Tel Aviv: Israel’s Iraqi Jews Remember Their Past


Hannah Benson

An exhibit at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda, Israel, displays what life was like in the “transit camps” for Israel’s Iraqi-Jewish immigrants after being forced to leave Iraq in the mid-20th century.

Hannah Benson, Contributing Writer

Morris and Stela Shabbat still remember the summer day in 1950 when they packed their trunks and fled to Israel, leaving behind everything they owned and relinquishing their citizenship in their native country, Iraq. They were a part of the wave of Jewish emigrants who left Iraq in the 1950s when the government decided to reverse its policy forbidding Jews to leave the country, with one stipulation: they surrender their Iraqi citizenship and never look back.

“We gave away our passports. We didn’t have any Iraqi passports and no entrance to Iraq again. We can’t go back,” Morris Shabbat said.

Morris left Iraq to make aliyah — a term referring to Jewish immigration to Israel — in June of 1950. He came by himself when he was 26. His wife Stela was still under 18, so she had to wait to leave with her parents a few months later. The Shabbats were not alone in their move: nearly 120,000 Jewish emigrants also left Iraq following the 1950 Denaturalization Act, the agreement that opened Iraq’s borders to its Jewish citizens looking to emigrate from the country and settle in Israel. Almost none stayed behind.

“[We left because] there was a lot of violence, they put a lot of Jewish people in jail houses. And they tortured them in the jails. We had to give up all our property,” Stela Shabbat said. “We gave up everything and left Iraq. We came only with a suitcase and clothes.”

As Zionism took hold in Palestine in the 1940s, persecutions by Iraqi officials increased dramatically, and when in 1948 the state of Israel declared sovereignty, Iraq placed its citizens under martial law. This meant that thousands of Iraq’s Jews were arrested without probable cause, quotas placed on their university positions, and Jewish businesses boycotted. Those accused of supporting Zionism were arrested and publicly hanged.

So when the Iraqi government opened its borders to Jewish emigration from the country, hundreds of thousands flooded into Israel, where they were given temporary shelter in tented transit camps. Lior Yedidya, the Shabbats’ 26-year-old granddaughter, remembers the stories her grandparents often tell of their early days in Israel.  

“[The period between] 1950 and 1951 is called tkufat hatsena, a time in Israel where food stamps were handed out for every person, and they needed to stand in line for margarine, flour and just basic stuff,” Yedidya said. “My dad’s family who didn’t have so much money — they left everything behind actually — they lived in ma’abarot [tents].”

This latest flood of immigrants also faced a new kind of discrimination as they integrated into their new country.

“The Jewish people from Iraq were considered barbarians,” Yedidya said. “People from Europe considered themselves better in culture and intelligence than [people from] Iraq and Morocco and those kind of places, so it was very discriminatory.”

In 1971, a group of Israeli activists called the Black Panthers — named after the African-American revolutionary party in the U.S. — protested Israeli policies that discriminated against citizens who were not of Ashkenazi (Central or Eastern European Jewish) descent. The movement took hold among hundreds of disenfranchised Mizrahi (North African and the Middle Eastern Jewish) citizens, leading to large, often violent protests.

An early 1950s play, later adapted in the well-known Israeli movie “Kazablan,” reminds young Yedidya of what life was like for immigrants like her grandparents. The story follows a Jewish immigrant from Morocco and his struggle to adjust to his new life in Israel.

“Kazablan is like the hero of Mizrahi Jews,” Yedidya said. “He falls in love with the Ashkenazi girl. He has everything in the East, but in Israel they are making him forget his culture because his culture is considered barbarian.”

For some, the ongoing conflict between Israel and its neighbors adds another dimension to the Iraqi-Jewish identity. For Yedidya and her family, there is a distinct separation between the Iraqi culture and the land that it comes from — one is something to be proud of, while the other is not.  

