Jun 29, 2022
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This Saturday was designated by the Israeli government as a special day to commemorate the plight of the Jewish refugee from Arab lands, a tragic injustice that is largely overlooked. This omission may be intentional as it is an inconvenient truth the anti-Israel narrative cannot cope with. But behind this tragedy lies a story that is truly remarkable, representing an aspect of history that seems incongruous: the rich history of the Jews who lived among the Arabs.

Sass Peress lives in Montreal and works in renewable energy. In 2017, his father had a chance meeting he had with an Iraqi parliamentarian. His father had immigrated to Montreal at a young age and the Iraqi politician invited him to return for a visit, to which he responded that he had no interest in returning to the land of his birth except to visit his father’s grave in Baghdad. The cemetery had served the Jewish community for over 400 years but after most of the Jews left Iraq, many of the graves had been destroyed, bulldozed over when a road was widened. There was no reason for him to return to Iraq and his feelings towards the country were less than nostalgic. He responded to the kindly politician that, in short, he wanted nothing more to do with Iraq.

In 2017, Peress made a connection via social media with an Iraqi Muslim currently living in the UK. Peress commended Iraq on the victory of, Sarah Idan in the Miss Iraq contest and her representing her country in the Miss Universe contest. 

It is important to note that in December 2017 Idan and her family were forced to flee Iraq due to outrage from many Iraqis over her posing for a photo with Miss Israel, Adar Gandelsman.

Through the wonders of social media, