Why did 300 Iraqis call for peace with Israel?

An Iraqi man burns Israeli and American flags as Iraqi women take part in a protest against Israel's attacks on civilians in Lebanon on July 31, 2006 in the Sadr Shiite city in Baghdad, Iraq. (Photo by Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images)

We’re curious…

“We demand that Iraq join the Abraham Accords… We call for full diplomatic relations with Israel. We are an assembly of Sunnis and Shiites… We commit ourselves to an awakening of peace.”

Those were the words — or were apparently the words — of Iraqi tribal leader Wisam Al-Hardan in a Wall Street Journal op-ed published last month. The day the op-ed appeared, Al-Hardan reportedly delivered the same message at a conference held in the Kurdish capital of Erbil in which 300 Iraqis publicly called for the normalization of ties with Israel.

But the next day, faced with arrest warrants and death threats from Iranian-backed militias, Al-Hardan retracted both his speech at the conference and the op-ed, claiming he did not know the content of either the speech or article. Other Iraqis who participated in the conference also recanted their remarks in the wake of the backlash.

So, what should we make of this entire story? Ultimately, is this story encouraging, a sign of growing interest among Iraqis in normalization with Israel? Or, is this episode ultimately discouraging, showing that Iraq is nowhere near ready to make peace with the Jewish state? How did the Jewish world respond to the Iraqis’ calls for peace with Israel?

Reactions from the Jewish world

Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett said on Twitter, “Israel extends its hand back in peace,” further noting, “This is a call that comes from below and not from above, from the people and not from the government, and the recognition of the historical injustice done to the Jews of Iraq is especially important.”

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid expressed a similar sentiment, saying, “Since the day this government took office, our goal has been to expand the Abraham Accords. The event in Iraq inspires hope for places we have not thought of before,” adding that “whenever someone reaches out to us, we will do everything to reach back.”

How representative was this event of the attitudes of the Iraqi public? Should we interpret this as a sign that Iraq could soon join the Abraham Accords, or were these participants on the fringes of Iraqi society?

According to Joseph Braude, the founder and chief executive of the Center for Peace Communications, which sponsored the conference, the Iraqis’ call for normalization with Israel represents a broader trend. Braude told NBC News that millions of Iraqis want “civil engagement and partnership with Israelis,” but are prevented from saying this openly.

“It’s not new for Tehran’s proxies to try to terrorize Iraqi dissenters into silence,” Braude explained. “What is new is that people for the first time are coming together publicly to call for peace.”

At the same time, Ronen Zeidel, an Iraq specialist at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, based in Tel Aviv, told The Media Line that the event was not indicative of Iraqi public opinion.

Zeidel underscored that, “as long as you have Iranian and pro-Iranian hegemony in Iraqi politics and as long as Iraq is not stable,” normalization between Iraq and the Jewish state “is very far away.”

Meanwhile, in a Foreign Policy op-ed, Dennis Ross, former senior U.S. diplomat and currently distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argued that the conference was a reminder of two different potential “pathways” for the Middle East. 

“One [pathway] is embodied in the Abraham Accords and offers…a future where lives are bettered and people live securely in peace,” Ross wrote. “The other pathway…perpetuates the past and ensures a future only of conflict, despair and hopelessness. The participants of the Erbil conference have chosen the first path.”

David Dangoor, a businessman and philanthropist who grew up in Iraq, offered a more personal angle on this story. “In the Iraq where I was raised, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Sunnis or Shi’ites worked, learned, sang and danced together,” Dangoor wrote. “We lived side by side in peace and harmony.”

Dangoor added that Iraq’s Jews played prominent roles in the arts, government and economics and “were an inseparable part of the country… Unfortunately, this all ended in the 20th century with pogroms, mass hangings and expulsion, but the Iraqi Jews still hold fond memories from our past. Above all, we remember the people, many of whom sought and maintained good relations with their Jewish neighbors.”

Dangoor cited Iraqi engagement with the Israeli Foreign Ministry Facebook page to back up his claim of the enduring connections shared by Iraqis and Jews. He concluded that “there is a growing interest in Iraq in putting the past aside and having peaceful and normal relations with the Jewish state.”

