print
memri
August 26, 2003 No.
146

The New Iraqi Press and the Jews

The demise of Saddam Hussein's regime and the control it exerted over the media has unleashed an outburst of feelings of freedom reflected in a large number of dailies and weeklies which, for the first time in Iraq's modern history, are free, uncensored, and often highly imaginative. While some of the dailies are associated with the many burgeoning political parties and political movements which themselves are unprecedented in terms of their number and orientations, there are other dailies and weeklies which introduce themselves as politically independent. Unaccustomed to journalistic freedom, many publications are reined only by the limits of the imagination of their correspondents.

Some of the news and commentaries regarding Israel in general, and former Iraqi Jews in particular, are shaped by imagination gone wild. For the vast majority of Iraqis, however, this free press is a change for the better after almost thirty years of sycophantic deification of Saddam Hussein in government-controlled media. The Iraqis were told by Paul Bremer, the Civil Administrator of Iraq, that they can print anything as long as it doesn't incite violence.[1]

Much, but not all, of the material in this report is drawn from the daily dispatches from MEMRI'S Baghdad office which cover news and editorials from different Iraqi newspapers.

Former Iraqi Jews

Approximately 150,000 Jews lived in Iraq through the first half of the 20th century. The creation of Israel in 1948 resulted in the promulgation of a number of pieces of legislation by the Iraqi parliament restricting the travel, employment, and commercial activities of the Jewish community, and provoked many of them to search for a safe haven. In 1950, the Iraqi government introduced a new law allowing Iraqi Jews to relinquish their citizenship and leave the country. Given the hardships created for the Jews at the time the measure was tantamount to expulsion. As many as 120,000 left the country and were able to board charter flights to Israel. In the intervening half century, many others left either legally or illegally, for Europe, Canada, the U.S., or Israel. Today, only about 40 Jews remain in Iraq - most of them elderly residents of Baghdad. There remains one synagogue in the Battaween district of Baghdad, a district which a mere six decades ago was populated mainly by Jews.

More than half a century after the immigration of Iraqi Jews, mainly to Israel, Arab studies continue to ignore the reasons that these people left what had been their homeland for almost 3,000 years. A recent study on the Jewish communities in the Arab world, published by the Jenin Center for Strategic Studies, attributes the break-up of the Arab Jewish communities to "the Zionist propaganda and its criminal practices… and not because of government or popular pressures."[2]

The condition of the few Iraqi Jews who have remained in Baghdad was discussed by Abd Al-Latif Al-Sa'doon in the London-based Saudi-owned daily Al-Hayat. Shortly after the fall of Saddam, Al-Sa'doon who by his surname is an Iraqi, sought to discuss the situation of the Iraqi Jews with someone from the Jewish community in Baghdad.

As Al-Sa'doon narrates his experience: After knocking gently on the community building's steel door, the reporter was greeted by an Iraqi watchman who told him, "I cannot talk to you on the street. Walls here have ears." The watchman, Omran Rustam Mussa, 49, a third generation watchman at the center, then brought the reporter inside and firmly closed the door behind. The guard told the reporter that the number of Jews during Saddam's reign had steadily declined as the young had left and only a few old individuals remained.

"Reporter: Was pressure exerted on them [Jews]?

Watchman: Psychological pressures. During the Saddam regime, an intelligence officer was stationed beside the acting rabbi.

Reporter: And the rabbi?

Watchman: After the death of Rabbi Sasson Khadouri in 1975, the position of an acting rabbi was created. The current acting rabbi is Naji Diwaniyah (abu Sa'ad). You can meet him at the Jewish synagogue in Battaween. Here, the acting rabbi is assisted by a representative of the Ministry of Awqaf [responsible for real estate bequeathed for religious charity] and the intelligence officer. They manage Jewish property left behind, which includes homes and stores."

After many attempts to speak to the acting Rabbi at Battaween Synagogue, the reporter was finally able to have the following exchange with another watchman:

"Reporter: Do people attend services on the Sabbath?

Watchman: I don't know.

Reporter: How many Jews are in Baghdad?

