On June 23, 2008, representatives of Iraqi Jewish communities in several countries met in London to form a new group, the World Organization of Jews from Iraq (WOJI). According to a press release issued shortly after the meeting, the purpose of WOJI was to “protect, preserve and promote Jewish communal assets remaining in Iraq and to protect, preserve and promote Iraqi Jewish heritage, including holy sites and shrines remaining in Iraq.” Iraq is home to the oldest continuously present Jewish community in the world. After the June 1941 farhud (attacks on Jews in the wake of the British invasion of Iraq) and the harsh measures directed against certain Jews during the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, Jews began to emigrate from Iraq, and from 1950 to 1951 alone, nearly 120,000 of Iraq’s remaining 135,000 Jews left the country, mainly for Israel. The law required those leaving to relinquish their citizenship, and the Iraqi government later sequestered the property left behind. Jews continued to emigrate in the years that followed, to the point where it is estimated that only about ten Jews live in Iraq today. Only one synagogue, the Me’ir Avraham Taweq Synagogue in Baghdad, was still open at the time of the US invasion in March 2003. Many other closed synagogues, along with Jewish shrines and other communal property, still remain in the country, however. What is the fate of this property as a Jewish endowment? Enter WOJI.

WOJI was the brainchild of Mordechai Ben Porat, founder and chair of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center (BJHC) in Or Yehuda, Israel. Born in Baghdad in 1923, Ben Porat immigrated to Palestine in 1945, but returned to Iraq to work with the Israeli foreign intelligence service Mossad in Baghdad during the period of mass Iraqi Jewish emigration to Israel in 1950–1951. Ben Porat and his accomplices were active in coordinating Jewish emigration, and even were accused of orchestrating a series of bombings of Jewish buildings from 1950 to 1951 in the hopes of sparking a larger and speedier Jewish exodus. [1] After his return to Israel, Ben Porat entered Israeli politics and was elected to the Knesset as part of the Labor Alignment. By 1975 he had risen to the post of vice chair of the Knesset. That same year, he formed the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC). Ben Porat left the Labor Alignment in 1977, served as a minister without portfolio in the government of Menachem Begin and joined the Likud Party. For decades, he has remained one of the highest-profile Iraqi Jewish activists in the world.

Ben Porat took the first steps toward the formation of WOJI, and raised the issue of the fate of Jewish communal property in Iraq, in 2005. He and BJHC officials were likely influenced by the fierce intra-Jewish dispute over who should control the communal assets of the dwindling Jewish community in Egypt. In contention today are the hundred or so Jews still in Egypt and the various Egyptian Jewish heritage groups abroad, including the Historical Society of Jews from Egypt in New York, the World Congress of the Jews of Egypt in Israel and the Association Internationale Nebi Daniel in France. [2] No comparable group existed for Iraqi Jews, so Ben Porat and two other Iraqi Jews—former WOJAC Chairman Moshe Shahal and BJHC Deputy Chairman Aryeh Shemesh—arranged for meetings among Iraqi Jewish expatriates in Israel, New York and London to discuss the matter. [3]

More controversial, however, is what another BJHC official, Zvi Gabay, claimed publicly: that WOJI intends to become “the official representative of Jews of Iraqi origin in matters concerning the community as a whole” now that Jewish life in Iraq is virtually extinct.[4] Gabay stated that this will include submitting “an official claim to community property in Iraq,” a claim presumably to be made to the new Iraqi government. [5] According to Heskel Haddad, the Iraqi Jewish head of WOJAC’s office in New York, the plan is to sue the Iraqi government. [6] This could pit WOJI against a number of parties, not the least of which are the governments of Iraq and the United States, as well as other Jewish groups.

One of WOJI’s primary interests is control over and renovation of Iraqi Jewish communal properties, shrines and artifacts, both inside and outside Iraq. Ben Porat maintains that he and BJHC possess lists of Jewish communal real estate in Iraq, probably a reference to a report that he himself commissioned five decades ago while still operating as an underground Mossad agent in Iraq. In 1951, he arranged for three Iraqi Jews to conduct a survey of Jewish communal assets. Their March 1951 report detailed Jewish communal endowments (waqf) in Baghdad, and family endowments in al-Kifl, al-Hilla and al-Hindiyya. Among these properties were hospitals, cemeteries and synagogues. The report determined that the total value of these waqf holdings was 2,567,620 dinars or $10,347,508 (1 dinar was equal to $4.03 in 1951) .[7]

Moreover, WOJI aims to “preserve” several important Iraqi Jewish holy sites, many of which have been maintained and venerated by other religious communities. These include the shrine of the prophet Ezekiel in the village of al-Kifl near al-Najaf, at which both Jews and Shi‘a worship. The tomb of the prophet Nahum lies in a village near the northern Iraqi town of al-Qush, which is inhabited today primarily by Chaldean Christians. The reputed tomb of the prophet Jonah is contained within a mosque in Mosul. Kirkuk is home to the tomb of the prophet Daniel, and that of Joshua the high priest is in Baghdad. Finally, the tomb of Ezra, the priest-scribe, lies in the southern town of al-‘Uzayr, near Basra. The town is inhabited by Shi‘a, who also venerate the shrine.

WOJI also intends to “salvage” and “repossess” moveable Jewish assets such as Torah scrolls and marriage registers. [8] Many Jewish religious artifacts remained in Iraq after the mass exodus of Jews in the early 1950s. Some were placed in museums; others were confiscated and warehoused by Iraqi security officials. After the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, a number of them disappeared. A number of Torah scrolls were stolen from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in the looting after the US invasion. Some were later returned; others resurfaced in New York. The Shi‘i cleric Sa‘id Kamal al-Din al-Muqaddis al-Ruwayfi issued a call to Shi‘a to relinquish stolen museum goods; twenty-two scrolls and other manuscripts, plus dozens of other items, were subsequently returned to museum officials. [9] Saad Eskander, a Kurdish exile who returned to become director of the Iraq National Library and Archive, further managed to locate and collect a large number of Jewish books that Saddam’s regime had removed from synagogues. [10]

WOJI also seeks to gain control of the Jewish community’s marriage and death registers, as well as property lists maintained by the community’s office in Baghdad that continues to oversee the assets of the tiny Jewish community still living there. At the time of the US invasion, the office was staffed by Naji Diwaniyya, the acting rabbi of the Jewish community in Baghdad, along with representatives of Iraqi intelligence and the Ministry of Awqaf (the Arabic plural of waqf). Persons residing in properties still registered in the names of the original Jewish owners paid rent to the office. [11] By 2005, they were paying the rent to an elderly Jewish woman. [12]

WOJI’s efforts to lay claim to Iraqi Jewish artifacts could spread beyond Iraq, insofar as many such items are now located outside the country. According to media reports in July 2000, the Mossad, through intermediary Jordanian merchants, spirited some Torah scrolls and other religious artifacts out of Iraq in the 1990s after bribing Iraqi military officers who had found them hidden in a Baghdad warehouse. [13] Ben Porat and the BJHC themselves possess other Jewish artifacts that they arranged to be smuggled out of Iraq in recent years. Ben Porat admitted in June 2008 that the BJHC paid approximately $25,000 for some 300 old Jewish books in Iraq, having dispatched an agent to purchase them from what he called “thieves.” After American occupation authorities, anxious to stem further smuggling of Iraqi cultural items, put a stop to the agent’s direct shipments to Israel, Ben Porat’s operative resorted to more shadowy methods to send the items to Israel. [14]

Potentially even more controversially, WOJI has sought to claim a cache of Jewish books and documents that American occupation officials shipped out of Iraq to the United States. On May 6, 2003, US soldiers from the Army’s Mobile Exploration Team Alpha, along with members of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), descended into the flooded basement of the bombed-out Department of General Intelligence in Baghdad. Although the team’s job was to search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, that day the soldiers were acting on a tip provided to the INC by a former Iraqi intelligence official that an old Jewish Talmud lay deep within the building. The Americans decided that finding such a valuable cultural artifact merited diverting the army team from its normal task. Although they did not find the Talmud, they did discover something else: a Torah scroll along with thousands of manuscripts, documents and books dealing with Iraq’s Jewish community. What they had found were the archives of two offices within the General Intelligence Department: the Israel-Palestine and Jewish Sections. [15]

The waterlogged documents consisted largely of items that were confiscated from synagogues and libraries after the mass exodus of the Iraqi Jewish community in the 1950s. With the permission of the interim Iraqi Ministry of Culture, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) had the damaged documents frozen and shipped to Texas, whereupon they were freeze-dried and sent to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland for restoration and preservation. Archivists originally estimated that it would cost between $1,525,000 and $3,000,000 to restore the materials. [16] As they were not official government documents, the National Archives solicited private funds to aid in the process. Donors were hesitant to commit, however, because of the uncertain future of the manuscripts. The future of these religious artifacts thus remains in limbo. Doris Hamburg, the National Archives official who was overseeing their restoration, stated in late 2007 that the American government had taken the documents with “the expectation of the return of the materials to Iraq,” [17] but final arrangements for their repatriation have yet to be made.

However legitimate WOJI’s campaign may be, making a public claim to Jewish communal assets is certain to stir up considerable opposition in Iraq. The fact that Israelis play a major role in WOJI will only add fuel to that fire. In fact, the prospect of Jewish property compensation and Jews buying up land in Iraq already has engendered a hostile reaction. Rumors of “foreign Jews” (presumably former Iraqi citizens) seeking to buy land were rife in Iraq in mid-2003. Sunni Muslim clerics in Mosul issued a fatwa in July 2003 forbidding the sale of real estate to non-Iraqis for fear it might end up in Jewish hands. [18] Exiled Shi‘i cleric Ayatollah Kazim al-Husayni al-Ha’iri issued a fatwa in June 2003 from Qom, Iran demanding death for any Jew seeking to buy land in Iraq. [19] And in late 2003 and early 2004, the Iraqi Turkmen Front claimed that Kurdish Jews in Israel were repurchasing their former properties with the help of the Kurdish Credit Bank. [20] The veracity of these reports aside, they indicate the depth of hostility to Jews seeking the restitution of properties abandoned long ago.

WOJI claiming communal property on behalf of the worldwide Iraqi Jewish community could also complicate Washington’s relationship with the Iraqi government, and indeed American authorities have already instructed other Iraqi Jews to stop pressing for property compensation. [21] The WOJI claim to the Jewish documents at the National Archives further puts the Americans in a quandary. Claimants to the artifacts could include WOJI, the few remaining Jews in Baghdad and the Iraqi government. Given high-profile international efforts to return Iraqi cultural heritage items plundered after the invasion, the US cannot avoid this quandary by maintaining possession of the items.

Finally, WOJI’s efforts are controversial within Jewish circles as well, particularly as many Jews (Iraqi or otherwise) might not recognize WOJI as their representative. Moreover, WOJI’s claims collide with parallel property compensation and restitution efforts by other Iraqi Jewish groups. In September 2005, the Iraqi-Israeli lawyer David Nawi filed a suit with the Israeli High Court of Justice on behalf of the group Shemesh-Shalom ve Shilumin. The suit seeks to force the Israeli government to enter into compensation negotiations with the new Iraqi government. [22] Other Iraqi Jews, like WOJAC officials ‘Oved Ben ‘Ozer in Israel and Heskel Haddad in the United States, are similarly against WOJI’s efforts, believing that suing Iraq would only stir up anti-Semitic feeling. [23]

WOJI’s efforts also might run afoul of the coalition Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC). Since its inception in New York in 2002, it has mounted a vigorous campaign to categorize all Jewish emigrants from the Arab world after 1948 as “refugees” whose fate, and property losses, should be linked to any diplomatic discussion about the 1948 Palestinian refugees. JJAC is supportive of Israel’s long-standing assertion that any Israeli obligation to the Palestinians should be connected to property losses sustained by Jewish emigrants from Arab countries. JJAC has argued that there was an irreversible Jewish-Arab population and property exchange during and after 1948. Insofar as former Jewish citizens of Arab states are not seeking a “right of return,” JJAC asserts, neither should the Palestinians demand a right of return to Israel. [24] The efforts of WOJI and other Arab Jewish groups seeking property compensation and restitution thus threaten Israel’s justification for not compensating Palestinians for their losses. On the other hand, WOJI’s efforts might strengthen JJAC’s claim of a population and property exchange by offering an example of Jews demanding property restitution from Arabs.

