While the nation of Iraq didn’t formally exist until the 20th century, the area making up the nation hosted numerous empires over the centuries. One of these empires was Babylonia, where Jews were exiled during the Babylonian Captivity. This is also where the Babylonian Talmud was compiled. Although many Jews returned to Judea after King Cyrus permitted them to do so, many stayed in this area. The Jews that arrived in Babylon from ancient times distinguish themselves from the Sephardim who arrived much later. Specifically, Baghdad was the major center for Iraqi Jews, and at one point, a third of the city was Jewish.

Like in many other areas of the Middle East, the fortunes for the Jews of Iraq changed dramatically. When Mongols controlling the region converted to Islam and started to repress Jews heavily, many fled to surrounding areas. The situation remained poor until the Ottoman Empire began its rule; despite being second-class citizens, Jews had much more opportunity than before.

As the centuries went on, many more Jews started to move to Baghdad, whose population numbered 5,000 in the early 20th century. With Iraq’s independence during the same period, antisemitism ramped up again. Pro-Nazi sentiment rose to new heights in the 1940s, resulting in a massive riot in Baghdad that led to hundreds of deaths and injuries. This became known as the Farhud pogrom. 

Later, when the State of Israel was established, tensions further worsened, with Zionism becoming a capital crime. In 1950, Jews were permitted to leave the country, although soon, more antisemitic policies were implemented against the Jewish community. This motivated the early Israeli government to evacuate tens of thousands of Jews from Iraq in Operations Ezra and Nechemia. From 1948 to present day, Iraq’s Jewish population dropped from 150,000 to 4. 

There is also a small community of Kurdish crypto-Jews that remain in Iraq. These are descendants of Jews who were forced to convert to Islam in the decades following Israel’s declaration of independence. Many of these converts and their descendants are opening up about their Jewish roots in recent years, and Israel even covertly airlifted many of these Jews in the early 1990s to Israel. 




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