75th anniversary of Baghdad pogrom to be commemorated in 4 cities


The author of a work on the Nazi-era massacre in Baghdad believed to have precipitated the Jewish exodus from Iraq is commemorating its 75th anniversary with candle lightings in four cities.

Edwin Black, who in 2010 published “The Farhud,” about the June 1-2, 1941 massacre of at least 180 Jews in Baghdad, will convene candle lightings on Tuesday in the morning on Capitol Hill and in the afternoon at the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue in New York.

On Thursday, there will be a candle lighting in London, which has a large Iraqi Jewish community, and then on June 6 at the Knesset in Jerusalem.

The pogrom, set off by the collapse of a popular pro-Nazi government in Baghdad, is seen as a turning point for Iraqi Jews. A series of subsequent decrees and attacks emptied the country of its ancient Jewish community by the early 1970s, with barely 100 Jews remaining.

In each city, 27 candles will be lit for the 27 centuries that Jewish life thrived in what is now Iraq.

Among the groups sponsoring the events are the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, StandWithUs and the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists.

Suicide bomber kills 26, wounds 71 south of Baghdad


A suicide attacker detonated an explosive belt in a park outside Baghdad on Friday, killing 26 people and wounding 71, said the security head in Babel province where the bomb – claimed by Islamic State – went off.

The blast in Iskandariya, a mixed Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim town 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of the capital, happened around 7:15 p.m. (1615 GMT) at the end of an amateur soccer game, said Falah al-Khafaji.

Islamic State militants, who control swathes of territory in Iraq's north and west, were behind the attack, according to Amaq news agency, which is affiliated with the group.

At least 60 people were killed earlier this month in an attack claimed by Islamic State 80 km further south, in Hilla, when an explosives-laden fuel tanker slammed into an Iraqi security checkpoint.

An apparent escalation of large bombings targeting areas outside Islamic State's primary control suggests that Iraqi government forces may be stretched thin after recent gains against the group in the western and northern provinces.

Islamic State claims huge truck bomb attack in Baghdad’s Sadr City


At least 76 people were killed and 212 wounded on Thursday in a blast claimed by Islamic State in Baghdad's Sadr City, police and medical sources said, one of the biggest attacks on the capital since Haider al-Abadi became prime minister a year ago.

“A refrigerator truck packed with explosives blew up inside Jamila market at around 6 a.m. (0300 GMT),” police officer Muhsin al-Saedi said. “Many people were killed and body parts were thrown on top of nearby buildings.”

A statement circulated online by supporters of Islamic State said the blast had targeted what it called a stronghold of the “charlatan army” and Shi'ite Muslim militias.

The market in the Shi'ite neighborhood is one of the biggest in Baghdad selling wholesale food items. A Reuters witness at the site saw fruit and vegetables mixed with shrapnel littering the blood-soaked blast crater.

Smoke rose from charcoaled debris. Rescuers pulling bodies from the rubble stumbled over sheet metal that had formed the walls and roofs of vendors' stands.

People gathering at the scene cried and shouted the names of missing relatives; others cursed the government.

“We hold the government responsible, fully responsible,” witness Ahmed Ali Ahmed said, calling on the authorities to dispatch the army and Shi'ite militias to man checkpoints in the capital.

Abadi took office last summer following the army's collapse in the face of Islamic State's takeover of the northern city of Mosul that left the Baghdad government dependent on militias, many funded and assisted by neighboring Iran, to defend the capital and recapture lost ground.

Security forces and militia groups are fighting Islamic State in Anbar province, the sprawling Sunni heartland in western Iraq. In Baghdad, Abadi has proposed sweeping reforms aimed at reducing corruption and patronage, the biggest changes to the political system since the end of U.S. military occupation.

Car bomb kills 15 people in central Baghdad


A car bomb killed at least 15 people in central Baghdad on Monday, police and medical sources in the Iraqi capital said.

The attack took place on a street with shops and restaurants in the Karrada district, which is home to both Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims as well as other sects and ethnic groups.

Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Islamic State seeks to justify enslaving Yazidi women and girls in Iraq


The Islamic State group said it enslaved families from the minority Yazidi sect after overrunning their villages in northwestern Iraq, in what it praised as the revival of an ancient custom of using women and children as spoils of war.

In an article in its English-language online magazine Dabiq, the group provides what it says is religious justification for the enslavement of defeated “idolators.”

The ancient custom of enslavement had fallen out of use because of deviation from true Islam, but was revived when fighters overran Yazidi villages in Iraq's Sinjar region.

“After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the Shariah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations, after one fifth of the slaves were transferred to the Islamic State's authority to be divided as khums,” it said. Khums is a traditional tax on the spoils of war.

“This large-scale enslavement of mushrik (idolator) families is probably the first since the abandonment of Shariah law,” it said.

Dabiq, distributed in a slickly-produced online format, is described by the group SITE that monitors militant publications as Islamic State's English-language magazine.

The cover shows a picture of St Peter's Basilica in Rome, with an Islamic State black flag superimposed in place of the cross atop its obelisk. Inside it features photos of the group's arsenal of heavy weaponry and what it says is the final letter to his mother from an American journalist the group beheaded.

The article on slavery confirms practices documented by Human Rights Watch, which says Yazidi women and girls were forced to marry Islamic State fighters and shipped out in busloads from Iraq to Syria to be sold off as prizes.

Islamic State practices a harsh form of Sunni Islam and has declared its leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi the ruler of the entire Muslim world. Mainstream Sunni scholars around the world have denounced the group and its interpretation of Islam.

The group has hounded ethnic and religious minorities in northern Iraq since seizing the city of Mosul in June, killing and displacing thousands of Christians, Shi'ite Shabaks and Turkmen who lived for centuries in one of the most diverse parts of the Middle East.

“FIRMLY ESTABLISHED”

U.S. President Barack Obama justified his decision to bomb Islamic State targets in August in part because the group was poised to commit what he called “genocide” against Yazidis, who were trapped at the time on a mountaintop after fleeing an Islamic State assault on their towns and villages.

Yazidis, who follow an ancient religion derived from Zoroastrianism, have faced some of the harshest penalties from Islamic State, which regards them as devil-worshippers.

The Dabiq article said fighters were reviving a practice of the companions of the Prophet Mohammad by enslaving enemies. Enslaving women and forcing them to become wives reduces sin by protecting men from being tempted into adultery, it said.

“One should remember that enslaving the families of the (non-believers) and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah, that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Quran and the narrations of the Prophet,” the article said.

Many of the captives had “willingly” accepted Islam, the group said, “and now race to practice it with evident sincerity after their exit from the darkness of idolatry”. Mothers had not been separated from their young children, it said.

U.S.-led air strikes have halted Islamic State advances in the north of Iraq, allowing Kurdish forces to regain ground. Many of the Yazidis trapped on the mountain they consider a holy site, Mount Sinjar, were eventually able to escape, but their nearby villages are still under militant control.

HORRIFIC CRIMES

On Sunday, Human Rights Watch said Islamic State was holding hundreds of Yazidis captive in both Iraq and Syria and that the group had systematically separated young women and teenage girls from their families, forcing some into marriage with fighters.

Fifteen-year-old Rewshe, one of several Yazidi girls who escaped Islamic State captivity and spoke to Human Rights Watch, said Islamic State fighters transported her with about 200 Yazidi women and girls on a convoy of four buses to Raqqa, their de facto capital in Syria.

An Islamic State commander sold her and her 14-year-old sister to a fighter, who told her with pride that he had paid $1,000 for her, she said. The fighter sold her sister to another fighter, Rewshe said. She escaped through an unlocked door while the man who bought her slept.

“The statements of current and former female detainees raise serious concerns about rape and sexual slavery by Islamic State fighters, though the extent of these abuses remains unclear,” Human Rights Watch said.

“The Islamic State’s litany of horrific crimes against the Yezidis in Iraq only keeps growing,” said Fred Abrahams, special adviser at Human Rights Watch.

Reporting by Isabel Coles; Editing by Peter Graff

Obama expands air strikes against Islamic State


U.S. warplanes carried out five strikes on Islamic State insurgents menacing Iraq's Haditha Dam on Sunday, witnesses and officials said, widening what President Barack Obama called a campaign to curb and ultimately defeat the jihadist movement.

Obama has branded Islamic State an acute threat to the West as well as the Middle East and said that key NATO allies stood ready to back Washington in action against the well-armed sectarian force, which has seized expanses of northern Iraq and eastern Syria and declared a border-blurring religious caliphate.

The leader of a pro-Iraqi government paramilitary force in western Iraq said the air strikes wiped out an Islamic State patrol trying to attack the dam – Iraq's second biggest hydroelectric facility that also provides millions with water.

“They (the air strikes) were very accurate. There was no collateral damage … If Islamic State had gained control of the dam, many areas of Iraq would have been seriously threatened, even (the capital) Baghdad,” Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha told Reuters.

The aerial assault drove Islamic State fighters away from the dam, according to a police intelligence officer in the vast western province of Anbar, a hotbed of Islamist insurgency.

The U.S. military said in a statement that the strikes destroyed four IS Humvees, four IS armed vehicles, two of which were carrying antiaircraft artillery, an IS fighting position, one IS command post and an IS defensive fighting position. All aircraft left the strike areas safely, the Pentagon said.

The strikes were Washington's first reported offensive into Anbar since it started attacks on Islamic State forces in the north of Iraq in August.

Almost three years after U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq and 11 years after their invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, the war on Islamic State is drawing Washington back into the middle of Iraq's power struggles and bloody sectarian strife.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the strikes on the Sunni Muslim insurgents had been carried out at the request of the Shi'ite Muslim-led central government in Baghdad.

“If that dam would fall into (Islamic State's) hands or if that dam would be destroyed, the damage that would cause would be very significant and it would put a significant, additional and big risk into the mix in Iraq,” Hagel told reporters during a trip to Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi.

OBAMA VOWS TO REPEL, DEFEAT ISLAMIC STATE

Obama said on the weekend he would explain to Americans this week his plan to “start going on some offense” against Islamic State. “We are going to be a part of an international coalition, carrying out air strikes in support of work on the ground by Iraqi troops, Kurdish troops, he said in an NBC TV interview.

“We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities. We're going to shrink the territory that they control. And ultimately we're going to defeat 'em.”

The six-month-old battle for control of the Haditha Dam has been a rare case of cooperation between local Sunni tribes and the Shi'ite-led Iraqi military. The Juhayfa tribe in Haditha has a long-standing fight with the Islamic State, which split with its parent organization al Qaeda last year.

Anbar is complicated terrain for the Americans as they seek to root out Islamic State, since Sunnis fighting on behalf of the Baghdad government are the exception to the rule.

The large desert province, bordering Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, has been at war with Baghdad since last December when then-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sent troops to raze an anti-government demonstrators' camp.

That sparked a tribal revolt against Maliki whom Sunnis accused of isolating them with indiscriminate arrests. Islamic State fighters took advantage of the chaos to muscle in and become the dominant force among Sunnis.

The fighting there, which has displaced 430,000 people since January, strengthened Islamic State ahead of its lightning blitz this summer across the north of Iraq, also threatening the semi-autonomous, Western-backed enclave of Kurdistan.

Thriving on Maliki's sectarian-motivated alienation of Sunnis, Islamic State committed wide-scale atrocities against Shi'ites, Christians and other non-Sunnis this summer as the Iraqi army imploded in the face of the insurgents' advance.

Since June, Islamic State has massacred hundreds of soldiers outside of Saddam's hometown, Tikrit, after capturing it, and killed a similar number of Yazidis and other religious minorities outside of Mosul, the north's biggest city.

Obama ordered air strikes in northern Iraq last month as Kurdish-controlled territory fell to the Islamic State and the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan looked in endangered.

Last weekend, U.S. warplanes carried out raids farther south in the province of Saluhuddin to break an Islamic State siege of the Shi'ite Turkmen town of Amerli.

Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Tbilisi, Roberta Rampton and Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Peter Cooney

U.S. considers air strikes, action with Iran to halt Iraq rebels


The United States said it could launch air strikes and act jointly with its arch-enemy Iran to support the Iraqi government, after a rampage by Sunni Islamist insurgents across Iraq that has scrambled alliances in the Middle East.

Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have routed Baghdad's army and seized the north of the country in the past week, threatening to dismember Iraq and unleash all-out sectarian warfare with no regard for national borders.

The fighters have been joined by other armed Sunni groups who oppose what they say is oppression by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite.

Joint action between the United States and regional Shi'ite power Iran to help prop up their mutual ally in Baghdad would be unprecedented since Iran's 1979 revolution, demonstrating the urgency of the alarm raised by the lightning insurgent advance.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the advance an “existential threat” for Iraq. Asked if the United States could cooperate with Tehran against the insurgents, Kerry told Yahoo News: “I wouldn't rule out anything that would be constructive.”

As for air strikes: “They're not the whole answer, but they may well be one of the options that are important,” he said. “When you have people murdering, assassinating in these mass massacres, you have to stop that. And you do what you need to do if you need to try to stop it from the air or otherwise.”

The Pentagon said that while there might be discussions with Iran, there were no plans to coordinate military action with it.

Britain, Washington's ally in the 2003 war that deposed Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, said it had reached out to Iran in recent days. A U.S. official said meetings with Iran could come this week on the sidelines of international nuclear talks.

Iran has longstanding ties to Maliki and other Shi'ite politicians who came to power in U.S.-backed elections.

ISIL seeks a caliphate ruled on mediaeval Sunni Muslim precepts in Iraq and Syria, fighting against both Iraq's Maliki and Syria's Bashar al-Assad, another ally of Iran. It considers Shi'ites heretics deserving death and has boasted of massacring hundreds of Iraqi troops who surrendered to it last week.

Its uprising has been joined by tribal groups and figures from Saddam's era who believe Maliki is hostile to Sunnis.

ISIL fighters and allied Sunni tribesmen overran yet another town on Monday, Saqlawiya west of Baghdad, where they captured six Humvees and two tanks, adding to an arsenal of U.S.-provided armor they have seized from the disintegrating army.

Eyewitnesses said Iraqi army helicopters were hovering over the town to try to provide cover for retreating troops.

“It was a crazy battle and dozens were killed from both sides. It is impossible to reach the town and evacuate the bodies,” said a medical source at a hospital in the nearby city of Falluja, largely held by insurgents since early this year.

Overnight, the fighters captured the mainly ethnic Turkmen city of Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq after heavy fighting on Sunday, solidifying their grip on the north.

“Severe fighting took place, and many people were killed. Shi'ite families have fled to the west and Sunni families have fled to the east,” said a city official.

Tal Afar is a short drive west from Mosul, the north's main city, which ISIL seized last week at the start of its push. Fighters then swept through towns and cities on the Tigris before halting about an hour's drive north of Baghdad.

Iraq's army is holding out in Samarra, a Tigris city that is home to a Shi'ite shrine. A convoy traveling to reinforce the troops there was ambushed late on Sunday by Sunni fighters near the town of Ishaqi. Fighting continued through Monday morning.

An Iraqi army spokesman in Baghdad reported fighting also to the south of Baghdad. He said 56 of the enemy had been killed over the previous 24 hours in various engagements.

OBAMA WEIGHING OPTIONS

President Barack Obama pulled out all U.S. troops in late 2011 and rules out sending them back, although he is weighing other options such as air strikes. A U.S. aircraft carrier has sailed into the Gulf along with a warship carrying 550 marines.

The only U.S. military contingent on the ground is the security staff at the U.S. embassy. Washington said on Sunday it was evacuating some diplomatic staff and sending about 100 extra marines and other personnel to help safeguard the facilities.

The sprawling fortified compound on the banks of the Tigris is the largest and most expensive diplomatic mission ever built, a vestige of the days when 170,000 U.S. troops fought to put down a sectarian civil war that followed the 2003 invasion.

Iraqis now face the prospect of a replay of that extreme violence, but this time without American forces to intervene.

Potential cooperation between the United States and Iran shows how dramatically the ISIL advance has redrawn the map of Middle East alliances in a matter of days.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate elected last year, has presided over a gradual thaw with the West, including secret talks with Washington that led to a preliminary deal to curb Iran's nuclear program. But open cooperation against a mutual threat would be unprecedented.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed that London had already made overtures to Tehran in recent days. A U.S. official said talks over Iraq between U.S. and Iranian officials could take place this week in Vienna, where both sides are attending nuclear negotiations.

SAUDI FEARS

Any rapprochement between Washington and Tehran over Iraq could anger U.S. allies Israel and the Sunni Gulf Arab states. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf's main Sunni power, said it rejected foreign interference in Iraq, and blamed Baghdad's “sectarian and exclusionary policies” for fuelling the insurgency.

ISIL fighters' sweep through the Tigris valley north of Baghdad included Saddam's hometown Tikrit, where they captured and apparently massacred troops stationed at Speicher air base, once one of the main U.S. troop headquarters.

A series of pictures distributed on a purported ISIL Twitter account appeared to show gunmen from the Islamist group shooting dozens of men, unarmed and lying prone. Captions said they were army deserters captured as they tried to flee fighting. They were shown being transported in the backs of trucks, led to an open field, laid down in rows and shot by several masked gunmen. In several pictures, the black ISIL flag can be seen.

“This is the fate of the Shi'ites which Nuri brought to fight the Sunnis,” a caption to one of the pictures reads.

ISIL said it executed 1,700 soldiers out of 2,500 it had captured in Tikrit. Although those numbers appear exaggerated, the total could still be in the hundreds. A former local official in Tikrit told Reuters ISIL had captured 450-500 troops at Speicher and another 100 elsewhere in Tikrit. Some 200 troops were still believed to be holding out in Speicher.

Washington has urged Maliki to reach out to Sunnis to create unity, but the prime minister has spoken more of retaliation than reconciliation. He was shown on television on Monday meeting military chiefs, vowing to crush the uprising and root out politicians and officers he blamed for betraying Mosul.

“We will work on purging Iraq of the traitors, politicians and those military men who were carrying out their orders,” he said. “Betrayal and treason have made us more determined and strong, and I swear a sea of men will march to put an end to this black page in Iraq’s history.”

Shi'ites, who form the majority in Iraq based mainly in the south, have rallied to defend the country, turning out in their thousands to join militia and the security forces after a mobilization call by the top Shi'ite cleric, Ali al-Sistani.

A leading Sunni cleric, Rifa al-Rifaie, said Sistani's call amounted to sectarianism. Sistani is known as a moderate who never called his followers to arms during the U.S. occupation.

“Sistani, that lion, where was he when the Americans occupied Iraq?” Rifaie said. He gave a list of Sunni grievances: “We have been treated unjustly, we have been attacked, our blood had been shed and our women have been raped.”

ISIL emerged after Saddam's fall, fought against the U.S. occupation as al Qaeda's Iraq branch and broke away from al Qaeda after joining the civil war in Syria. It says the movement founded by Osama bin Laden is no longer radical enough.

Its cause has also been taken up by many other Sunni groups who share its view that Maliki's government oppresses them.

Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni who was vice president until fleeing the country in 2012 after Maliki accused him of terrorism, said Maliki must go: “What happened is an uprising by the Sunni Arabs in Iraq to confront oppression and materialization,” Hashemi told the BBC. “Resolving the conflict in Iraq comes through excluding Maliki from power.”

Obama tells Congress U.S. deploying up to 275 troops to Iraq


President Barack Obama told Congress on Monday the United States was deploying up to 275 military personnel to provide support and security for U.S. personnel and the country's embassy in Baghdad after militants seized control of the north of the country.

“This force is deploying for the purpose of protecting U.S. citizens and property, if necessary, and is equipped for combat,” Obama said in a letter to lawmakers. “This force will remain in Iraq until the security situation becomes such that it is no longer needed.”

The president said he was notifying Congress under the War Powers Resolution.

Reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Peter Cooney

Pesach in Baghdad


Spring was always a welcome guest. The winter was wet and muddy and the nights were bitterly cold. The streets in Baghdad’s old quarter (Taht el Takia) where I was born in December 1930 were narrow, twisted and unpaved. Sanitary conditions were poor or nonexistent. There was no sewer system, and central heating was unknown. Drinking water and electricity were intermittently cut off. When the weather warmed up in March and April and the smell of orange blossoms filled the air, I knew Passover was coming.

Of all the holidays, Passover was the one I waited for impatiently. I usually got a new pair of trousers and a white shirt, a new pair of shoes, socks and underwear. I was happy as a lark and looked like a monkey. The trousers were too long, the shirt was too big, and my feet were swimming in my shoes. To prepare for Passover, my mother baked matzah at home. The helpers had to scrub, clean and wash the drapes, sheets and everything else. All pots and pans had to be dipped in boiling water. On the first night of Passover, the table was set lavishly with fine china, fancy cutlery and individual wine cups on an elegant tablecloth. I dressed up in my new clothes.

To start the seder, Dad blessed the wine and blessed us. We all kissed his hand. We gathered around to read the haggadah, the story of the Israelites’ exile that took place some 3,500 years ago.  We read and sang in Hebrew, a language I didn’t understand, and translated into Arabic. We read about the Ten Plagues and the parting of the sea, and always wished to spend next year in Jerusalem. I was the seventh of eight children and had a beautiful voice — at least I thought so. I always sang with zest and patiently waited for the charoset, made of date juice and crushed walnuts, and eaten with romaine lettuce and matzah. After that, we had a festive dinner followed by a variety of sweets. Passover was the most joyous time of the year. 

Passover 1941 was different. I was 11 years old. We had moved to a bigger house near the Tigris River a year earlier. My father and my older brothers were sort of looking sad. On April 3, a pro-Nazi coup overthrew the government. King Faisal II and the regent escaped. Rashid Ali al-Gailani became the prime minister. General anxiety overcame the Jewish community. Some Jews were singled out, picked up, tortured and imprisoned. Passover fell on April 12. Our seder was cheerless and gloomy. I was frightened and scared. 

On May 31, British troops arrived at the outskirts of Baghdad. Al-Gailani and his accomplice, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, and their clique fled the country. On June 1, crowds aided by police soldiers and slum dwellers stopped the minibuses, singled out the Jewish passengers, robbed them, killed the men, raped the women then slit their throats, and threw the babies in the Tigris River. We locked and bolted our doors and prayed. We were safe.

On June 2, British troops, aided by two brigades loyal to the king, entered Baghdad and stopped the rampage. The official government count showed that 180 Jews were murdered and 240 wounded. Hundreds of homes were looted and businesses burnt. There wasn’t any act of resistance or fighting back. The disaster would have been greater if it were not for the acts of kindness and heroism by some Muslims who protected and sheltered their Jewish friends. 

Life went back to normal, or so it seemed, but future Passovers never were the same. The farhud (looting and killing) of 1941 proved there was no guarantee for the future and safety of the Jews. I, too, felt there was no future for me in Iraq. I studied hard and dreamt of going to America after finishing high school.

Passover of 1948 fell on April 24. It came like a thick black cloud over dark skies. The United Nations had voted on Nov. 29, 1947, for the partitioning of Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. While the Jews accepted, the Arab countries rejected the decision. All newspapers and radio stations were calling for the destruction of the Zionist entity and the liberation of Palestine. Zionism was declared treason. On May 15, 1948, the Iraqi army, together with the armies of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt, went into battle against the newly created State of Israel. While we were celebrating in our hearts the establishment of the first Jewish state in 2,000 years, we were terrified and uncertain whether Israel would survive the assault. 

Israel survived.

After the Iraqi army failed to eliminate Israel, the Iraqi government turned against its Jewish citizens, especially the youth. Many were picked up, accused of Zionism, tortured and imprisoned. This harassment culminated with the indictment and public execution of a prominent Jewish merchant, Shafiq Adas. When I saw the picture of his body hanging, on the front page of the newspaper, I was frantic and hysterical. 

I kept a low profile. It took me more than a year to get my student visa to the United States, but I could not get an exit visa to leave Iraq. Things were getting worse, with more arrests and disappearances. It was time for me to get out. In December 1949, I traveled with my younger brother, Nory, to the port city of Basra, and from there I was smuggled out to Iran. The Iranian government, headed by Prime Minister Muhammad Said Maragai, was gracious to let me and thousands of Iraqi-Jewish refugees pass through to Israel. On March 2, 1950, one day before the festival of Purim, I kissed the ground when I landed in Tel Aviv.

I left my home in Baghdad; I left my culture and history of 2,500 years; I left behind my faithful friends, among them Muslims and Christians; I left behind memories of fun and fear, of hope and despair, and I left behind my past and future dreams, never wanting to look back. I was certain of one thing — that I was lucky to be out and alive from that unpredictable heaven and hell. 

I became a homeless and penniless refugee, among the hundreds of thousands of other Jews who arrived in Israel from Arab lands. The only thing I had was my youth, my love of life and the determination to succeed. To allow the nightmares of the past to enslave my future would have made me a victim. On April 1, 1950, I truly celebrated Passover as a free man in Jerusalem.


Joseph Samuels was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in December 1930 and fled for Israel in December 1949. He served in the Israeli navy from 1950 to 1953. Samuels has been living in Santa Monica for the past 36 years with his wife, Ruby, and his family. He is a retired real estate developer and currently serves on the board of JIMENA Los Angeles.

Shabbat in Iraq: Under the gun


Military life can be grueling — both physically and emotionally draining. For Eric Goldie, military life has made for a storied and rewarding career that has challenged him in unexpected ways. In 2010, Goldie was mobilized for deployment to Iraq, and added to his list of challenges as a soldier came the question of how to observe Shabbat in Baghdad. 

In 1920, nearly 200,000 Jews lived in Baghdad. By 2010, when Goldie arrived — there were eight, he said. Goldie represented one of a small minority of Jewish soldiers from the United States who were committed to observing Shabbat during their one half-day off per week. It was no easy feat, with tight security measures and the occasional missile attack, but at the end of a 75-hour workweek, Shabbat services offered a welcomed respite. 

Goldie is no stranger to a challenging lifestyle. After starting out in the Navy Reserve as an electronic warfare technician, he returned to college, then went on to pursue leadership opportunities at the officer candidate school through the California Military Academy. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the National Guard, and then went on to the armor officer’s basic course to become a tank platoon leader. Goldie commanded four tanks with cannons that could hit a target, at the speed of sound, firing from 4,500 meters away. He continued to serve as a tank platoon leader while attending law school. He later served in rocket artillery, infantry and cavalry units.