No matter what transpires, WOJI’s intention to pursue claims for Jewish communal property in Iraq raises a number of questions concerning Iraqi reconstruction, the Palestinian struggle and intra-Jewish political divides. Along with the unresolved Palestinian refugee problem, the exodus of the vast majority of the Arab world’s Jews evinces the ongoing, disruptive legacy of the large-scale demographic shifts witnessed by the region over the past 60 years.


[1] Even some Iraqi Jews believed the rumors that fellow Jews had planted the bombs. Over the decades, this accusation has been debated heatedly in Israel, resulting in official Israeli inquiries and lawsuits. For views dismissive of the accusation, see Moshe Gat, The Jewish Exodus from Iraq, 1948–1951 (London: Frank Cass, 1997); Shlomo Hillel, Operation Babylon: Jewish Clandestine Activity in the Middle East, 1946–1951 (translated by Ida Friedman) (London: Collins, 1998); and Mordechai Ben Porat, To Baghdad and Back: The Miraculous 2,000 Year Homecoming of the Iraqi Jews (translated by Marcia Grant and Kathy Akeriv) (Jerusalem and New York: Gefen, 1998). For a view supportive of the accusation, see Abbas Shiblak, Iraqi Jews: A History of Mass Exodus (London: Saqi Books, 2005). For a view that states that there is no solid evidence implicating any particular party in the bombings, see Yehouda Shenhav, The Arab Jews: A Postcolonial Reading of Nationalism, Religion and Ethnicity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006).

[2] For more information on this dispute, see Michael R. Fischbach, Jewish Property Claims Against Arab Countries (Columbia University Press, 2008), p. 198 and passim.

[3] Zvi Gabay, “Maintaining the Link: World Organization of Iraqi Jewry,” Nehardea (Spring 2008), online document available at www.bjcny.org/art-ZviGabay-WorldOrg.htm.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Telephone interview with Heskel Haddad, August 7, 2008.

[7] Israel, Prime Ministry, Israel State Archives. (130) 2563/6, “Jewish Inalienable Properties in Baghdad” (March 7, 1951).

[8] Gabay, “Maintaining the Link: World Organization of Iraqi Jewry.”

[9] Jewish Telegraphic Agency, May 5, 2003.

[10] BBC News, January 8, 2008.

[11] Al-Hayat, May 31, 2003 and al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 8, 2003, cited in Nimrod Raphaeli, “The New Iraqi Press and the Jews,” Middle East Media Research Institute Inquiry and Analysis 146, August 26, 2003.

[12] Jerusalem Post, August 31, 2005.

[13] Sunday Times (London), July 5, 2000, cited in “Mossad Snatches Sacred Jewish Texts from Saddam,” The Scribe: Journal of Babylonian Jewry 73 (July 2000); Jewish Telegraphic Agency, December 3, 1999.

[14] Agence France Presse, June 27, 2008.

[15] New York Times, May 5, 2003; Michael R. Fischbach, “Israel Tallies Up Compensation Claims by Iraq’s Jews,” Daily Star, September 4, 2004.

[16] “The Iraqi Jewish Archive Preservation Report” (October 2, 2003), online document available at http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/mela/IraqiJewishArchiveReport.htm.

[17] Personal communication with the author, November 7, 2007. For more on these documents, see Fischbach, Jewish Property Claims Against Arab Countries, p. 216 and passim.

[18] Dar al-Salam, July 10, 2003, cited in Raphaeli.

[19] Reuters, June 28, 2003.

[20] Cihan News Agency, November 13, 2003.

[21] Interviews with ‘Oved Ben ‘Ozer, Tel Aviv, August 30, 2006 and Heskel Haddad, New York, October 22, 2007.

[22] Ynet, May 29, 2006.

[23] Telephone interview with Heskel Haddad, August 7, 2008.

[24] For details on JJAC, see Fischbach, Jewish Property Claims Against Arab Countries, p. 235 and passim.

How to cite this article:

Michael R. Fischbach "Claiming Jewish Communal Property in Iraq," Middle East Report 248 (Fall 2008).

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