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Baghdad in Jewish History

Lawrence Bush
July 29, 2017

The city of Baghdad was founded by Caliph Al-Mansur on this date in 762 CE. However, a Babylonian city of that name is mentioned in the Talmud, which was compiled nearly three centuries earlier, indicating that Mansur rebuilt an already-existing Persian town. Sitting on the left bank of the Tigris River, Baghdad was very close to two centers of Jewish scholarship, Sura and Pumbedita, and Baghdadi Jews became so populous that one of the bridges over the Karkhâyâ canal in the western suburb was called Jews’ Bridge. The city also became a key center of the Karaite movement of Jews who believed in the Torah but did not consider the Talmud authoritative. By the 12th century, the Baghdad Jewish community numbered some 40,000, with twenty-eight synagogues and ten yeshivas. The 1393 conquest of the city by the Turco-Mongol warrior Tamerlane prompted most Jews to flee to Kurdistan and Syria, but Jews returned to live in Baghdad under various clouds of persecution between 1500 and the modern period, when Arab anti-Zionism made their situation untenable. Their number in Baghdad decreased from 100,000 at the time of the partition of Palestine in 1947 to only 5,000 after Operations Ezra and Nehemiah, in which Israel facilitated their mass exodus. By 1968 there were only 2,000 Jews left, and in 1969, when nine Jews were publicly hanged on charges of spying for Israel, antisemitic antipathy in Iraq reached its peak.

“Between January 1950 and December 1951, Israel airlifted, bused, or otherwise smuggled out 119,788 Iraqi Jews — all but a few thousand. Within those two years, Iraq — to its national detriment — had excised one of its most commercially, industrially, and intellectually viable groups, a group that for 2,600 years had loyally seen the three provinces of Mesopotamia as their chosen place on earth. This dispossessed group, who arrived in Israel with nothing but their memories, rose to become some of the Jewish state’s most productive citizens.” --Edwin Black

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.