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Baghdadi Jewish networks

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Baghdadi Jewish networks foto: mbgrigby, via flickr.com

Documents of Baghdadi Jews, living in two rapidly changing societies during the first half of the 20th Century, can turn up in the most unexpected places.

During the early years of the Iraqi State, roughly between 1920 and 1950, the Jewish community of Baghdad consisted of roughly 60.000 to 80.000 people. The community was integrated in most areas of social, economic, and political life. Due to this high level of ‘integration’, a lot of academic research has focused on the ‘Arabization’ of the Baghdadi Jews during this period. Specifically, their adoption of Arabic as their primary written language (opposed to Hebrew) and their participation in the social and intellectual construction of the nascent Iraqi State has been the focus of much work. However, academic research on connections these Jews from Baghdad had with other Jewish communities is scarce.

Lacking correspondence

Jewish humanitarian organisations like the Alliance Israelite Universelle (France), the Anglo-Jewish Association (England), and Joint Distribution Committee (USA) helped the Jewish community in Baghdad establish modern secular schools and hospitals during the first half of the 20th century. They provided European style curriculums and sent Western trained teachers, doctors, nurses, and other experts to help the community develop and modernize. However, the archives of these organizations lack correspondence of Baghdadi Jews discussing local nationalism, colonialism and Zionism.

Furthermore, most of the personal writings of the Jewish community have been lost. This is due in part to the poor quality of paper during this period, but also in large part because of the political turmoil of the 1940s. Luckily, the Jews who left Baghdad in the 19th Century for political and economic reasons, establishing satellite communities in India and the Far East, had greater possibilities in maintaining their correspondence. Some of these letters and writings are preserved today in the Far East and India. Other correspondences were transferred to various archives in Israel, where the majority of Iraqi Jews settled after their exodus from Iraq between 1949-1951.

Jewish correspondence

For example, in Jerusalem archival copies of specific Jewish journals from Baghdadis in India and Shanghai can be found. These journals contain letters to editor from both Baghdad and in the Satellite communities, attesting to their widespread readership. Free of the Iraqi constraints on censorship, these journals provided a space to discuss questions of Zionism and provided regular columns about Jewish life in Baghdad from anonymous correspondents. 

In Hong Kong one can find letters that English residents of Baghdad smuggled out of the city for their Jewish friends and colleagues during the 1930s, when all letters sent by Jews fell under the government censures. These letters tell a story of Jews struggling with the idea of a radical Iraqi government while still being hopeful that the situation would improve and that Jewish life in Iraq would continue into the next millennium. These letters also demonstrate the close ties that Baghdadi Jews maintained with each other even decades after family members had left Baghdad. Finally they show significantly more openness to Zionism and resettlement in Palestine than Arab letters or public documents suggest.

In Singapore one can speak with descendants of the original Baghdadi community which settled there in the 19th Century, they will attest to the fact that Baghdad maintained very strong ties with the Far East. Baghdadi businessmen were importing brides from Baghdad well into the 1930s. Furthermore, Baghdadis in Singapore were still speaking the Judeo-Baghdadi dialect up until World War II. And in general there was a constant flow of visitors between each of the communities who perceived themselves as one group grounded in a common culture and tradition, but not bound by concerns of nationalism or language.

Unexpected places

The Jews in Baghdad were very engaged in two rapidly changing societies during the first half of the 20th Century: that of the Arab World and that of the transnational Jewish World. As questions of Arab Nationalism and Zionism began to come in direct conflict with each other, the majority of Baghdadi Jews were intellectually and emotionally torn, associating themselves with both groups and their respective cultures. Amazingly, the documents that tell this story are not in the Middle East, but in Asia. This demonstrates once again that interesting archives can turn up in the most unexpected places.

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