It all started with Abraham, the first Jew, who left Mesopotamia on a journey to the Land of Israel to found the first monotheistic religion. When Jews were first exiled from the Land of Israel, they were taken as prisoners to Assyria. The destruction of the First Temple and the subsequent exile of almost all of the Jews led to the founding of a vast Jewish community in Babylonia.
Even after the building of the Second Temple, the majority of world Jewry continued to reside in modern-day Iraq. Babylonia produced great scholars who authored the Babylonian Talmud, the authoritative source for Jewish law. Later, the scholars of Babylonia were called Geonim, answering halakhic and theological questions sent from all over the world.
The oldest Jewish community in the Diaspora continued to flourish in Iraq. When the state of Iraq was created in 1921 under the British Mandate, Jews were granted citizenship. However, in 1941 the British were ousted from Iraq and anti-Semitic Nazi rhetoric led to the Farhud (pogrom) of June 1-2, 1941. Between 150 and 180 Jews were killed, many more were injured, and Jewish stores and homes were looted.
From 1950-1951 the Iraqi government passed laws urging Jews to emigrate, effectively expelling them from Iraq. The Israeli government sent airplanes to bring the Jews to Israel in an operation called Operation Ezra and Nehemiah (named for the leaders of the return to Israel to build the Second Temple).
The small numbers of Jews who remained in Iraq through the ’60’s were persecuted by Sadaam Hussein and eventually their numbers dwindled to zero. Today the only Jews in Iraq are American servicemen.
To learn more about Iraqi Jewry, see: