Jews in the Garden of Eden

A wonderful eye-opener on the history of Jews in Mesopotamia/Iraq. Great because from today’s perspective it would seem like Jews never had a place anywhere except in Israel, not to mention Arab countries. Well, the opposite is true. Babylon may have been the place the Jewish elite was kept in exile, but it is also the place where the Talmud was written, and where, for long stretches of time, Jews and Arabs and whonot lived side by side in prosperity.

The exodus of Mesopotamia’s Jews, who traced their origins back to the destruction of the first temple in 587 BCE, would have seemed unthinkable at the beginning of the 20th century. As Violette Shamash writes, Babylon was the home of ‘our patriarch Abraham Abinou’; the place where the Talmud was written and Jewish law codified. And if distant memories weren’t enough to bind Jews to their ancestral home, something more tangible did: security and the promise of a good life. Of all the Jewish communities in the Middle East, the Mesopotamian Jews were the most integrated, the most Arabised, the most prosperous. Not only had they freely practised their faith under the Ottomans, they had become the country’s most powerful economic group. And there was hardly an area of Mesopotamian culture on which Jews had not left their imprint, from the style of music performed in Baghdad’s cafés to the wafting amba, a mango pickle that Baghdadi Jews working in India brought home with them…

When Balfour announced Britain’s support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, leaving Mesopotamia for the kibbutz was the furthest thing from the minds of Baghdad’s Jews. ‘The announcement aroused no interest in Mesopotamia, nor did it leave a ripple on the surface of local political thought in Baghdad,’ Arnold Wilson, the civil commissioner in Baghdad, reported to the Foreign Office after a meeting with a group of Iraqi Jewish notables. Palestine, they had said, ‘is a poor country and Jerusalem a bad town to live in’:

Compared with Palestine, Mesopotamia was paradise. This is the Garden of Eden, said one; it is from this country that Adam was driven forth – give us a good government and we will make this country flourish. For us Mesopotamia is a home, a national home to which the Jews of Bombay and Persia and Turkey will be glad to come.

Adam Shatz: Leaving Paradise

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