In 2004, Goldie was deployed as a company commander training Army soldiers for Iraq in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. After a 2006 stint serving at the U.S./Mexico border, Goldie went on in 2009 to Tel Aviv to lend moral support in the fight against Hamas. It was there that he was notified of his troop’s mobilization for deployment to Iraq. 

Shortly after New Year’s Eve 2010, Goldie boarded a plane for Iraq. He was stationed at Forward Operating Base Union III in Baghdad’s International Zone. It was a small base with a big job; Goldie worked as a contracting expert, supporting the work of about 13 United States generals and admirals.

On Shabbat, Goldie and a small group of soldiers, embassy workers and contractors — and even one Iraqi-Jewish woman — would gather in the U.S. Embassy to daven. That woman, Halida, would sneak into the embassy to participate, a considerable risk in a city where Jews were hiding their true identities. But her commitment to “B’nai Baghdad,” as the group was called, made Shabbat that much more special for everyone. 

Goldie endured a gauntlet of barriers himself just to get to the embassy for services. 

“I had to take an armored transport, wearing 60 pounds of body armor, with my weapon, to attend,” he said recently in an interview from his home Los Angeles, where he now lives. 

Services were usually held in a conference room inside the embassy, and people from all corners of the International Zone were in attendance: State Department officials, Foreign Service officers, Treasury Department officials, even the embassy doctor, Mark Cohen. Lay leaders led services with limited prayer books occasionally supplied through the military’s chaplain system. 

“They rarely supplied anything,” Goldie said. 

“I firmly believe in tikkun olam [repairing the world]. And serving in the Army, and sometimes going in harm’s way so other Americans don’t have to, is my way of giving back and doing tikkun olam.”

Services were actually made possible with help from the Aleph Institute, a Chabad-run organization that assists the spiritual needs of Jews serving in the Armed Services anywhere in the world. 

“They supplied us with a camouflage Torah. I had a camo-Siddur, a camo-kippah. Even a shmura matzah,” Goldie said. 

The chaplain had to persuade the Army to allow wine for religious purposes, and so, for a time, a bit of Manischewitz was provided at services. 

“When it ran out, that was it,” Goldie recalled.

In 2011, Goldie was asked to lead a seder for the non-Jews on his base. They assembled in the chow hall, reading from classic Maxwell House haggadahs. The seder went so well, Goldie received a general’s coin for exemplary service from Lt. Gen. Michael Ferriter. 

“He shook my hand and gave me the coin,” Goldie recalled with pride. It’s an enormous honor in the military to receive one of these very rare awards. 

“It was fun,” he added. Although not always: Shabbat in a war zone is unpredictable. 

“One time, on my way to Shabbat, the enemy fired a missile on the embassy,” Goldie recalled. The whole compound went into lockdown, a duck-and-cover alert blaring over the sound system. Goldie ducked into a bunker, waiting for the danger to pass. When the “all-clear” was issued, he decided to continue on to services, having already come so far.

Goldie’s commitment to observing Shabbat was matched only by his commitment to serving his country. 

“I firmly believe in tikkun olam [repairing the world]. And serving in the Army, and sometimes going in harm’s way so other Americans don’t have to, is my way of giving back and doing tikkun olam,” Goldie said.

Since 2011, Goldie has been back in the United States, demobilized through the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Benning, and he’s currently “building back my law practice,” he said.

He has remained involved in service, however: “Today, I train Army battalion staff officers, teaching them the many lessons learned in war, so that if they ever deploy overseas, they’ll hopefully succeed at their job and come back alive.”

Israel steps up recognition of Jewish refugees


Naim Reuven was only 8 when he left Baghdad more than 50 years ago, but he still remembers going with his father to catch fish in the Tigris River.

His dad worked in a laundromat, a middle-class father of six and one of Iraq’s more than 100,000 Jews. Baghdad’s Jewish community suffered a pogrom in 1941, but Reuven, born a year later, has only fond memories of his childhood there — until Israel declared independence in 1948.

“When Israel was established it began, there was hate,” said Reuven, now 70. “We had a neighbor we got along with, and then there was hate.”

He still remembers the fear when grenades were thrown into his family’s synagogue.

In 1951, after three years of increasing animosity and persecution, the Reuvens moved to Israel, where the government placed them in an immigrant absorption camp and gave Reuven’s father agricultural work. Reuven now lives in Tel Aviv’s low-income Hatikvah neighborhood, retired after a career in construction.

More than 800,000 Jews lived in the Arab world at the time of Israel’s founding. Virtually all of them left, fled or were forced out of their homes after Israel’s birth, with more than three-quarters moving to Israel. The once-thriving communities they had established in places such as Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Tunisia shrank and, in some cases, virtually disappeared. In many cases the emigrants were forced to leave behind much of their property.

As part of an effort to have those Jews recognized as refugees and demand compensation for their lost property, the World Jewish Congress (WJC) will be hosting a conference in Jerusalem in mid-September focused on “raising the flag of rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries,” according to WJC Secretary General Dan Diker.

Then, on Sept. 21, the WJC, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Israeli Foreign Ministry will host a similar conference at United Nations headquarters.

“It’s important that the world accept and recognize that most of them were forcibly exiled and subjected to the worst kind of anti-Semitic assault,” which included Jews being “attacked, assaulted, killed, robbed,” Diker said in an interview. “This issue has been largely ignored by Jewish leaders over the past number of years. They were resettled, so it wasn’t perceived as an acute bleeding.”

In addition to the WJC efforts, the Israeli Knesset is slated to vote soon on a resolution to establish a day commemorating the history of Jews from Arab lands and to found a museum focused on that history. The U.S.-based Justice for Jews from Arab Countries also advocates for the refugees’ rights. 

While the campaign for the Jewish refugees ostensibly is aimed at winning some recompense for Jews from Arab countries and their descendants — known in Israel as Mizrahim, Hebrew for Easterners — it’s also part of a political effort to create a Jewish parallel to Palestinian refugee claims from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Advocates want the Jewish refugee issue to serve as a counterbalance to the Palestinian refugee issue in any future Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, and they want recognition and monetary compensation for Jewish refugees to be a part of any final-status deal.

While no mechanism for such compensation exists now, Diker envisions an international fund that would resolve claims for Jewish and Palestinian refugees. Meir Khaolon, chairman of the World Organization of Libyan Jews, which is collaborating with the WJC in its campaign, says Mizrahi Jews have listings of 80 percent of the property left behind in Arab countries.

“It restores parity to Arab-Israeli diplomacy,” Diker said. “That narrative has become distorted in recognizing and advancing the narrative that the Palestinian Arabs are the sole aggrieved party in this conflict.”

The issue of the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries is not new, but Diker said it has risen in prominence now because of a parallel effort by Knesset members to celebrate Mizrahi history and culture in Israel. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who is leading the effort and introduced the resolution in the Knesset two months ago to memorialize Mizrahi communities, will speak at the upcoming WJC conference along with other Israeli and international politicians.

“All those Jews wanted to be part of the Jewish rebuilding” of Israel, Ayalon said. “But the fact that they were harassed, that they were killed, that they were robbed of their dignity as human beings is something that has never been recognized.”

Most Mizrahi Jews who moved to Israel did so because they faced persecution in their home countries, according to Maurice Roumani, a professor at Ben-Gurion University and an expert on Libyan Jewry. While Jews had lived under Muslim rule for centuries with restricted rights, their situation became increasingly precarious during the years leading up to Israel’s founding. When Israel declared independence, Jews across the Arab world lost rights and in many cases citizenship, and expulsions followed in the years and decades following 1948. 

“The claim that Jews left on their own is not reflecting the truth of history because the true history shows that Jews could no longer continue living there without having their lives threatened,” Roumani said. “Jews from Arab countries had been living in continuous insecurity for generations. If their lives had not been so insecure, few of them would have left.”

Reuven said he does not see himself as a refugee from Iraq.

“I’m Israeli for everything,” he said.

Clara Yona Meshumar, whose parents left Libya for Israel in 1947 and 1950 before marrying, said her family left not under duress but “out of religious faith. They always said, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ ”

“From my parents’ stories it was the fulfillment of the dream,” said Meshumar, who also serves as the academic director of Kedma, an Israeli nonprofit that in part promotes the teaching of Mizrahi history in Israeli schools. “They were not Zionist in the European sense, but they were Zionists. The moment that legal immigration became possible, most people went.”

While the Palestinian refugee community places its refugee status at the center of its identity, Meshumar and other Mizrahi Jews said their families made no formal effort to preserve the memory of their former homes or commemorate their exodus from Middle Eastern countries beyond telling stories or performing Mizrahi Jewish rituals during holidays.