Watchman: I don't know.

Reporter: Is there anyone who could talk to us?

Watchman: No.

Reporter: Why are you afraid?

Watchman: We have inherited the fear."[3]

The watchman slammed the door. As the reporter turned to leave, he was approached by an old man who had been observing the conversation with the watchman. The old man told him, "The Jews here are afraid. They are miserable." The old man, a tailor by profession, said that Jews had told him that some members of the Jewish community who had left were planning to return for a visit and to liquidate their assets.

The reporter finds this information credible given news reports from Tel-Aviv about travel agencies arranging for Iraqi Jews to visit Iraq on foreign passports.[4]

A similar story about Iraqi Jews returning to Iraq to claim their property was carried in another London daily, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. The paper stated that some of these properties remain registered in the names of their original owners and that their current occupants allegedly pay rent at market rates to an administrator at the Jewish community center. [5]

Jewish Themes in Current Iraqi Press

What follows is an illustration of recent Iraqi press news stories about Jews. There are three common themes to all them: (A) the return of Iraqi Jews to reclaim their property; (B) Jews purchasing everything in Iraq; and (C) relations between Iraq and Israel.

A: Iraqi Jews are Coming Back

The independent Iraqi daily Al-Yawm Al-Aakher reported from Northern Iraq that Mossad agents are negotiating with Kurdish officials for the return of Jews that Israel alleges were forced out of Iraq in the 1950s. The newspaper quotes these Kurdish sources as placing the number of Kurdish Jews who were expelled at 150,000; however, as the newspaper notes, according to official statistics, there were only 5,000 Jews in the northern region. "It is to be pointed out," the paper concludes, that "the frantic campaign to resettle the Jews [in Iraq] has aroused the annoyance of Iraqis, particularly the clerics."[6]

Under a large heading "Tel-Aviv Jews in Baghdad Soon," Al-Khaled, which is listed as an independent political weekly, wrote that an Iraqi construction company was obliged to hold a press conference to deny that it was constructing a building for the Israeli Mossad.[7]

B: Jews Are Buying Everything

Buying old factories: The Baghdad daily Al-‘Adala (organ of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution headed by Ayatollah Baqir Al-Hakim) writes: "A number of Jews are attempting to purchase factories in Baghdad. An eyewitness who works in Al-Jamila industrial park told our correspondent that he saw two people, who were identified by an Iraqi as Jews, with a real estate broker walking towards a complex of closed factories in the area. The eyewitness said that after approaching them he found out that they wanted to purchase a number of factories for an unbelievable price, and that the broker's fee was 20 billion dinars" (about $15 million at the recent rates of exchange).[8]

On the same day, the daily Dar Al-Salam (organ of the Iraqi Islamic Party) published a report that the "association of clerics in Mosul issued a Fatwa [religious edict] prohibiting the sale of real estate to non-Iraqis… Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Nu'ma said that home and land sold to non-Iraqis may end up in the hands of Jews."[9]

Restoring Property to Jews: The Federation of Iraqi Lawyers issued a statement that the restoration of the Jewish properties falls under the jurisdiction of the occupation authorities but added that the population census of 1957, the last conducted in Iraq, applies to Jews. The implication is that Jews who were included in that census are considered Iraqis even if their citizenship was abrogated by the Iraqi government for failure of these citizens to return to their country within a period of three months - a condition specified in the exit permit of Iraqi Jews who were allowed to leave the country beginning in the 1970s.[10]

C: Relations between Iraq and Israel

Israiliyyat (Israel Affairs)

The daily Al-Iraq Al-Jadeed ("the new Iraq, independent") publishes stories about Israel under a special column called "Israiliyyat." One article alleges that the American administration has imposed (unspecified) restrictions on foreign companies in Iraq, but such restrictions appear not to apply to Israeli companies operating in partnership with Jordanian companies.

