September 20, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 316

Centenary Celebration For The Creation Of Modern Iraq – The Central Role Of Iraqi Jews

September 20, 2021 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*
Iraq | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 316


On August 23, 2021, Iraq celebrated its centennial. There was little of the pomp and celebration that the occasion would have called for; the country was too heavily weighed down by political turmoil and economic hardships. Still, a few articles in the local newspapers were written celebrating the occasion, and some spent time praising the name of an Iraqi Jew, Heskell Sassoon, as one of the key architects in the creation of modern Iraq after four centuries of Ottoman rule.[1]

Heskell Sassoon

The Jews Welcome The British Army

As the Ottoman Empire begun to crumble toward the end of World War I, the Jews of Baghdad were victimized for supposedly causing the collapse of the government's finances and some moneychangers faced degradation and torture. Not surprisingly, the Jews welcomed the British army when it entered Baghdad victoriously in 1917. Indeed, there is evidence that shortly after the British military government was established, the Jews of Baghdad, who constituted about 40 percent of the capital's population, sent an appeal to the military governor of Iraq, General Stanley Maude, signed by 56 leading personalities of the community, expressing their objection to the creation of an Arab national government and requesting to be granted the status of British subjects.[2]

The request was ignored, but Jews came to be important in the colonial government. With the language skills they had acquired at the Jewish schools and with what today would be termed a global outlook, Jews in large numbers were recruited by the British military government to fill many positions in the new administration. Other Jews used their trading skills and overseas contacts to import food supplies to meet the needs of the British army.

The Transition To National Government

In 1920 a deadly revolt erupted in central and southern Iraq against the British rule which the British tried to suppress by force. The revolt claimed the lives of 6,000 Iraqi and 600 British soldiers (primarily Indians with their British officers.). After months of fighting, the key leaders of the revolt decided to seek an end to the violence. They selected a Jew by the name of Menashe Eliahu Ezra Khalaschi who, together with Sheikh Salman Al-'Abtan, met with the British commanding officer in the city Kufa, and a ceasefire was achieved. [3]

With the revolt coming to an end, Great Britain decided to relinquish some of the governing powers to a national government, although under British tutelage. A provisional government was established in 1920 with Abdul Rahman Al-Naqib as prime minister presiding over a government comprising six additional ministers, including Heskel Sassoon as minister of finance. Gertrude Bell, who was the Oriental Adviser to the British military government, who is considered by some to be the person most responsible for the creation of modern Iraq, was a big booster of Sassoon. She would later write that he was the most competent of the Iraqi ministers.[4]

Haskell Sassoon was born in Baghdad in 1860 to a distinguished and wealthy Iraqi Jewish family. The son of a leading rabbi, he attended the Alliance School, and continued his education at the imperial school in Constantinople and then with law studies at St. Theresa College in Vienna. He returned to Baghdad after spending time in Berlin and London and, in 1908, he was designated as a member in the first Ottoman parliament where, incidentally, he befriended Prince Faisal, who was to become king of Iraq.[5]

Al-Naqib readily welcomed Bell's recommendation to appoint Heskell Sassoon as minister of finance, but Bell had difficulty persuading him to add a Shi'ite minister to the government. Throughout most of the history of Iraq under Muslim rule, from the advent of Islam in the seventh century to invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003, the rulers of Iraq were primarily Sunni Muslims. The Shi'a branch of Islam has been viewed by the Sunnis, particularly those in Saudi Arabia, as rawafedh, meaning apostate. Gertrude Bell, herself believed that the Shi'as "were almost all subjects of Persia, and not eligible for office in a Metropolitan government," [6] but she believed it was important for national unity to include them. Al-Naqib reluctantly agreed to appoint a Shi'ite as minister of education. The new government, also known as the Provisional Council of State, reported to the British administration.

Cairo Peace Conference

With pockets of insurgency still raging, it was considered in the best interest of Iraq and, perhaps more importantly, of Britain, to select an Arab, instead of the British High Commissioner, to whom the government would report. A peace conference to discuss the issues of the Middle East, primarily the status of Iraq, was convened in Cairo on March 12, 1921, by Winston Churchill, the new Secretary of State for the Colonies. The conference, which lasted for ten days, was attended by a few senior British officials and an Iraqi delegation comprising and two Iraqis – Defense Minister Ja'afar al-Askari and Finance Minister Heskel Sassoon. After deciding that a republican form of government would not work in Iraq, the conference reviewed the credentials and personalities of a few potential candidates for monarch, and, ultimately, selected Prince Faisal, the son of the Prince of Hijaz, as new monarch of Iraq, subject to a pro forma plebiscite of the Iraqi population.