By contrast, Palestinian families retain mementos of their former homes in present-day Israel, such as keys or land deeds, and annually commemorate losing their homes during Israel’s establishment, which they call the Nakba — the “catastrophe.”

Israel and the Palestinian Authority haven’t negotiated directly since 2010, but Diker said that creating parity between refugees could allow the parties to resolve their respective refugee claims separate from negotiations on borders and security.

“You don’t need a final status agreement in order to solve the refugee problem,” he said. “We’re not adding a claim. We’re recognizing a claim.” 

Major powers and Iran start nuclear talks in Baghdad


The major powers launched a new round of talks with Iran on its suspected nuclear weapons program.

The sides hope to emerge from the session in Baghdad on Wednesday with the outline of a plan that would lead to increased Iranian transparency in exchange for a degree of relief on sanctions.

Iran experts say that the major powers, including the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, may offer a deal that requires Iran to give up enriching uranium to 20 percent, a few steps shy of weaponization, in exchange for being allowed to enrich uranium to 3.5 percent for medical and research purposes as well as an intrusive regimen of inspections.

Iran indicated Tuesday that it may soon agree to allow United Nations inspectors to examine its nuclear facilities.

Israel wants all enrichment to stop and the dismantling of a reactor near the Shiite holy city of Qom uncovered in 2009 by Western intelligence.

Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. Western powers cite increasing evidence of a weapons program, including signs that Iran is testing a trigger mechanism for a bomb.

Baghdad priest: City’s Jews must leave after names in WikiLeaks


The handful of Jews remaining in Baghdad must leave because their names appeared in a WikiLeaks cable, an Anglican priest in the Iraqi capital said.

The priest said he is working with the U.S. Embassy to get the Jews to emigrate, the McClatchy news service reported. The embassy told the news service that it would work to protect the named individuals and that the United States would help to relocate them.

“Protecting individuals whose safety is at risk because of the release of the purported cables remains a priority,” the embassy said in a statement. “We are working actively to ensure that they remain safe.”

An official from a Jewish organization familiar with the situation told JTA that he doubts that the release of the Wikileaks cables has changed the security situation for Baghdad’s Jews. Over the last decade or so, various Jewish organizations and governments have offered Iraq’s Jews opportunities to leave, but they repeatedly have turned the offers down, the official said.

The last remaining synagogue in Iraq has closed due to the dwindling numbers of Jews.

The names were made public after the publication of a password that opened the encrypted versions of the cables available on the WikiLeaks website.

Continue Hussein Trial for Greater Good


The trial of Saddam Hussein and seven co-defendants, which resumed in a fortified courtroom in Baghdad’s Green Zone this week following a 40-day adjournment, has raised a few eyebrows. Among other criticisms, the Iraqi special court and the United States are being criticized for a hasty approach and weak preparation.

The critics includes Sherif Bassiouni, law professor and president of the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul University in Chicago, who finds fault with court hearings that are being run in an “all American way.” Bassiouni, who contributed to the first project for the Iraqi special court and helped bring Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to trial, asks: How can one convince Iraqis that “an Iraqi judge paid by the Americans, residing under the protection of the occupying force” is an independent judge?

Other voices point at other real and perceived flaws.

Sure, the trial leaves a lot to be desired, but the critics are missing a more important overriding theme: that for the first time in the modern history of the Middle East, a ruler is being held responsible for his deeds. This step is a huge gain by itself and should not be overlooked or taken for granted. The potential for tremendous regional impact should outweigh the flaws in the process.

It is especially important that the court has begun with a single, specific case — the executions of 148 Shiite Muslims citizens from the village of Doujail. They were massacred in 1982, following a futile attempt by a group within the village to assassinate Hussein as his motorcade passed nearby.

Hussein, it should be noted, was not alone in his brutality or depravity. In that same year, Syrian dictator Hafez Al Assad massacred about 20,000 citizens in Hamma, razing the city to the ground with tank and artillery fire following a reported assassination attempt on his life by hard-line Sunni Muslims. The late dictator’s brother and other officials who played vital roles in the massacre are still at large.

In the summer of 1988, neighboring Iran, for its part, put thousands of political prisoners to death after a desperate cease-fire agreement was reached to end the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. During those killing months, a three-judge panel retried thousands of inmates already serving sentences. The hearings lasted a few minutes for each prisoner. Those inmates who stood by their opposition to the regime were ordered immediately hanged. According to Amnesty International, between 2,000 and 3,000 were executed. In a letter to Imam Khomeiny, then Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, then the latter’s heir apparent, quoted the number to be either 2,800 or 3,800. Opposition counts go as high as 30,000, of which a list of 3,208 names has so far been produced.

Many of the perpetrators are still very much in circulation. Jaafar Nayyeri, chairman of the three-judge panel, is currently deputy chief justice of the Iranian Supreme Court. A second influential judge, Ebrahim Raissi, is the head of the State Inspectorate Office. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, head of the executive at the time, is currently the supreme ruler.

Which brings matters back to Hussein’s trial. To be sure, all is not proceeding well. Two of the Iraqi defense lawyers have been killed. There was even talk of transferring the trial out of Iraq, which would certainly be a step in the direction of weakening the trial’s message.

Hussein’s lawyer, Khalil Dulaimi, accused Iran of having planned the lawyer assassinations. If proved correct, the accusation only highlights the necessity of going forward with the trial, while also protecting those involved.

The trial, as well as the investigation into the forces trying to derail it, should proceed. More important than the trial itself is its message: Negligent rulers in charge today could and should be held accountable one day. The imperative for justice goes far beyond Iraqi frontiers. The message of this trial is that it’s an early step of a vital process, part of the irreversible democratization of the whole region.

Nooredin Abedian taught in Iranian higher-education institutions before settling in France as a political refugee in 1981. He writes for a variety of publications on Iranian politics and issues concerning human rights.

 

Drive Seeks Airing of Sephardic Holocaust


Thirteen-year old Maurice Zekaria was peeking through the window curtains of his house in central Baghdad and saw Iraqi men dragging two Jewish girls by their hair down the street, attacking Jewish men with axes and hammers and heavy smoke rising from torched Jewish businesses and homes.

It was June 1, 1941, Shavuot, and over the next 48 hours, Muslim rioters killed approximately 180 Jews, injured 240 more, raped Jewish women and burned and looted 586 Jewish stores and homes.

“That was the Farhud,” said Zekaria, now 76, a Los Angeles resident and founding CEO of a national chain of clothing stores.

The Farhud — an Arabic term for “violent dispossession” — though put down by British troops after two days of rampaging by pro-Nazi Arabs, marked the beginning of the end of the 2,600-year-old Iraqi Jewish community, just as the 1938 Kristallnacht signaled the upcoming destruction of German Jewry.

Yet, “Everybody has heard of Kristallnacht, but nobody has heard of Farhud,” Zekaria said.

His complaint reflects the long-standing frustration of Sephardic leaders and scholars at the general ignorance about the victimization of Sephardic Jews in Arab countries and the Balkans during the Holocaust era.

According to recent studies, almost 200,000 Sephardic Jews perished at the hands of the Nazis, mainly in Greece, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. Pogroms in Arab countries, many orchestrated, as in the Farhud, by the exiled grand mufti of Jerusalem, added to the toll.

To remedy the gap in the historical record, a small group of American Sephardic leaders recently met with Holocaust historians to launch the Farhud Recognition Project.

The main catalyst in the effort has been investigative reporter and author Edwin Black, whose current book, “Banking on Baghdad” (John Wiley & Sons), surveys the stormy history of Iraq, its oil politics and the fate of its Jewish community. In lectures, articles and television appearances in about 40 U.S. cities, Black has criticized the neglect of Sephardic suffering in the Holocaust, citing ignorance of the Farhud as the lead example.

The Farhud Recognition Project, still in its formative stage, seeks to have the fate of the Sephardic communities in Iraq, other Arab countries and Europe included in the study and teaching of the Holocaust in the United States, Israel and across the world.

“We must recognize that Hitler wanted to kill not just the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, but all Jews everywhere,” said Shelomo Alfassa, executive director of the Florida-based International Society for Sephardic Progress.

“The Holocaust ended in Europe with the defeat of Hitler, but its legacy and ideology is still alive in the Arab world,” added Alfassa during a press conference at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

As a concrete step, professor Samuel Edelman announced that he will incorporate the Farhud and Sephardic experiences in teacher training and curriculum programs for California’s mandatory high school classes on the Holocaust. Edelman heads the state-supported Center for Excellence on the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights and Tolerance at California State University, Chico.

For its part, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust is planning a traveling exhibit along the Farhud project lines, said Executive Director Rachel Jagoda.

Dr. Jose Nessim, founder of the Sephardic Educational and Cultural Center in Jerusalem, Buenos Aires and Los Angeles, pledged his support for the project, as did the Washington, D.C.-based Institute of Religion and Public Policy.