“This differentiation is very clear when my grandparents speak about Iraq,” Yedidya remarked. “They miss the culture, but then again they don’t miss the place because they were expelled from it.”

Although Yedidya expressed a strong interest in learning Arabic, the language spoken by her grandparents at home, she isn’t sure how her parents would feel about it. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Yedidya’s grandparents’ only son was killed in a battle on the Lebanese border when a coalition of Arab states launched a surprise invasion on Israel. This loss has shaped the way that the Shabbat family feels about their connection to the Arabic culture.

“He was the only boy, the older brother of my mom and my aunt,” Yedidya said. “And whoever killed him was Arab, from Lebanon. So I mean it’s not something you talk about in my family, it’s just, it’s weird. Because I’m proud of Iraqi culture, I’m not proud of the land it came from.”

Preserving the Culture

Yedidya is not alone in her desire to better understand the culture of her family’s past. Meetups across Israel in cities like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have attracted young Iraqi-Jewish Israelis to a space to gather together to speak in Arabic and reminisce about their Iraqi heritage. An increasing number of young people are starting to join groups on Facebook to discuss Arabic music, cuisine and even the fine points of the Iraqi-Jewish dialect.

Iraqi music is also making a comeback in Israel, with singers like Dudu Tassa and A-WA gaining popularity among younger generations for their integration of traditional Arabic music into more modern records. Dudu Tassa is the grandchild of the al-Kuwaiti brothers, famous Jewish singers considered to be the creators of modern Iraqi music. Some even claim that they are two of the greatest Arab musicians in history. They lost their careers when they were forced to leave Iraq in the 1950s, the Iraqi regime erasing their names from the music and labeling it instead as “traditional” or forcing other composers to take credit for their work. Now, Tassa preserves his family’s artistry with his own musical career, combining the Kuwaiti’s songs with his own modern interpretation. And it’s working — he has sold out shows across Israel, Europe, Canada and the United States.

Back in the Shabbat household, Morris and Stela preserve their Iraqi culture by speaking Arabic with each other and cooking traditional dishes like mujadara, a spicy favorite made with rice and lentils. Their hope is that their grandchildren will preserve their Iraqi roots by learning to cook as they do and by passing down their family’s holiday traditions.

Inside their home, it is their cooking, their language and old Arabic movies and songs that keep them connected to the place they came from.

“I have a collection of photos from those times,” Stela Shabbat said. “I have photos from my school, with my sister, with the teachers. I brought whatever diplomas I could from there. Sometimes I look at them. I like to remember.”

A Museum to Remember

At the Babylonian Heritage Center in Or Yehuda, a small suburb just east of Tel Aviv, Dr. Zvi Yehuda works to preserve the legacy of Israel’s Iraqi Jews like the Shabbat family. Yehuda himself left Iraq in 1951 when he was only 14 years old. The center, which Yehuda was instrumental in founding, now hosts a museum that exhibits what life was like for the Iraqi immigrants when they first arrived in Israel. Life-size replicas of the transit camps in which the immigrants were forced to wait fill the second floor of the museum.

“The head of the municipality thought that every Jewish community who came from anywhere could have a piece of land here in Or Yehuda. And they can build a house, or place to put what they have: culture, history and everything in this place,” Yehuda said, “to remind the next generation what was their community.”

The building that now houses the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Museum was finished around 1980 on the land that was granted to the Iraqi-Jewish community for this purpose.

“There was nothing for our research. No archives, no libraries, nothing at all.” Now, Yehuda is director of the institute for research at the center, leading the field in recording Babylonian Jewry history for over 25 years.

The center also hosts reconstructions of alleys in the Jewish quarter of Baghdad within its museum, as well as an extensive research library containing community records, family history and over 7,000 photographs. It has drawn crowds of more than 1,300 people during Passover, and its number of yearly visitors has increased by more than 50 percent since 2011, according to the New York Times.

“I am proud to preserve this culture and this history,” Yehuda said

Email Hannah Benson at [email protected].