On August 23, 1921, Faisal was coronated as the first king of Iraq. He had a British adviser by the name of Kinahan Corwallis who, 20 years later, as a British ambassador to Iraq, would choose to ignore an appeal to call the British army stationed across the Tigris River to intervene and put an end to the pogrom of the Iraqi Jewish community in Baghdad. [7] Ironically, while King Faisal upon his coronation had no official residence, he chose to accept the invitation of a wealthy Jewish Iraqi businessman, Shaul Sha'shou, and resided at Sha'shou's palace on the Tigris River. In addition, when visiting London, Faisal would be the house guest of another wealthy Iraqi Jew and philanthropist Eliezer Kaddouri.[8]

Sassoon's Accomplishments

Sassoon kept his post as minister of finance under the government established under the new monarchy in 1921 and continued under three subsequent prime ministers through 1925. As minister of finance, Sassoon established the budget procedures and laid down strict rules for revenues and expenditures. His principles became so well known that, even today, if an Iraqi official gets too strict with authorizing expenditures he will be told "la ethazqulha [don't Heskilize it, i.e., don't be too strict]."

Perhaps Sassoon's most significant achievement was his negotiation with the British Petroleum Company. In 1923, the Iraqi government assigned him to negotiate with the British regarding their concessions in the emerging oil industry in Iraq. Sassoon insisted that the oil company pay in gold shillings instead of paper currency. Many of his colleagues in the government could not understand his stubborn approach on this issue since the pound sterling at the time was linked to gold. It was years later when the pound was delinked from gold and began depreciating that the Iraqis came to appreciate Sassoon's position and foresight. It is assumed that it is because of his position on the method of payment that Britain objected to his keeping the post of minister of finance when a new government was formed in 1925.[9]

Later, Sassoon would work closely with another Iraqi Jew, Ibrahim Saleh Al-Kabir, to mint a new Iraqi currency. Al-Kabir, who had held various senior posts in the ministry of finance, including that of director general of the ministry, is another Jew who made significant contributions to Iraqi financial and monetary systems. Among Al-Kabir's accomplishments were the introduction of the dinar as a national currency instead of the Indian rupiah mandated by the British, the creation of the government-owned Rafidain Bank, and the issuance of the first Iraqi government bond in 1944.[10]

During his political career, Sassoon kept away from any subject that dealt with Zionism. He was reported to have told another Jewish member of Iraqi parliament who voted in favor of anti-Zionist resolution: "My non-voting and your voting will not affect the subject because all the remaining members [in parliament] agree. But there is no one [in parliament] who would believe that a Jewish vote against Zionism or Judaism is a vote of conviction rather than a vote of courtesy and favoritism, and this is not appropriate for gentlemen."[11]


Heskell Sassoon passed away in Paris in 1932 while seeking medical treatment, and he was buried there. He was eulogized by many leading Iraqi figures. In fact Iraq's greatest modern poet, Ma'arouf al-Risafi wrote and delivered a lengthy poem in his honor beginning with this moving image: "Ala la taqul qad mata Sassoon, bal qul: taghuru min ifaqi al-makarami qawqabu. [Don't say 'Sasson has died' but, rather, say 'a planet has fallen from the orbit of the honorable']."

Many Iraqis even today remember him as the most famous and most honest Iraqi minister in the history of Iraqi governments.[12] His outstanding gifts to the nation were acknowledged even by Saddam Hussein who took pride in his services to Iraq.[13] Others described as one of the pillars of the Iraqi state.[14]


*Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst Emeritus at MEMRI.


[1] Two articles on the coronation of the first king of Iraq and the role of Heskel Sassoon: Al-Zaman, August 20, 2021, and Al-Zaman, August 23, 2021

[2] Nabil abd al-Amir al-Rubayi, lamahat min Tarikh yehud al-iraq 859BC-1973. 2 Vols. Hilla, Iraq, Dar al=Furat Lethaqafa, 2016. Vol. I, p.155 {Profiles in the history of Jew in Iraq]

[3] M.M. Fikri Jawad Abd, "dawr al-ta'ifa al-yehudiya fi ta'sisi al-dawla al-iraqiya al-haditha year 1921," Kufa University [Role of Jewish community in the establishment of modern Iraqi state]

[4] Gertrude Bell

[5] Short biographies of Heskel Sassoon and Ibrahim al-Kabir can be found in Mir Basri, a'alam alyehud fi aliraq al-hadith (Jewish Figures in Modern Iraq), Jerusalem, Israel, 1983

[6] Georgina Howell, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations, New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006, p. 362

[8] Al-Rubayi, op.cit, p. 163

[9], accessed September 16, 2021.

[10] Al-Kabir has left extensive memoirs which are kept in the Babylonian Museum, Or Yehuda, Israel.

[11] Al Mada supplement, September 28, 2014

[13], accessed September 16, 2021.

[14], accessed September 16, 2021.

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