Jewish Journal

Anxiety and Hope

Iraqi Jews in L.A. experience mixture of feelings as they watch the war's progress.

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Mar. 27, 2003 at 7:00 pm

Joseph Dabby, who was jailed three times in Baghdad for the crime of being a Jew, did not wish for war, but he fervently hopes that U.S. troops will free his native land.

Now the president of Kahal Joseph Congregation, Dabby is among approximately 3,000 Jews of Iraqi origin and descent in Los Angeles, who are watching the war's progress with a mixture of anxiety and hope.

"We have deep roots in Iraq, going back more than 2,500 years, and belonging to the oldest Diaspora community, with a very strong Jewish tradition," observed Dr. Eliezer Chammou, a geography professor.

Rabbi Haim Ovadia, spiritual leader of Kahal Joseph, said, "I feel sad, because no one wants war, but it is necessary to get rid of this evil, this Saddam Hussein. No one can speak against him, and even criticizing the color of his suit can lead to execution."

What was once a thriving and influential community of 130,000 Jews in the 1940s has been reduced to less than 50 people, and no one in Los Angeles has been able to contact them for some time.

"Even in the best of days, you could only communicate with the remaining Jews through a third country," Dabby said.

Many in the Iraqi community here expressed pity for the Muslims who were once their friends and neighbors.

"I've seen how they tortured young Iraqi dissidents, who couldn't trust their own families, and how frustrated they were that the Americans didn't finish the job in 1991," said Dabby, 57, a property developer.

Dr. Lev Hakak, professor of Jewish studies and literature at UCLA, was born in Israel to parents who were part of the great exodus of approximately 110,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel in 1951-52. They were forced to leave behind all their property and assets.

His father was an educator and had "some terrible memories and some fond memories" of his native land.

The most terrible recollections were of June 1941, when a short-lived pro-Nazi revolt produced bloody anti-Jewish riots.

The fond memories included times when "Jews and Muslims lived in friendship and peace. Jews were in high government positions and we felt part of the political and intellectual life," Hakak said. "I hope it will happen again and that Israel and Iraq will live in peace."

A similar hope was expressed by the 37-year-old Ovadia. "I don't like it when people say that all Arabs and Muslims are bad," he said. "I hope they decapitate the leaders, but that the Iraqi people, who have been brainwashed, can live in a democratic country."

Although Iraqi Jews in Los Angeles -- the largest enclave of its kind in the United States -- belong to various synagogues, the center of their religious life is Kahal Joseph on the Westside.

According to Ovadia, the Sephardic congregation consists of approximately 400 families. Most come from Iraq, but many are descended from families who had emigrated from Iraq to India, China, Singapore and Burma in the early 1900s.

The past is etched deeply into their collective memory.

"We come from the birthplace of Judaism," Chammou proclaimed proudly. "The patriarch Abraham was born in Ur, along the bank of the Euphrates River, in southern Iraq."

The Jewish community dates back at least to the First Babylonian Exile in 586 B.C.E. Some cite the even more ancient date of 732 B.C.E., when the Israelite tribes of Samaria were expelled by the Assyrians.

"The community never assimilated; produced great scholars, rabbis and learned books; and for some 800 years, from 200-1038 C.E., represented the intellectual center of the Jewish world," Hakak said.

In the 19th century, Baghdad Jewry enjoyed an intellectual renaissance under the leadership of the great preacher and kabbalist Rabbi Yosef Hayyim.

In his youth, Chammou recalled, "everybody had a chance to study in community-supported religious schools."

Chammou served as Middle East librarian at UCLA for 22 years, and he is now an adjunct professor at West Los Angeles College. In the upcoming spring semester, he will teach an evening course on "Jewish Roots in Iraq" at the University of Judaism, and a UCLA Extension class on "Lands and Peoples of the Middle East."  

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