The Jews of Baghdad
By Alberto Mingardi
Last year, I translated into Italian a book I came to love, Elie Kedourie’s Nationalism, and I’m now working on an Introduction. This forced me to learn more about the other works by Kedourie, most of which are about Middle Eastern politics, and about his life. Kedourie was a “Jew of Baghdad” and this fact is paramount to appreciate his profound dismay at the simplistic and one dimensional understanding of identity that nationalism promotes.
About the Jews of Baghdad, I’d like to point the following in your attention, from a splendid essay by Joel Beinin (“Jews as Native Iraqis: An Introduction”):
In the early nineteenth century there were about 10,000 Jews in Baghdad and less than 1,500 in Basra. By 1908 Jews constituted 53,000 of Baghdad’s 150,000 inhabitants. The last Ottoman yearbook for Baghdad enumerated 80,000 Jews among the city’s 202,200 residents in 1917.
Journalist Nissim Rejwan noted “it has often been said that New York is a Jewish city. I think one can safely say the same about Baghdad of the first half of the twentieth century”.
The Jews of Baghdad were probably doomed as soon as the English moulded Iraq out of three Ottoman provinces and put it in the hands of a small Sunni minority. I think however that even just these two bits of information are instructive. How often we speak of states and nations as if identities were carved in marble and never changing – or never swept away. How wrong we are.