The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center
One of the most memorable experiences in Israel was visiting The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center: the center fosters research, preservation, and publication of the culture and folklore of Iraqi Jewry. It was founded to immortalize the heritage of a diaspora community that no longer exists. The center documents and perpetuates the extensive story of the heritage of the oldest of Jewish communities, an opulent heritage that became a part of the entire Jewish nation.
We hired a driver to take us from Beit Jala in Palestinian to Or Yehuda in Tel Aviv. It was an hour and a half drive to what seemed to be the suburbs of Tel Aviv. My father had arranged a curated guide with the center led by Lily Shor who gave us an amazingly comprehensive tour of the history of the Babylonian Jews who were in exile for 2500 years. Absolutely fascinating.
Above: the architecture style was recreated here to showcase what a typical Iraqi home looked like.
Above: The Jews of Babylonia frequently dedicated Torah Scrolls to commemorate deceased relatives. The custom has its origin in the last of the 613 Commandments in the Torah, which enjoins every Jew to write a Torah scroll. The custom is still observed in Babylonian communities in Israel and elsewhere.
In March 1951, the Israeli government organized an airlift operation. From 1951 to 1952, Operation Ezra and Nehemiah airlifted between 120,000 and 130,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel. The massive emigration of Iraqi Jews was among the most climactic events of the Jewish exodus from Arab and Muslim countries.
With the rise of the Ba'ath Party to power in 1963, restrictions were placed on the remaining Iraqi Jews. Sale of property was banned, and Jews had to carry yellow identity cards. Jewish property was expropriated, bank accounts were frozen, Jews were dismissed from public posts, their businesses were closed, trading permits owned by Jews were cancelled, they were not allowed to use telephones, were placed under house arrest for extended periods of time, and were under constant surveillance and restricted to the cities.
A bit of history on Baghdad, Iraq: in 1921 it was run under British administration following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Mesopotamian campaign of World War I. Four American Jesuits were sent to Iraq in 1932 at the request of Pope Pius XI, upon the urging of the Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, as the Kingdom of Iraq prepared for its independence from Great Britain. There they founded Baghdad College, which soon became known as an institution of academic excellence.
Al-Hikma University's student body was extremely diverse in ethnicity, religion, and gender. Students were roughly 40 percent Muslim, 32 percent Catholic, 21 percent Orthodox Christian, and about 7 percent Jewish. The staff was also mixed: roughly half of them were Jesuits.
In 1966, a law was passed under which the private universities were converted into public universities but continued to charge tuition fees. In 1968, a new law nationalized Al-Hikma University. In autumn 1968, an Iraqi was imposed as president of the university. The University became the object of protests by groups of nationalist students. Eventually, in November, the American faculty of the university were expelled by the Baathist government, and the institution was integrated into Baghdad University. The college was seized, along with all the Jesuit's property, by the government the following year, and the foreign faculty were also expelled.
Long story short: my father had mentioned he had Jewish friends in Iraqi when he attended Al-Hikma University in Baghdad. And while we were at the exhibition, he reunited with his classmate who he hadn’t seen in over 50 years! The gentleman even brought his yearbook to share with the group. What was wonderful is within the group classmates were reunited together.
We ended the museum tour with Iraqi food in Little Baghdad…kibby and dolmas with salad.