"The Jews were important constitutes of Iraq, they participated in every facet of Iraqi society. At the end, the Jews of Iraq did not lose Iraq, Iraq is still with them- in their hearts. But Iraq lost the Jews and I think they are suffering from it now." Smiling at me from across his dining table, Emile Cohen serves the most important reason for understanding the Jewish Iraqi experience. Last summer's Gaza war and the ongoing situation with ISIS in Iraq/Syria- means we are in a period of profound regional transformation, some of which, threatens the existence of minorities in the Middle East.
One minority has already been largely eliminated form the Arab World and that is the Jewish minority. The expulsion/pressured removal of Jews from Arab lands took places during the last great regional transformation, which was in the 1950's and 60's during the European decolonization. Places like Iraq had been home to a Jewish community for over 2, 600 years, "Most of the prophets, Jewish prophets, were buried in Iraq. There are more prophets in Iraq than Israel, Iraq is more of a holy land, if you like, than Israel." Emile proudly told me.
But mingled with his pride, was a sense of great loss and sadness. Born in 1943, Emile attended a mixed Jewish, Christian and Muslim primary school and didn't feel different from the other boys. Only upon entering a Jewish secondary school did he begin to identify more with his Jewishness. Jews were classed as 'People of the Book' by Islam, but under Ottoman rule were made to pay a special protection tax to the Ottoman authorities. The special tax applied to all non-Muslims subjects and exempted them from military service, which was theoretically compulsory for all Muslim men.
Many Jews from Arab countries told me about the discriminatory laws in the Arab world, which rendered them Second-Class citizens and many tied it into a universal narrative about Jewish suffering, not too different from the European Jewish experience. However, Emile strongly disagreed with this assertion and while he acknowledges discrimination did exist, he found the comparison with the Jewish experience in Europe quite perverse. "We do not compare that (what happened to us) with what happened in Europe. Nowhere near. Not just the Holocaust, but even the pogroms (anti-Jewish riots) that took place in Russia, Poland and all these places. They cannot be compared."
In 1941, Baghdad saw an outbreak of anti-Jewish feeling and it led to an anti-Semitic riot and many Jewish businesses were destroyed. Some people called this incident an Iraqi pogrom or even the Arab version of the Kristallnacht, Emile asserted that it was a 'kind of pogrom', but nothing comparable to the pogroms of Europe. He cited that while many people died, it was not on the scale of Europe and that it was a result of a break-down in-law and order, no government and the British authority, who ruled Iraq, lack of interest in preventing rioters. Interestingly, he traces back the rise of anti-Semitic tensions to the late 1930's and not to historical 'ancient hatred' that characterized European anti-Semitism.
"We had a problem with pan-Arab nationalism, because they could not differentiate a Jew from a Zionist." But unlike in Europe, no Holocaust took place in Arab lands, "The people of Iraq were not like that." Emile went on to describe what Jewish life was like in Iraq, the food, the language and especially the music. Many of Iraq's great musicians were Jewish, but nobody knew that they were Jewish and nobody really cared. Emile was officially de-naturalized from Iraq, while living and studying in England in the 1960's. Iraq came under Ba'athist rule and the antagonism towards Israel, saw many Arab countries turning against their Jewish communities. In the end, they were forced to leave or were physically expelled and they took with them 2, 600 years worth of culture and tradition.
Emile, like many Jews from Arab countries, tried to forget their Arab-Jewish culture and favoured integration into their host societies. However, as Emile approached retirement, he began to have a longing to re-discover his Iraqi-Jewish culture and he is not alone. In the last 10-years, there has been a spike in interest by Jews from Arab countries and their descendents, in the old Judeo-Arabic culture. Weddings, parties and gathering are increasingly being done in accordance with Judeo-Arab traditions.
Emile sized upon this revival and began setting up concerts, which play old Judeo-Arabic music and more importantly, concerts that bring together Iraqi Muslims, Christians and Jews, to remember the old culture and start a dialogue. "There was a lot of hesitation at first, from all sides," but the concerts proved successful and now these concerts are in demand. Emile's story is not only a lesson in history, but also an important warning against what could happen in places like Iraq today. There's no historical animosity or ancient hatred at work in Iraq today, much of what is happening is the product of recent events and these events can lead to terrible things, if left untreated. It's important to recall stories like Emile's, because they remind us of this.