Baghdad in the 1940s teemed with Jewish life. Today, a handful of Jews remain in the Iraqi capital. What happened in between is the relatively unknown story of the ethnic cleansing of Iraq’s Jews. Following decades of persecution that included a local Nazi uprising during World War Two, one of the oldest Jewish communities limped to its final death under Saddam Hussein’s regime. The modern story of Iraq’s Jews is bloody, tragic and largely untold.
Carole Basri has made it her life mission to tell that story. The Fordham University Adjunct Professor of Law is herself of Iraqi descent, and has led the recent resurgence of research into what she calls the “taboo history” of Middle East Jewry.
She heads an organization that carefully maps out places in the Middle East with historical Jewish interest, such as synagogues and tombs. She also lectures widely on the topic, propelled by her belief that the taboo history is part of a larger Arab effort to say that Jews never existed in the Middle East and therefore have no historical claim to Israel.
Basri delivered a keynote lecture at the National Jewish Retreat in 2013, where she spoke of her family’s pain in being driven from the country where they had lived for 2700 years. Basri detailed the campaign of anti-Jewish activity that steadily eroded the Jewish community: legislation banning Jewish commerce, accusations of treason, restriction on travel, and expropriation of property.
Following the US takeover of Iraq in 2003, Basri travelled to Baghdad to conduct ethics and anti-corruption training. She brought a menorah with her and lit it in one of Hussein’s palaces. Around her echoed the whispers of the 160,000 Jews who used to call Iraq home; today, Basri is giving them a proper voice.