Kahal Joseph, a predominantly Iraqi Jewish congregation in West Los Angeles, hosted the project participants at a Friday evening dinner. Program director Dafna Ezran of Kahal Joseph said she regretted the neglect of Iraqi Jewish history and culture “as a loss for the entire Jewish community and for civilization as a whole.”

Black told the congregation that “we are not trying to change the focus of Holocaust studies, but to make them more inclusive.”

He noted that in the past, it has taken a long time until the public became aware of many Holocaust restitution issues or the collaboration of IBM and other U.S. industries with Hitler’s regime.

“I believe that in five years, the Farhud will be an integral part of our discourse,” Black said.

Alfassa urged that interested organizations and individuals petition their schools and universities to include the aims of the Farhud project in their teaching and research.

For information, contact Shelomo Alfassa, International Society for Sephardic Progress, P.O. Box 621719, Ovideo, FL 32762; phone (407) 496-1125; e-mail email@isfsp.org. For additional background, visit www.farhud.org or www.bankingonbaghdad.com.

Was Berg Targeted for Being a Jew?


The world may never know for sure if Nicholas Berg’s religion played a role in his grisly execution at the hand of terrorists in Iraq.

But many, including his family, are speculating that it was a factor in the terrorists’ decision to kill the American Jewish civilian who had gone to the war-torn country in search of business.

A video that surfaced on the Internet on Tuesday showed the decapitation by masked Iraqis of Berg, 26, of West Chester, Pa.

The scene echoed the 2002 murder in Pakistan of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was forced to admit his Jewishness on tape just before his captors cut off his head.

The killing raises questions about whether a Jewish person — civilian or military — is in any graver danger than anyone else in such a volatile region.

Shoshana Bryen, director of special projects for the Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said it makes sense that Jews would be targeted in Iraq.

"There are people in these countries who are looking to kill people who are members of certain groups," Bryen said. "The two at the top of the list are Americans and Jews."

Though Berg’s religion wasn’t mentioned on the video, posted on a Web site linked to Al Qaeda, Berg cites his family members, similar to the way Pearl did.

Berg is seen saying, "My name is Nick Berg, my father’s name is Michael, my mother’s name is Susan … I have a brother and sister, David and Sarah."

His father, Michael, inundated by reporters Tuesday as his family was still grieving, said his son’s religion may have made him a target.

"There’s a better chance than not that they knew he was Jewish," his father was quoted saying. "If there was any doubt that they were going to kill him, that probably clinched it, I’m guessing."

His father also told reporters that his son routinely wore a tzitzit, or traditional fringed undergarment, although he didn’t wear it in public.

Joseph Kashnow, an Army Cavalry scout from Baltimore who has returned from Baghdad, felt strains of anti-Semitism before coming home after a severe injury.

Kashnow, an Orthodox Jew who wore a kippah but usually hid it under his helmet, said that while most of the time his religion wasn’t an issue, he did encounter problems.

As an American Jewish soldier in Baghdad, Kashnow said he learned better than to pursue one particular conversation with a local man.

"He said, ‘Saddam wasn’t so bad, at least he wasn’t Jewish,’" recalled Kashnow, 25. "Not a person I wanted to continue having a chat with."

"It’s certainly possible there are people [in Iraq] who would feel it was a ‘two-mints-in-one’ to get an American and a Jew," Kashnow said.

But not everyone agrees.

Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson, an Orthodox rabbi and senior Jewish chaplain for Operation Iraqi Freedom, just returned to his native Maryland from Iraq after nearly one year there. Despite the killing of a Jewish civilian, he said he believed American soldiers remained the prime target for Iraqis insurgents.

While in Iraq, Ackerson never told Jewish soldiers to hide their identities, but neither did he counsel them to "flaunt" their Judaism.

"I’m not sure what happened with Berg, but my gut inclination is he was not killed because he was Jewish. Instead, it was, ‘We captured an American, we’re going to prove we’re the tough guys and we’re going to kill him.’"

Ackerson said that if Berg’s murder was religiously motivated, his captors or the Al Qaeda-linked group that claimed responsibility "would’ve highlighted it," just as they did with Pearl.

Kashnow’s right leg was nearly blown off by a homemade land mine last September. He has spent months undergoing operations and therapy — yet he says he’s as sure as ever that the war is just.

"Berg was fighting to rebuild the country and make it safe for freedom," he said. "It’s still a tragedy."

Kashnow is not alone.

"Should people think twice or should we continue this?" said Judy Ledger, whose son and daughter — and their spouses — all served with the U.S. military in Iraq. "You do have to realize there’s a danger, but the danger is no more if you’re in the military than if there is a hate crime" in the United States.

But Ledger said in an earlier interview that as a mother, her children’s Jewishness always was in the back of her mind.

Ledger recalled how when her son, Matt, first went to the Iraq war theater before the conflict began, she urged him to remove the word "Jewish" from his military dog tags. But he refused, saying, "I don’t want a priest praying over me if I get killed."

Some Jewish organizational officials echoed Kashnow’s view that Berg’s murder, combined with Tuesday’s videotaped killing of six Israeli soldiers by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip — should deepen the commitment of Jews and other Americans to the war on terrorism.

"This is an evil force that has no moral compunction at all," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Referring to the video showing an Iraqi holding Berg’s severed head aloft and shouting, "Allahu akbar," or "God is great" — and footage of Palestinian terrorists proudly displaying an Israeli soldier’s head and other body parts — Hoenlein said the two cases point to the same enemy.

"Their barbarism could not be more clear after today. On both fronts it’s the same menace," he said.

On the video, Berg’s captors said the killing was to avenge the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers.

The parents of Daniel Pearl, who immigrated to Los Angeles in the 1960s from Israel, prepared a statement for the media after news of Berg’s killing circulated Tuesday.

"We have heard from the news about the videotape showing the tragic death of Nicholas Berg in Iraq. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends at this extremely difficult time," the statement said.

"Our heart goes out to them. Kidnapping, torture, humiliation and murder must have no place in this world," the statement went on. "We call on people of principle around the world to help stop the madness and take a stand for humanity."

Ironically, Berg’s father, Michael, and his small business, Prometheus Methods Tower Service Inc., were listed as endorsers of a coalition called Act Now to Stop War and End Racism. The coalition opposed the Iraq war, though Nicholas Berg reportedly supported it.

Berg was in Iraq as a freelance contractor working to repair communications antennae, The Associated Press reported. His family members said they had known of their son’s death since the weekend but did not know of the video until it surfaced this week.

The family last heard from Berg on April 9, as he was preparing to return to the United States via Jordan. U.S. officials recovered Berg’s remains May 8.

The Bush administration and others voiced outrage at Berg’s killing and vowed to pursue his killers. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, said Berg’s killers "will not prevail."

Berg’s friends and neighbors were devastated to learn of his fate. Reached by phone, Berg’s parents declined to comment on their son’s death.

The circumstances of his capture are unknown.

He had planned to return home at the end of March, but his parents told reporters he didn’t come home as scheduled and that the FBI had told them their son was in jail in Iraq.

In West Chester, meanwhile, his family and friends were mourning the loss of someone universally praised as a caring soul.

"Nick was probably one of the most amazing men I’ve ever met," said Aaron Spool, a friend of Berg’s since they were in the seventh grade. "He just touched everyone’s life. West Chester is going to be a much emptier place without him. He was good man, a good Jew. It’s tough. It’s very hard."

In the last years of his life, Berg became increasingly religious. Spool said Berg began attending the Conservative Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester two years ago and studied the Torah and Books of the Prophets. He even traveled to Israel to study Arabic and Hebrew for the first time just before going to Iraq.

Still, "he wasn’t foolish … he wouldn’t have bandied about the fact he was Jewish" in Iraq, Spool added.

A funeral service was reportedly set for Friday at Kesher Israel, which said members "mourn with the family."

Glenn Brown, a friend of the Spool family who occasionally would have Shabbat meals with Berg in West Chester, recalled the young man as being "a sincere individual."

He said, "It is a huge tragedy and loss. He seemed hard-working and industrious."

JTA Washington bureau chief Ron Kampeas, JTA staff writer Matthew E. Berger in Washington and the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent contributed to this report.

Soldiers Celebrate High Holidays in Iraq


When Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson blew the shofar this past Rosh Hashanah, it reverberated throughout one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces. More than 100 Jewish members of the U.S. forces stationed in Iraq attended the High Holiday services at the former Iraqi dictator’s Baghdad compound.

They seemed shocked and awed, not least by the echo.

Then under a late afternoon sun, the group performed the customary Tashlich ceremony outside the palace, casting pieces of bread representing sins into a private lake once owned by the Iraqi dictator’s sons, Uday and Qusay.

"It was a gorgeous setting," said Ackerson, who is from Baltimore. "It tells me we can actually put these places to good use."