In another article, the paper quotes a spokesman for the Iraqi foreign ministry saying that he did not exclude the possibility of diplomatic relations between Iraq and Israel, although the matter will be left to the new government.[11] The same daily features a large and bold headline: "Colin Powell acknowledges what was published in [Al-Iraq Al-Jadeed] about recognition of the Zionist entity." [12] A few days earlier the daily reported on a meeting between Adnan Al-Pachachi, a former minister of foreign affairs and a current member of the Iraqi Governing Council, with "the Zionist Shimon Peres." The paper stated that the meeting was intended for Al-Pachachi "to receive directions and instructions for the benefit of the Zionist Jews to enter Iraq and invade it politically and economically."[13]

Talabani's Comments on Relations with Israel

Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Kurdistan National Union who was visiting Syria, was quoted as saying: "If these relations [with Israel] really existed we would not mind talking about them because, frankly, we do not wish to be more ‘Palestinian' than the Palestinians themselves. Arab-Israeli relations exist and are being strengthened all the time. The flag of Israel is flying not in Kurdistan but in the heart of the capital of the largest Arab country." Talabani pointedly added: "If Kurdish Jews want to return to their villages and lands which they left voluntarily tens of years ago, they are free to do so. There will be no double standards before the law in Kurdistan."[14]

'The Croaking of Frogs and the Cawing of Ravens'

The independent daily Al Yawm Al-Aakher quotes "the Jewish daily Yedi'ot Aharonot" that Israel and Jordan have been negotiating on building two oil pipelines between Kirkuk and Haifa across Jordanian territory and that Israeli companies will participate in the reconstruction of Iraq under the cover of Egyptian and Jordanian companies." The Iraqi newspaper reacts by saying "…Political and propaganda circles - just like croaking frogs - have started to propagate such biased reports… hoping to get at least one drop of oil from Kirkuk refineries. Behold little frogs!!! The decision to build pipelines across other countries is a matter of sovereignty; such decision is the prerogative of the sons of Iraq." The newspaper then named Hosni Mubarak, King Abdallah, and Benjamin Netanyahu and said, "We don't blame the last since he is a Jew, but we blame those who lost their Arab identity… Isn't it enough for you what happened? Where do I start and where do I end [in compiling complaints about the two Arab leaders]…?"[15]

Beware of Israeli Goods

Al-Sa'ah (a bi-weekly political newspaper) reported on July 5 that the Israeli government had ordered modification of its exports laws to flood Iraqi markets with Israeli goods. The paper urged Iraqis to carefully check Taiwanese or Chinese made appliances for hidden Stars of David.

"The Jews are Coming but the Politicians are Sleeping," is the subject of an editorial in the daily Al-Rassed (independent, issued twice weekly) which touches on all three themes listed above. Addressing rumors about the Jews returning to Iraq, the editorial writes: "The Iraqi society is focusing on the attempt by the Jews to purchase real estate like hotels and residential properties in the capital after Iraq has become free by virtue of the liberation granted us by the occupation forces." The most recent news is the granting of an $83 million contract to Israel to supply the allied forces currently in Iraq with food. The "Zionist" minister of agriculture declared that the contract "has saved the Israeli agriculture from its problems."

Turning to another topic, the editorial says: "It is no secret that Iraqi oil is reaching Israel whether through a direct pipeline or through 'honest' merchants who still hang the picture of Saddam Hussein and broadcast songs that talk about [Saddam's] heroism. The strange thing about the subject is that the Iraqi politicians and their 150 political parties have maintained silence" on this matter. [16]

Visit of Iraqi Academics to Tel-Aviv

Under the heading "strictly confidential," the daily Al-Da'wa (the organ of the Islamic Da'wa [missionary] party) reports that Iraqi academics, including university professors and politicians, have visited Tel-Aviv. "Some of these have received fellowships at Beersheba University in occupied Palestine and at Chaim Weizmann Institute." The paper also relates the story of a well-known Iraqi personality (no name given) being enthusiastically received by a flower-carrying crowd of 4,000 people, including 150 university professors. The paper concludes by saying that "it would appear that [Anwar] Sadat has returned again."[17]

The Establishment of a Free Trade Zone between Iraq, Turkey and Israel

Iraqis close to the representative of the U.S. Treasury in Baghdad maintain that a free trade zone between Iraq, Turkey, and Israel will be established in two years. Meetings have been held in Amman, Jordan involving the representatives of the three countries. Hameed Shuker, head of the free trade zones in Iraq, said recently that a meeting with private companies from Iraq, Turkey, Israel, and other countries in the region is planned for September.

