Decades After Fleeing, Iraqi Jews Plan to Return to Their Homeland

With the number of bombings down in Baghdad, some Iraqi Jews in places like London and Israel are applying for passports — amid welcoming signs from the other side

Edwin Shuker in front of his childhood home in Iraq, 2015.
From the film 'Remember Baghdad'

The news of the Islamic State’s defeat in Iraq this month brought a smile to Londoner Edwin Shuker’s face. For Shuker, 62, this was another step to realizing his dream – to return to the country he fled 45 years ago.

He took the first step to that end two years ago when he bought a new house in northern Iraq and became, as far as is known, the first Jew in decades to buy a home in that suffering land.

Shuker told Haaretz he knows several other Jews of Iraqi descent who visited the old country in recent years, “but I don’t think there’s another madman who actually bought a house there like me.” The deal wasn’t an investment.

“It was mainly a symbolic act that turns me from just a tourist into a man who wants to settle in Iraq,” he said.

Shuker’s move is indeed unusual, but it reflects a trend in recent years among Jews who left Iraq, mainly for Israel and Britain. The first overtures were made in 2003, after Saddam Hussein’s ouster. They were resumed this year amid the decreasing frequency of bomb attacks in Baghdad.

Edwin Shuker as a child and family members in Iraq.
From the film 'Remember Baghdad'

In December 2016, Iraq Day – a cultural exhibition organized by Iraqi students – was held at Imperial College London. Prominent members of London’s Jewish community were surprised to receive an invitation to exhibit their books about the history of Iraq’s Jews.

“Our stall was the most popular one there and all the books were sold,” says Londoner David Dangoor, who was born in Iraq in 1948 and left when he was 10. As he puts it, the Iraqi ambassador didn’t cringe when he saw that the books had been printed in Israel.

Tsionit Fattal Kuperwasser, whose parents immigrated to Israel from Iraq, didn’t imagine that her first novel, “The Pictures on the Wall,” about the Jewish community in Iraq during the last century, would become a best-seller in her parents’ homeland. The book, which was published in Hebrew in 2015, was translated into Arabic this year and became the first Israeli book to be published in Iraq.

“When I wrote the book I wanted to connect to my Iraqi-Jewish roots; I didn’t think it would be read by Muslims in Iraq as well,” Fattal Kuperwasser says. But in the era of social networks, Iraqi intellectuals, authors and journalists heard of her novel even before the translation and started discussing it on Facebook, in newspapers and at universities.

Repairing the injustice

“They see me as a daughter of Iraqi parents who misses her ‘first homeland,’” she says. “To them I’m a member of the Iraqi nation and they see in me proof that the Iraq of yesteryear, the one they miss, hasn’t disappeared or been forgotten.”

Members of the Dangoor family in Iraq, 1939.
From the film 'Remember Baghdad'

Soon Fattal Kuperwasser found that the taboo on ties between Israelis and Iraqis was cracking. “We talk on Facebook openly and daily,” she says. “They tell me that the light went out on Iraq after the Jews were pushed out and that they want to rectify this injustice and bring us home.”

The ties between Iraqi researchers and Iraqi Jews in Israel was established by Prof. Shmuel Moreh, a native of Baghdad and an Israel Prize laureate for Middle Eastern studies, who died this year. The warm eulogies published in Iraq after his death attested to the yearning to resume ties.

“They mourned his passing, expressed remorse that Iraq lost brilliant people like him, and regretted that he didn’t have a chance to see Baghdad again,” Fattal Kuperwasser says.

Iraq’s Jewish community is one of the most ancient in the world. In its heyday, in the middle of the last century, it numbered 150,000 strong. The story of Iraq’s Jews combines persecution and fear alongside economic, political and cultural prosperity.

In the 1930s, when the British Mandate ended and Iraq became independent, the Jews came under threat. The community’s lowest points were the Farhud – the 1941 pogrom in which some 180 Jews were murdered – and the 1948 hanging of businessman Shafiq Ades amid charges he sold weapons to Israel. In 1951 most Iraqi Jews immigrated to Israel, to be followed in the following decades by the few thousand who remained. Today few Jews live there.

“It’s hard to take the fact that we’re gone, that we left forever,” says Shuker, who stayed with his family until 1971. “I feel responsible for preserving the Jewish ties to that country because our story there hasn’t ended yet.”

Two years ago he went to Iraq, returned to the house where he grew up and visited one of Baghdad’s synagogues, which was renovated and restored – but empty.

Unlike others in whom the Farhud trauma was seared for life, Shuker prefers to remember an Iraq where Jews and Arabs lived in peace. He looks for contemporary partners with whom to renew ties.

“There’s a dramatic change in the Iraqis’ attitude,” he says. “They feel they’ve lost a valuable community and acknowledge that Jews were an important part of society there.”

Renee Dangoor, Miss Baghdad 1947.
From the film 'Remember Baghdad'

Jewish Miss Baghdad

This month the documentary “Remember Baghdad” – the story of Iraq through the eyes of the Jews who lived there for 2,600 years – premiered in London on the 100th anniversary of the British invasion against the Ottomans in 1917.

The movie sheds light on the Jews’ good life in Iraq before they were driven out or fled. It shows picnics on the banks of the Tigris, royal balls and a material and cultural wealth that marked the community in its heyday.

Like Shuker, Dangoor misses Iraq. He remembers the villa on the Tigris where he grew up. His father held the Coca-Cola franchise in Iraq, and his mother was elected Miss Baghdad in 1947. To this day her picture appears on Iraqi websites as a symbol of nostalgia. “Iraq is still in our blood and bones,” Dangoor says.

A delegation from the Iraqi Embassy in London attended the documentary’s premiere. “After the screening they said they were looking forward to the day when Iraqi Jews would be able to visit Iraq,” Dangoor says. The film will be screened in the Jerusalem Cinemateque on Sunday and Monday.

Dangoor has already taken the first step to normalize his relations with Iraq. In London, he has voted in Iraqi parliamentary elections. He says other Iraqi Jews have applied for passports too, but so far in vain.

“Many Iraqi Jews have good, warm memories of life there, which haven’t faded even after the Farhud,” he says. “Many identify with Iraqi culture, music and literature to this day.”

Israeli author Eli Amir’s novel “The Dove Flyer” will soon be published in his native Iraq, where his books have been popular for years. His attitude is different.

“I don’t think for a single moment of going back there, heaven forbid,” he says. “It’s over and done with. We have nothing to go back there for.”

Amir admits that when Iraq is mentioned in the news “it strikes a chord, but I also remember that the Jews were driven out of there as refugees with nothing. So I prefer my Jewish Israeli identity.”

Edwin Shuker at the synagogue in Baghdad Iraq, 2015.
From the film 'Remember Baghdad'