'It Is Now or Never'

Last week, a small celebration rang out within the Iraqi Jewish diaspora--a global community of 125,000 people who had been stripped of their citizenship and near $200 million in property during a half-century mass exodus from Iraq. Iraq's minister of Housing and Reconstruction had publicly declared that Iraqi Jews who were forced from the country have the right to demand compensation for their property left behind. E-mails with a hyperlink to Minister Bayan Baqer Sulagh's interview with a London-based Arabic newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat, were passed around. Recipients wondered: was the policy announcement some kind of gift in time for this week's celebration of Passover?

Not quite. Sulagh's remarks only add to the increased ambiguity over the matter of repatriating Iraqi Jews. Conflicting reports and statements abound over whether who, if anyone, will be allowed to reclaim their citizenship and their former homes--or, at least, to receive compensation for the property they left behind. A few Iraqis exiled after 1968, when the Baathist party came to power, already have temporary ID cards allowing them entry. And in January, the ruling Governing Council created the Iraqi Property Claims Commission (IPCC) to sort out claims of property confiscated by the former government. The commission expects more than 100,000 claims from Iraqi exiles (of all religions) to be filed this year. But the statute creating the IPCC only addresses claims made after 1968 and therefore only applies to a small minority of the community in exile: nearly all of the 125,000 Jews once living in Iraq left during the 1950s.

And the Iraqi Governing Council does not seem sympathetic to their claims. Last September, when the council drafted a decree restoring the nationality of expelled Iraqis, it specifically excluded the Jews. But Coalitional Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer wouldn't sign it. So the new law for the transitional period--from July 1 when the Iraqi Interim Government takes office until a permanent constitution is put in place by a newly elected National Assembly--is somewhat more accommodating. It states that those carrying Iraqi nationality shall be granted recitizenship, regardless of when they left Iraq or what their political, religious or racial background.

Still, after learning that they were left out of the initial decree that Bremer refused to sign, many Iraqi Jews are skeptical that the new law will guarantee that those expelled before 1968 will be able to reclaim their property or be awarded compensation. "The new Constitution says that after July 1968 you can get an ID and property back, but [the period] before [1968] is deliberately left ambiguous," says Edwin Shuker, a member of the World Sephardic Congress in London. "I have no doubt those who left after 1968 will be welcomed back. But for those before 1968, the situation is different."

For more than two millennia, the Jews were a vibrant part of Iraqi society. After the destruction of the First Temple by the tyrant Nebuchadnezzar and their subsequent exile from Israel more than 2,500 years ago, Babylonia became the religious, scholarly, and cultural center of the Jewish world. The compilation of Jewish law and practice, the Babyloanian Talmud, was written here. Later, many were prominent doctors, lawyers, bankers and craftsmen. One of Iraq's most renowned female singers in the first half of the 20th century was Selima Pahad (Murad), who was Jewish. In the early 20th century, Jewish estates lined the lively, cafe-filled Abu Nawas neighborhood along the Tigris River in Baghdad. But as Nazi propaganda spread across the Arab world, the Jews faced growing violence. Synagogues were bombed, and 180 Jews were murdered and 1,000 injured in the Mufti-inspired, pro-Nazi coup of Rashib Ali in 1941. After Israel was created, many Iraqi Jews were accused of acting as Israeli spies and prohibited from leaving the country. As the number of Jews fleeing Iraq illegally grew, the government passed a law allowing Jews to emigrate under the condition that they forfeit their citizenship. In 1951, nearly 120,000 Jews were evacuated in an airlift operation from Baghdad to Jerusalem. Bank accounts were frozen and an estimated $200 million in property were taken over by the state.

Roughly 6,000 Jews remained, fairly safely, until the late 1960s, when Saddam's Baathist party took over. In 1969, 11 Jews, accused of being Israeli spies, were hung in Baghdad's Liberation Square. Baghdad radio encouraged Iraqi citizens "to come and enjoy the feast." That year, 2,500 of Iraq's estimated 3,500 remaining Jews fled, leaving behind locked-up empty family homes.

By this month, Iraq's Jewish community had shrunk to 22 people. Baghdad's last synagogue has been locked up since March 2003, two weeks before the American invasion. Most of the remaining Jews are too elderly to leave, and the "acting rabbi," Emad Levy, 38, the youngest of the group, says he plans to leave after selling off assets too difficult to take with him. "I don't think many [Jewish] people will apply to come back," he told NEWSWEEK by e-mail. "They asked me how it was here and I told them it was very dangerous. The people are uneducated here and hate the Jews."

But even if they don't return to Iraq, the Jewish diaspora wants to be compensated for the homes and property they left behind. Nearly half a century after the mass exodus, as a new constitution is being drafted in Iraq, the exiles are waging a worldwide battle for compensation. "We feel it is now or never, as our memories fade and our children grow up," says Shuker. "There is a feeling we will be judged if we don't do something."

And it's not just Iraq they're targeting. From New York to Israel, reparations claims forms distributed from the Israeli Ministry of Justice and various Jewish organizations are being filled out by the estimated 900,000 Jewish exiles from Arab lands--including large numbers from Libya, Syria, Egypt and Algeria--who have had a similar experience to Jewish Iraqis. They all hope to mount a lawsuit or negotiate a deal with Arab governments. For the majority of Iraq's Jewish diaspora, there is an additional sense of urgency. With the transitional government set to take over July 1, there is only so long--85 days--that Bremer can veto decrees against them.