The Governor of Iraq's central bank, Faleh Daoud Salman has said the U.S. government will support the creation of a free trade zone between Iraq, Turkey and the "Zionist entity." This will be accomplished in two steps - the first stage would be to link the free trade zone through a preferential trade agreement with the U.S. In the second stage the U.S. will spend $5-8 billion to achieve the best intelligence in countries which may wish to join the agreement.

Qatar's Foreign Minister Retires and Serves as a Weapons Dealer for Israel

The independent Al-Iraq Al-Jadeed writes about "a new scandal involving the Qatari foreign minister Hamad bin Jasim Jaber Aal-Thani [who] upon a special request from the Israeli prime minister (Sharon) and war minister (Benyamin Ben Eliezer) [sic][18] is acting as a weapon dealer to sell damaged Israel weapons to Arab countries." He is supposed to be collecting $1 million a month for his efforts. Elsewhere, the paper says that the foreign minister will receive 20 percent commission on transactions to be worth $1.5 billion. Finally, the paper says that "the deputy minister of war" visited the Qatari TV station Al-Jazeera and met with its executive director Jasim Al-Ali. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss "future plans to disseminate conflict and discord among the peoples of the Arab nation…"[19]

The Recognition of Israel by Iraq

The politically independent weekly Al-Nahar conducted what is an obviously non-scientific survey among Iraqis regarding the recognition of Israel by Iraq. With the exception of one man who responded "on my dead body," most other respondents seem to think that they are too preoccupied with their problems to worry about the recognition of Israel. Some of them indicated that Iraq has made many sacrifices in the Arab-Israeli wars and it is time to look after Iraq's own interests. [20]

Conclusion

The proliferation of Iraqi press in the post-Saddam era has intensified hitherto unknown competition between journalists for readership and eventually for advertisement revenues. Jewish affairs are topical partly because the Jews have played a pivotal role in the modern history of Iraq, and partly perhaps of a genuine fear that the Iraqi Jews may really come back and reclaim lost properties.

* Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst of MEMRI's Middle East Economic Studies Program.

Endnotes:

[1] Coalition Provisional Authority, Press Release No. 22 of July 21, 2003 (Closure of Al-Mustaqila Newspaper)

[2] Quoted in Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), May 3, 2003. On the other hand, one of Iraq’s leading commentators in exile, Khalid Kishtainy, has devoted a number of articles to the history of the Iraqi Jews and their indelible impact on the Iraqi economy and society. His articles were published in the London-based daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. These articles sparked a debate in the London Arabic media on the contribution of Iraqi Jewry to Iraq's history and the circumstances that led to their evacuation. MEMRI will publish soon a study of this debate.

[3] The Saudi daily Al-Riyadh said that Saddam "has spread the disease of fear" among the Iraqis (Al-Riyadh, July 27, 2003).

[4] Al-Hayat (London), May 31, 2003.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 8, 2003.

[6] Al-Yawm Al-Aakher, July 7, 2003.

[7] Al-Khaled, July 11, 2003.

[8] Al-Adala, July 10, 2003.

[9] Dar Al-Salam, July 10, 2003.

[10] Al-Shari’a, July 12, 2003.

[11] Al-Iraq Al-Jadeed, July 7, 2003.

[12] Al-Iraq Al-Jadeed, July 28, 2003.

[13] Al-Iraq Al-Jadeed, July 21, 2003.

[14] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, July 9, 2003.

[15] Al-Yawm Al-Aakher, July 14, 2003.

[16] Al-Rassed, July 17, 2003.

[17] Al-Da’wa, July 12, 2003.

[18] Ben Eliezer is a member of the Knesset, not a "minister of war.”

[19] Al-Iraq Al-Jadeed, August 18, 2003.

[20] Al-Nahar, August 1, 2003.