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At one time there were 150,000 Jews living in Iraq. Iraq had one of the oldest Jewish populations in the world, dating back some 2,600 years. For centuries, Jews lived peacefully in Iraq until the 1930s, when Nazi ideology began to take hold. That’s when Jews began to experience discrimination and were often barred from employment and attending universities.
By 1948, when Israel became a Jewish nation, being identified as a Zionist became punishable by death in Iraq. Tens of thousands of Jews emigrated from the country until they were barred from leaving in 1952. By the 1960s, Jews were prohibited from owning property. Their assets were frozen and they had to carry yellow ID cards.
In the early 1970s, under international pressure, the last of the Jews of Iraq were allowed to leave. They could not bring any of their belongings with them. For years, it seemed the record and history of Iraqi Jews had vanished, but in 2003 when an unexploded bomb from U.S. forces caused a flood in the basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters in Bagdad, some 2,700 items confiscated from Iraqi Jewish homes were found.
The items — thousands of documents, pictures, books and ancient Jewish paraphernalia — were lent to the U.S. by the Iraqi government. After sitting in Texas for almost 10 years due to a lack of funding for restoration, 24 of the items are now on the display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., in a new exhibit.
The items are slated to be returned to the Iraqi government, but many Iraqis Jews living in the diaspora are fighting to keep the items out of Iraq, and perhaps returned to the families who have lost them.
Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson speaks with Cynthia Kaplan Shamash and Edwin Shuker, who were childhood friends in Baghdad. They escaped from Iraq in the early 1970s and are now members of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq.