The old man was sitting out in front of the Al Batha cinema in Nasiriyah, basking in the sun just under the star of David that was painted on the cinema’s walls. “This cinema was part of a lot of Jewish-owned property in the city,” the 78-year-old man, who wished to be known only as Abu Jamal, told NIQASH. “But it was taken over by the state and rented out to others, who were not aware of the history and value of the building. They have misused it and they haven’t preserved its history.”
“The old days here were good days,” Abu Jamal continued, before listing the names of his Jewish friends. “We used to spend a lot of time with them, sharing meals and sad and happy occasions.”
There are more than 150 Jewish heritage sites around the province of Dhi Qar, says Abdulamir al-Hamdani, an Iraqi archaeologist who is currently a visiting researcher at the State University of New York in the US. “There are houses, markets, motels and cultural and religious centres, many of which were built in the early 19th century. Some of them are decorated with the star of David, which indicates their original ownership.”
A man called Jacob Cohen was apparently the last Jew to leave Nasiriyah. In the early 1970s he moved to Basra and was eventually buried there. Another retiree, Haj Salem al-Tuwaili, 80, remembers Cohen, whose nickname was Abu Meer, and says he left behind property where he used to sell and buy wool as well as another building where local goldsmiths used to prepare materials for cleaning gold.
Cohen’s departure was preceded by many others. After the end of World War II in Europe, the lives of local Jews were under pressure thanks to ongoing conflicts between other Arab states in the Middle East and the new state of Israel. A fledgling Israel also became a draw card for Iraq’s Jews, thousands of whom left behind businesses and real estate in order to move there.
“My father worked with a Jewish goldsmith, Khadouri Haron, and learned the trade from him,” recalls Ihsan al-Faraj, a young, local artist. “We were one society,” he says. “But Haron left the city and sold all of his property and liquidated his business.”
Although modern history indicates that conditions were made very difficult for Iraqi Jews in the country after the establishment of the independent state of Israel in 1948, al-Tuwaili says that, as far as he knows, the Jews of Dhi Qar left voluntarily after 1948. There was no pressure from their neighbours; it was only political events at the time that caused them to leave.
Out of around 140,000 or so Iraqi Jews, by the early 1950s, only an estimated 15,000 were left behind. These numbers dwindled even further over the next decades and in 2003, there were less than 100 Iraqi Jews left in the country.
“When they left, the Jews often gave their property to their friends in the city,” al-Tuwaili suggests. “Often they used a kind of mortgage system, selling their property for a certain price, on the condition that the sellers can buy the real estate back when they return.”
Recently this has been a new cause for consternation in Dhi Qar. Iraqi Jews have petitioned both the Iraqi and the Israeli governments for their property to be returned or for compensation.
“At the time the political trend was to confiscate property belonging to Iraqi Jews as a way of protesting the Israeli confiscation of Palestinian land,” explains Alaa Jassim Mohammed, director of the department for property registration in the Saoub al-Jazeera district. “This policy continued with successive governments right up until Saddam Hussein’s regime ended in 2003.”
Iraqi Jews were prevented from taking much of their property with them and were also deprived of their citizenship.
“The government confiscated most of the Jewish property in Nasiriyah except for that in the Shatra district, which was sold by Iraqi Jews after they emigrated. They were able to do this because they said they were Christians,” Mohammed notes.
This century Mohammed says there is no official mention of Jewish property in the files: “The selling and buying that did take place tended to be concluded on a personal basis, between local residents, who didn’t register the transactions officially. This was also because official boundaries of the different districts were not yet marked.”
The issue of Jewish property remains controversial. “The Jews of Iraq know very well they won’t be getting any compensation for what they have lost,” one of Jacob Cohen’s descendants, Emil Cohen, told the Asharq Al Awsat newspaper. “This is just a political issue – nothing more, nothing less.”
The lack of official documentation obviously makes things more complicated. But it is true that the Jews of Dhi Qar left behind a lot of property, confirms local historian Hassan Ali Khalaf, who has written nine books about the history of the province. This includes large orchards, huge commercial markets and a lot of valuables.
“But it would be extremely difficult to make a full list of this property as the Jews who left gave a lot of the property away, donating it to friends and lovers,” Khalaf says. “Successive governments also seized more parts of these properties and there are also some well known local figures that control those properties.”
Khalaf said he couldn’t name any names regarding the latter because, as he put it, “I would pay a high price”.
Despite all of this, older locals like Abu Jamar still remember their Jewish friends fondly. At one stage, Iraqi Jews were Arab first and Jewish second, and formed an important part of local society. When the pensioners are no longer around, then it will only be the various buildings, marked with stars of David and other distinctive signs, who attest to their former owners’ presence. The rest of the province has all but forgotten about their former neighbours, who once provided the essence of the city’s economic life.