His Hebrew name is David, but he still goes by his Arabic
nickname of Naji. At 82, he sits at a table at the Luxe Hotel in Los Angeles
and recalls a life and a civilization now gone, an Iraq that will never be
“When I left Baghdad in 1951,” Naji Harkham recalled of the
day he left for Israel, “I left with tears in my eyes. To me, Baghdad was good.
I had so many Muslim friends who didn’t want me to leave.”
To someone used to tales of Jewish refugees, particularly
from Eastern Europe, the notion of a sorrowful parting from exile seems
extraordinary. But in Iraq, indeed in much of the Near East, Jews did not see
themselves as the kind of marginal, oft-victimized community of shtetl lore.
These Jews, to a remarkable and often forgotten extent, were
very much at home in the predominately Islamic cities of the Middle East. In
places like Baghdad, Casablanca, Cairo and, until only two decades ago, Tehran,
Jews felt very much at home, tolerated, even highly respected members of
So although many of us would welcome the toppling of Saddam
Hussein, even at the cost of destroying a good piece of Baghdad, we might also
say a prayer for the memory of better times, when Jews flourished in the
Islamic world and, perhaps, hope that someday, Muslims will recognize the
benefits that tolerance brings.
For those like Harkham, who remember these earlier times,
there still remains a kind of pride in the longevity and accomplishments of the
Jews in these countries. In Iraq, for example, the Jewish community can trace
its roots back to the Babylonian captivity — except that we often forget that a
large portion of those exiles chose to stay behind in that cradle of urban
civilization. From there, they wrote the Talmud and built much of what is now
considered the foundations of Jewish law.
This is not to say that being a Jew in the Middle East was
always easy. Powerless and then stateless, they were forced to live within the
rules set by the dominant rulers — the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs and
Turks. Yet, in comparison with their brethren who were stuck in Europe after
the fall of Rome, those in the ancient East had it relatively good.
This was particularly true after the rise of Islam. Mohammed
clearly was divided about the Jews. Their monotheistic theology and legalism
appealed, even inspired his religious formation. On the other hand, their
obstinate refusal to accept his revelation infuriated him.
Ultimately, he consigned Jews to a kind of purgatory. As
dhimmis (people of the book), they could be tolerated in Muslim society but
only as a kind of tax-paying, second-class citizens.
Given the choice between rule by Muslims or intolerant Roman
Catholic or Orthodox rulers, many Jews, as well as some smaller Christian
sects, naturally favored the Arab ascendancy. They are believed, by some
historians, to have aided the seventh century Arab conquest of both Jerusalem
and Damascus from the Byzantine rulers.
Compared to European norms, Islamic policy to the Jews was
enormously enlightened, and their material conditions also improved. Under the
rule of the new Islamic empire, Jewish traders conducted commerce from Spain
and Egypt to China.
The generally tolerant religious policy of the Arab and
Persian Muslims, and later the Ottoman Turks, toward other faiths accelerated
this expansion. Although highly restricted in terms of inheritance and
intermarriage, Jews, Christians and others enjoyed official protection and
often gained prominence not only in commerce but also the arts, science and
even public administration.
Of course, this was not a totally integrated society.
Throughout much of the first millennium and beyond of Islam, many cities had
significant Jewish, Christian and, in Iran, Zoroastrian quarters. This
persisted in Iran, noted California State University Los Angeles geographer Ali
Modarres, until the 1970s.
“Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians dominated whole
neighborhoods, ” said Modarres, who has studied Islamic urbanism for a
Yet these were not ghettoes in the classic European sense.
They constituted integral parts of the urban landscape. “There were Jewish
synagogues and nothing was hidden,” Modarres said. “When I was in school, my
Jewish classmates were Persians first, Jews second.”
To be sure, there were occasional outbreaks of persecution
in most Islamic countries. But in the best of cases, such as in the
Cordoba-based Islamic kingdom in Spain, or under the Safavids in Persia, Jews
flourished to an extent not seen till the contemporary United States. As the
16th century Persian Jewish poet Imrani wrote:
“Had not your favor been granted to guide me,
Who would have ever opened this closed door before me?
As you brought me to a foreign land,
You bestowed upon me milk and sugar.”