As the senior rabbinic chaplain for the U.S. operation in Iraq, Ackerson said he wanted this High Holiday season to start with a spiritual bang for the estimated 500 Jews among the 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Kuwait.

It seems to have worked.

"One sergeant told me it was the most meaningful Rosh Hashanah he’s had in 20 years," Ackerson said of the palace services.

There were also services for Jewish service personnel in Tikrit, north of Baghdad, which drew some 50 people, and two services in Kuwait, where U.S. forces also are stationed.

American donors enhanced the holiday celebrations for the Jews serving in the Gulf. Three New York synagogues donated four Torah scrolls, each insured for $10,000, and one Maryland congregation sent prayer books and Hebrew learning material for the holiday events, which will include Yom Kippur and Sukkot services.

The Torahs capped a months-long civilian grass-roots effort dubbed "Operation Apples and Honey" by the Jewish Educators Network of New York. The group also sent 1,200 kosher dinners and 800 bagel-and-lox lunches to the troops to complement their usual ready-to-eat meals, along with prayer books, books on Judaism and ritual objects such as Kiddush Cups.

Maj. David Rosner, a U.S. Marine who served in the first Gulf War in addition to the current conflict, said Jewish troops deeply appreciate such efforts.

But not all Jewish armed personnel made it to the holiday services.

One Jewish GI who had planned to attend the Baghdad service on Rosh Hashanah was Spc. Matthew Boyer, 24, a member of the field artillery unit of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, 3rd Brigade, which is guarding oil fields north of the city.

But Boyer — who participated in the mission that hunted down Uday and Qusay — was called to a special mission instead. During that mission, a friend was fatally shot in the neck.

Others Jewish servicemen were able to come home, at least briefly, for the High Holidays.

Kayitz Finley, 21, a marine corporal from Los Angeles, is at home on 30 days’ leave. The son of ex-Marine Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Congregation Ohr HaTorah in Los Angeles, the young Finley said he has encountered all kinds of hostilities in Iraq.

In his first of many firefights during the war, Finley recalled lying in a ditch and watching a rocket-propelled grenade fly over his head "so close you could see the engravings on it. But I wiped away all the fear, picked up my rifle and just went to work."

Community Briefs


Iraqi Aliyah Recounted at KahalJoseph

When the smoke cleared in Baghdad, most Americans wanted to get out. But Manhattan resident Rachel Zelon opted to go in.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society vice president, who was responsible for facilitating the rescue of a small group of Iraq’s remaining Jews and accompanying them to Israel, shared her experiences with members of Kahal Joseph Congregation on Aug. 5.

“I think that most of you have a much better understanding of the Iraqi Jewish community than I could ever have,” Zelon said to the audience, composed mostly of Iraqi Jews. “I just had the luck – good or bad – to have been there more recently than you. But the culture and the community and the way people live their lives in Iraq is something that you grew up with and something that I can’t possibly begin to understand.”

Zelon recounted her journey to Baghdad and her initial impressions of Iraq’s tiny Jewish community. “You could tell they were very fearful,” Zelon said of Baghdad’s 34 remaining Jews, whom she was able to locate only through contact information obtained from friends and relatives who had previously fled the city. “They would talk very openly about the fear of their neighbors. ‘The Muslims are coming to kill us. You can’t trust anyone,’ they would say. They are afraid to go out on the streets. Many people have not left their homes since the war.”

Despite the conditions, Zelon said that it was difficult to convince some of the Jews to leave Iraq. Many had family or businesses still in Baghdad. But others, like 79-year-old Salima Moshe, were relieved. Zelon said that when she told Moshe, whose relatives had previously fled to Israel, that she had come from Israel to bring her home, Moshe replied, “I thought everyone had forgotten about me.”

Zelon regrets that more of Baghdad’s Jews did not agree to accompany her to Israel, but that she was relieved that some decided to come. “Some people say to me, ‘You only got six people?'” Zelon said. “But those are six people whose lives will hopefully be better … hopefully we brought some dignity back to these few lives.” — Rachel Brand, Staff Writer

Waxman Rails Against Bush Administration

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) tackled domestic issues during an Aug. 17 town hall meeting at Temple Beth Am that was sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC) as part of its Summer of Advocacy program and the synagogue.

“I’ve never been in office at a time when partisanship has meant so much,” Waxman said.

A staunch supporter of increasing medical/social services for citizens on a fixed income, Waxman blamed the Bush administration for upping the annual deficit to $500 billion, delving into the Medicare and Social Security surplus to pay for tax cuts and offering sweetheart deals to special interests.

“Many people in the Jewish community say, ‘If this administration supports Israel, I will support it,’ but, in my view, support for Israel transcends partisanship,” he said.

Waxman cited Torah-sponsored ideals such as tzedakah, social justice and tikkun olam as necessary, but increasingly scarce, commodities in political decision making.

“Policies now are favoring special interests,” Waxman said, “and ignoring interests benefiting the general public.”

During the question-and-answer session, Waxman had clear reactions to issues such as the California recall, which he finds appalling, and the implications of the Patriot Act, which he believes will encourage federal actions that may threaten our civil liberties. Waxman offered a less specific stance to the largely elderly crowd in attendance on the nexus of senior citizens’ rights and protecting the general public good, especially in relation to modifying driving laws following the July 16 Santa Monica farmers market tragedy. — Michael Aushenker, Staff Writer

Olmert: Invest in Israel Now

Ehud Olmert, deputy prime minister of Israel and minister of industry and trade, whose portfolio was also expanded Sunday to include communications, told local investors that now is the right time to invest in Israel. “The Israeli economy has great potential in different areas — more than high tech,” said Olmert last week during a breakfast at The Regency Club, sponsored by the Israeli Economic Mission and Southern California-Israel Chamber of Commerce. Olmert, the former mayor of Jerusalem, said that the government is working to make Israel more attractive to foreign investors by reducing (or eliminating) capital gains, taxes for foreign investors and by allowing products developed with Chief Scientist grants in Israel to be manufactured outside the country.

While he was in Los Angeles, Olmert also met with Stanley Gold, the head of Shamrock investments (which has invested for the last 15 years in Israeli companies like Tadiran and Pelephone). Gold committed to creating a new $120 million fund for inestment in the Israeli infrastructure. Olmert also met with Elliott Broidy, who is creating with Ron Lubash a $250 million fund for investment in Israel.

“I want investors to believe that Israel is the best place to invest in the world,” Olmert said at the breakfast, “that they can make more money in Israel than anyplace else in the world.” — Amy Klein, Managing Editor

Palestinians Show Iraq Support With Bombing


Palestinian support for Iraq took on a new dimension this
week with a suicide bombing in Israel that Islamic Jihad said was aimed at
showing solidarity with Baghdad.

Dozens of people were wounded, six seriously, when a suicide
bomber blew himself up March 30 next to a crowded restaurant in the coastal
city of Netanya. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility and identified the bomber
as a resident of Tulkarm.

The group’s secretary, Ramadan Shalakh, said the attack
commemorated Land Day, which itself marks the deaths of six Israeli Arabs
during protests in 1976 against state confiscation of Arab lands in the
Galilee. Shalakh also said the bombing was a show of solidarity with the Iraqi
people.

Israeli security officials have warned that the U.S-led
military campaign in Iraq could prompt a wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks.
Solidarity with Iraq was a prominent theme in March 30 Land Day demonstrations.

Large numbers of police were stationed around Arab
population centers in northern Israel but were instructed to keep a low
profile. The Israeli Arab leadership had called for peaceful demonstrations,
and there were no violent incidents.

The March 30 bombing was the first in Israel since a March 5
suicide bus bombing in Haifa that killed 17 people. The attack came as Israel
continued to closely monitor the U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq to
determine whether to alter the level of civil alert in the country.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Cabinet March
30 that the army would begin to reduce the number of reserve soldiers who had
been mobilized. Mofaz said this included reducing the number of reservists
stationed at gas mask distribution centers, because most Israelis had already
refreshed or replaced their kits.

At the same time, Mofaz said an Iraqi attack on Israel was
still possible, and Israelis should continue to carry their gas masks with them
and maintain sealed rooms.

For Israelis wondering about when the civil alert for Iraq
may be lowered, the attack in Netanya was a reminder of the ongoing security
threats close to home. The attack occurred around 1 p.m., when a suicide bomber
blew himself up on a pedestrian mall near the entrance to a restaurant that was
crowded with diners.

According to reports, the terrorist was prevented from
entering the London Cafe by a group of soldiers who were assigned to a security
detail in the area. One of the soldiers who approached the bomber was very
seriously wounded in the explosion, the daily Yediot Achronot reported.

One witness, Amos Harel, said he caught a passing glance of
the terrorist before the explosion, but there was nothing that raised his
concern.

“I saw the terrorist, but not with focus. He didn’t look
suspicious,” Harel told Israel Radio. “Apparently when he saw the soldiers
passing by, he decided to blow himself up.”

Another Netanya resident, Ilana, told Israel Radio that she
heard the explosion and went running to the scene, knowing that her sister was
eating there.

“There were people lying on the ground, lots of flesh
everywhere,” she said. “This is the fifth attack I’ve seen. Every terrorist
attack is more painful and more frightening, and we wait for the next one.”

Among the 50 wounded were 10 Israeli soldiers. One person
sustained very serious wounds; five others were listed in serious condition.
Police said the casualties were not as large as they could have been, because
the bomb used in the attack was relatively small and because the terrorist was
not able to get into the restaurant.

Israeli police, border police and troops were out in heavy
force the day of the bombing, as part of the deployment for Land Day, as well
as the civil defense alert because of Iraq. Police Commissioner Shlomo
Aharonishky said that preventing terrorist attacks is difficult, despite
intense efforts by security forces to thwart attacks.

“There is motivation and desire to carry out attacks,” he
said. The public “should be ready for additional attacks.”  

Anxiety and Hope


Joseph Dabby, who was jailed three times in Baghdad for thecrime of being a Jew, did not wish for war, but he fervently hopes that U.S.troops will free his native land.

Now the president of Kahal Joseph Congregation, Dabby isamong approximately 3,000 Jews of Iraqi origin and descent in Los Angeles, whoare watching the war’s progress with a mixture of anxiety and hope.

“We have deep roots in Iraq, going back more than 2,500years, and belonging to the oldest Diaspora community, with a very strong Jewishtradition,” observed Dr. Eliezer Chammou, a geography professor.

Rabbi Haim Ovadia, spiritual leader of Kahal Joseph, said,”I feel sad, because no one wants war, but it is necessary to get rid of thisevil, this Saddam Hussein. No one can speak against him, and even criticizingthe color of his suit can lead to execution.”

What was once a thriving and influential community of130,000 Jews in the 1940s has been reduced to less than 50 people, and no onein Los Angeles has been able to contact them for some time.

“Even in the best of days, you could only communicate withthe remaining Jews through a third country,” Dabby said.

Many in the Iraqi community here expressed pity for theMuslims who were once their friends and neighbors.

“I’ve seen how they tortured young Iraqi dissidents, whocouldn’t trust their own families, and how frustrated they were that theAmericans didn’t finish the job in 1991,” said Dabby, 57, a property developer.

Dr. Lev Hakak, professor of Jewish studies and literature atUCLA, was born in Israel to parents who were part of the great exodus ofapproximately 110,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel in 1951-52. They were forced toleave behind all their property and assets.

His father was an educator and had “some terrible memoriesand some fond memories” of his native land.

The most terrible recollections were of June 1941, when ashort-lived pro-Nazi revolt produced bloody anti-Jewish riots.

The fond memories included times when “Jews and Muslimslived in friendship and peace. Jews were in high government positions and wefelt part of the political and intellectual life,” Hakak said. “I hope it willhappen again and that Israel and Iraq will live in peace.”

A similar hope was expressed by the 37-year-old Ovadia. “Idon’t like it when people say that all Arabs and Muslims are bad,” he said. “Ihope they decapitate the leaders, but that the Iraqi people, who have beenbrainwashed, can live in a democratic country.”

Although Iraqi Jews in Los Angeles — the largest enclave ofits kind in the United States — belong to various synagogues, the center oftheir religious life is Kahal Joseph on the Westside.

According to Ovadia, the Sephardic congregation consists ofapproximately 400 families. Most come from Iraq, but many are descended fromfamilies who had emigrated from Iraq to India, China, Singapore and Burma inthe early 1900s.

The past is etched deeply into their collective memory.

“We come from the birthplace of Judaism,” Chammouproclaimed proudly. “The patriarch Abraham was born in Ur, along the bank ofthe Euphrates River, in southern Iraq.”

The Jewish community dates back at least to the FirstBabylonian Exile in 586 B.C.E. Some cite the even more ancient date of 732B.C.E., when the Israelite tribes of Samaria were expelled by the Assyrians.

“The community never assimilated; produced great scholars,rabbis and learned books; and for some 800 years, from 200-1038 C.E.,represented the intellectual center of the Jewish world,” Hakak said.

In the 19th century, Baghdad Jewry enjoyed an intellectualrenaissance under the leadership of the great preacher and kabbalist RabbiYosef Hayyim.

In his youth, Chammou recalled, “everybody had a chance tostudy in community-supported religious schools.”

Chammou served as Middle East librarian at UCLA for 22years, and he is now an adjunct professor at West Los Angeles College. In theupcoming spring semester, he will teach an evening course on “Jewish Roots inIraq” at the University of Judaism, and a UCLA Extension class on “Lands andPeoples of the Middle East.”  

The Jewish War


On the Sept. 30 MSNBC show “Hardball,” Chris Matthews hosted a debate between Pat Buchanan and Republican political analyst David Frum. Buchanan opposed a United States-led invasion of Iraq, while Frum supported President George W. Bush’s plan for tough inspections first followed by — if those inspections fail — the forceful removal of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from power.

That we’ve all heard before. But what I hadn’t heard before — what I wasn’t even sure I was hearing as I reclined comfortably on my couch — was the repeated reference to the fact that the pro-war advisers are Jews. Matthews said it. Frum said it. Buchanan, whose love of the Jewish people and Israel would win him no Lion of Judah awards, seemed to strain mightily against saying it, and refused to snap at the bait Matthews dangled before him.

I haven’t tried contacting Matthews to ask him why he felt it important to mention that the pro-invasion advisers were Jewish. He might tell me, “Because they are.” And this is true. A large number are, including leading attack-Iraq proponents Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Defense Department Undersecretary of Policy Douglas Feith and Defense Policy Board Chair Richard Perle. Among the most ardent pro-invasion pundits are William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, The New York Times’ William Safire and Commentary’s Norman Podhoretz.

Of course, the looney left and wiggy right have plastered the Web with attacks on the Jewish cabal in the White House. Type “Iraq,” “policy” and “Jews” into Google, hit enter, and the whole American circus of Jew-haters comes marching across your computer screen. That’s to be expected.

What has caught me by surprise is the extent to which more mainstream opponents of the war have adopted some of the same rhetoric. In an opinion piece, Matthews wrote of a “coterie of neo-conservative thinkers” who shifted the legitimate war against Al Qaeda into a long-sought war with Baghdad. “Out of the ashes of Sept. 11, they and their rightist associates found what they’ve long yearned for: an American government heading toward war in the Middle East,” Matthews wrote.

An article by Jason Vest in the Sept. 2 issue of The Nation claimed that the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) and the Center for Security Policy (CSP) constitute a “shadow defense establishment” pushing America toward all-out war on behalf of Israel. Perle and Feith sit on the JINSA board, and American policy has now become synonymous with Israel’s interest, Vest wrote. The article, “The Men From JINSA and CSP,” has become a prooftext to those who claim a Jewish cabal or, as Matthews would have it, “coterie” at work.

Whether you agree with the planned invasion of Iraq or not, to call it a war fomented by American Jewry to serve Israel’s interests is ludicrous. For one, American Jewish legislators are divided on the issue. While Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) is a strong supporter, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who chairs the important Senate Armed Services Committee, has consistently urged caution. Jewish groups are divided as well. All strongly oppose Saddam, but no major group has reached a consensus on the use of force to bring about his downfall or on unilateral action against him. And it’s fair to point out — as long as Matthews and others are checking IDs here — that the focus on Iraq is the policy of a Christian president, his mostly Christian advisers, his Christian Cabinet and a largely Christian Congress acting at the behest of a majority of their Christian constituents.

There is a case to be made — no sense in hiding it — that a United States-led attack on Iraq would make the Middle East a much better place for Israel. An Israeli official confirmed to me one possible scenario that has been well-documented in the press lately: the United States leads an invasion of Iraq, focusing part of its initial attack on taking out armaments that threaten Israel. Israel refrains from responding to any attack from Iraq, as per the president’s request. But Hezbollah uses the invasion to launch an attack across Israel’s northern border, and Israel responds to that attack with a massive show of force against Hezbollah and its sponsor Syria. When the dust clears, Iran finds itself surrounded by changed regimes in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, making it inevitable that the hard-liners will fall from power there too. And what about the Palestinians? America will impose a solution on Israel and the Palestinians — finish the business once and for all — and Israel will be hard-pressed to say no considering America’s war effort.

(This explains why the administration is obsessed with Iraq’s nonexistent nuclear weapons while giving North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction a pass — invade North Korea and you deter one despot, invade Iraq and you change history.)

That, anyway, is the optimistic scenario, and if the war against Iraq goes well, the conspiracy theorists will remain on the fringe. But should America get sucked into a debilitating conflict, if Israel appears to have gained strategic ground at the expense of large numbers of American lives, the fringe will move onto center stage, and the calls to label Bush’s policy a Jewish war will rouse us, sharply and painfully, from our couches.