held in 1980.
Between 1948 and 1951 121,633 Jews left the country, leaving 15,000 behind. In the early 1970s, bowing to international pressure, the Iraqi government allowed most of the remaining Jews to emigrate. In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Jewish Agency launched an effort to track down all of the remaining Iraqi Jews to present them with an opportunity to emigrate to Israel, and found a total of 34 Jews. Present estimates of the Jewish population in Baghdad are eight (2007), seven (2008) and five (2013).