In the aftermath of the Inquisition in Spain, the Islamic
world provided a larger refuge than the more celebrated Netherlands. To the
Ottomans, still competing for supremacy against Christian Europe, Jews were
seen as an economically advantaged population that could provide their Empire
with a cadre of skilled workers, including cartographers, swordsmiths and
Indeed the sultan was astounded by his good fortune in
receiving thousands of Spanish refugees.
“And you call this man, the king of Spain, a politically
wise King, he who impoverishes his kingdom and enriches ours?” asked Bejazet
II, whose descendants would be treated by Jewish physicians for the next
several centuries. “I receive the Jews with open arms.”
Even in the last century, as the Ottoman Turkish regime fell
apart, Jews in places like Iraq continued to flourish. Under the British-backed
regime that replaced the Ottomans after World War I, young Jews like HarkhamÂ
believed that they had a bright future in what was, after all, their homeland.
King Faisal I, who ruled until his death in 1933, described the Jews as “the
sword of the country,” because he saw them as a critical element in the
“It was easier to be a Muslim, for sure,” Harkham recalled,
“but it was not too bad to be a Jew either.”
Iraq’s Jews, who numbered approximately 130,000 by the
1940s, were prominent as doctors, lawyers and administrators, as well as
merchants who dominated the import and export business. Most Jews certainly did
not see their future as Israel or the United States, Harkham explained. Indeed
they started to speculate massively in what would later become “new Baghdad,”
an extension the old caliphal city and still a part of the current metropolis.
For a young man growing up at the time, it seemed natural to
play with Muslim friends, have them stay with his family or he to stay at
their’s. It was also not strange to go to public school, where, among other
things, he learned to memorize the Koran by heart or later, as he did, enter
government service or even the army to serve the kingdom.
Yet by the early 1940s, he recalled, there were signs of
trouble, the ramifications of which are still with us today. In 1941, a group
of army officers and politicians, headed by Rashid Ali al-Gaylani, briefly
seized power. Allied to the Germans, they espoused a kind of Arab nationalism
that saw no place for Jews in Iraq.
For the first time, in modern history there were
state-sanctioned pogroms in Iraq, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Only the intervention
of the British and the restoration of the royal regime prevented the permanent
dislocation of the Iraqi Jews.
Although defeated by British power, Al-Gaylani represented a
new prototype. His ideology — Arab nationalism, anti-Semitism, totalitarianism
— remains the bulwark of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Party regime today, which
now celebrates him as a hero.
Under the current regime, Al-Gaylani’s narrow, intolerant
world view has been extended to other parts of Iraq’s polyglot population,
including nearly a million Persians who were driven out in the early 1970s and
the Kurds, whose brutal suppression continues to this day.
The final chapter for the Jews of Iraq, ironically, was
opened by the very event that European-descended Jews saw as their salvation —
the founding of Israel. Once the Zionist state was formed, the position of Jews
in the Arab countries quickly became untenable. The best the government, which
had once been friendly to the Jews, could offer was a one-way passport out of
the country to Israel.
For many sophisticated Jews of Iraq and other Middle Eastern
countries, this was not an ideal choice. “I did not want to leave the country,”
Harkham said. “I did not want to live in Palestine.”
Yet for Harkham, Israel was the only harbor, even if not a
favored one. Capitalistic, cosmopolitan and raised in exile, many preferred to
go somewhere other than what was to them socialistic and somewhat
claustrophobic Zionist state. Eventually, like many educated Jews from Muslim
countries, Harkham took his family elsewhere, settling in Sydney.
Most of his children, including Yuri, the founder of the
Jonathan Martin and Hype women’s fashion houses, later re-emigrated to Los
Angeles, which along with London, has the largest Iraqi Diaspora communities
Later, these Jews — bearers of traditions from the Islamic
lands — were joined by tens of thousands of others, those fleeing the
theological regime in Iran. Those Persians, even more than the former Iraqis,
Moroccans and Syrians, also brought a piece of the Islamic world with them.
Their mixed memories conserve a world once the nurturer of Jews.
For some, particularly the older generation, these memories
still matter. Even now, Harkham hopes somehow to get back to Baghdad, both to
see his old Muslim friends and revisit places where so much Jewish history was
created. Perhaps, he prays, he will come on the heels of America’s arms,
perhaps to help reconstruct a piece of the past and a spirit of tolerance that
once existed along the banks of the Tigris.
“I would go back there to visit,” he said, “to go back to
the land of the prophets, where Ezra is buried. There is big history there. A
part of the Jewish people still lies there.”