History of the Jewish community in Iraq

At its peak, leading up to World War I, the Jewish community accounted for one-third of the total population of Baghdad, Iraq’s capital. However, deteriorating conditions for the Jewish community and increasing antisemitism, particularly with the rise of the Zionist movement and the founding of the Jewish state, forced practically the entire Iraqi community to emigrate. Today, only a handful of Jews remain in Iraq.

Let’s start from the beginning: The Jewish presence in Iraq goes all the way back to ancient Israel. In 722 B.C.E., when the Assyrians defeated the northern tribes of Israel, they forced many of the tribes to relocate to other parts of their empire, including what is now known as Iraq. Then, in 586 B.C.E., the Babylonians conquered the southern tribes, and they too relocated a large part of the population to the region. 

In the centuries that followed, Babylonia flourished into a vibrant center of Jewish life and culture, the center of Diaspora Judaism. Two major Jewish academies, called Sura and Pumbeditha, were founded there and regularly attracted thousands of Jews for learning. When the great Amoraic sage, Rav Ashi, a leader of the community, became the new president (rosh metibta) of the academy in Sura, he began compiling what would come to be known as the Babylonian Talmud, which was developed in the 5th and 6th centuries. 

For the next five centuries, the Talmud was studied and expounded on in the academies (until they closed in the middle of the 11th century). The heads of the academies, later referred to as Geonim, were considered the highest authorities on religious matters in the Jewish world, and their opinions were sought by Jews around the world. By the 12th century, Iraq was home to 40,000 Jews, 28 synagogues and 10 yeshivot (academies).

During Ottoman rule (1534 – 1917), tolerance toward Jews depended on local rulers, but “the Iraqi Jews, in general, lived under a tolerant regime” and “enjoyed relative freedom,” according to Encyclopaedia Judaica.

The community was allowed to administer their own schools, and grew more involved in commerce and politics. In 1849, the Iraqi Jewish community appointed its first chief rabbi, Ezra Dangoor who was assisted by a lay council and religious court.

Jews played an important role in the founding of Iraq as a modern state in 1932. However, following the end of the British mandate that year, the situation of the Iraqi Jewish community deteriorated, and the community faced horrible persecution, particularly with the rise of the Zionist movement.

In June 1941, seven years prior to the re-establishment of the Jewish state, and following the collapse of a pro-Nazi regime in Iraq, local Arabs murdered 175 Jews and wounded almost 1,000, plus destroyed 1,000 Jewish houses. This became known as the Farhud pogrom (“Farhud” is an Arabic term meaning “pogrom” or “violent dispossession”). 

Historian Martin Gilbert explained the context of the Farhud this way: “Even with the defeat of the Nazis their propaganda continued to have its effect throughout the Muslim world, and antisemitic cartoons and accusations, once the particular specialty of European prejudice, now joined with existing Muslim attitudes to reinforce anti-Jewish feelings.”

With the U.N.’s passage of the Partition Plan in 1947, and as a result of Israel achieving statehood in 1948, rioting and violence against the Jews of Iraq increased, and an Iraqi law, which remains in effect today, made Zionism a capital crime.

Between 1950 and 1951, more than 100,000 Iraqi Jews were airlifted to Israel in Operations Ezra and Nehemiah. By this point, almost the entire Jewish community were forced to leave Iraq.

As for the relationship between Iraq and the Jewish state, the two countries have officially been at war with Israel since 1948 when Iraq joined other Arab states in fighting against the newly-declared Jewish state. Iraqi forces also fought against Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War

In 2019, Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. Fareed Yasseen surprised many when he said that there are “objective reasons” for normalization between Iraq and Israel, “including the presence of a significant Iraqi community in Israel.” However, Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said he was “inappropriately quoted” by the media, adding that Iraq “rejects Israeli invasion and the rape of Arab land” and that it stands by its “principle of boycott.”

The bottom line

The Jewish community once made up one-third of the population of Baghdad; today, only a handful of Jews remain in Iraq. We cannot change the past, including the horrible persecution the Jewish community endured in Iraq. It definitely does not seem likely that the Jewish community will return to Baghdad any time soon. 

However, the conference that took place in Erbil provides some hope that Israel and Iraq could one day have the friendship that Jews and Muslims once had in Iraq. As the op-ed attributed to Al-Hardan states, “Our guiding light is the memory of a more honorable past…a country that, at its finer moments, witnessed a spirit of partnership across ethnic and sectarian lines.” Let’s hope that those memories help Iraq and Israel move forward toward a brighter future.

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