We saw Fiona Murphy’s new film, “Remember Baghdad” at the Jewish Film Festival last night, sitting with a friend who left Baghdad in 1970 and who knew most of the people (living in England and Israel) interviewed in the film. It’s a movie about Jewish Baghdad, a Baghdad that no longer exists today.
What’s the thing that would surprise most people today? It’s that before the creation of the State of Israel, Baghdad, capital of Iraq, was approximately 50% Jewish, and that Baghdad’s commerce was largely run by Jewish enterprises.
The Baghdad Jewish community was, of course, ancient – after all, this is where the exiles were taken after the destruction of the first temple in the 6th century BCE, and current day Iraq is where the Babylonian Talmud was written some centuries later.
For a long time, Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire. It was after the collapse of that empire that the British took virtual control around 1920 and held control, sometime through an English appointed royal dynasty until the monarchy was overturned in 1958 and the Baath party (the party of Sadam Hussein) took control in 1968.
During the early decades of this century, many Baghdadi Jews prospered, and many maintained excellent relationships (social and business) with their Muslim neighbors. It was as tension grew in Palestine under the British Mandate in the 1930s that the Jews began to be identified more as “the other” than as “fellow Iraqis”, and riots began as early as 1941. But most Iraqi Jews continued to live a pretty good life, until the State of Israel was created, when things began really to deteriorate and most Jews left the city and country, until 1967, when the Israeli victory in the Six Day War constituted the final blow.
The film goes through this history with interesting original footage. It interviews a half dozen or so Iraqi Jews living in the UK or Israel today about their experiences. It shows prosperous Jews, westernized in most respects, having parties, playing tennis, living in nice houses, and fraternizing with their fellow countrymen. Just like in Europe, the early 20th century looked pretty good for Jewish populations. Then there was Hitler (and the Jerusalem mufti) and the creation of the State of Israel, and everything changed, almost everywhere. Some Jews left; some said “this too will pass”. Sound familiar?
“Remember Baghdad” is an important film in that it documents what happened in Iraq, and to the approximately 150,000 Jews who lived there, but live there no longer. It also takes away some of the exotic thoughts Americans and Europeans might have in thinking about Baghdad and Iraq, and makes it a real place. filled with people that look like us and lived like we do. And, again as in Europe, today’s Iraqis hardly remember the days when Jews constituted half of the city. Just like if you go to Berlin, and no one remembers 400,000 Jews there, or almost that many in Warsaw, or Budapest. “What? There used to be Jews here?”, people often ask with surprise. It’s not just that time has passed by, of course. It’s that the history books have been rewritten to write out the Jewish history of theses cities. Why is that? It’s because it’s an inconvenient history, one that does not sit well with today’s nationalistic, populist strains that seem to have strained everyone. No longer is there a multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire, or a multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian empire, or a multi-ethnic eastern Europe. The Jews of 100 years ago were not nationalists for the most part, they were cosmopolitans. And nothing could be worse, or more out of keeping with the times, in so many places, today.
Will the wheel keep turning? And when will we see these days of diversity and tolerance return to those places where they seem so far away?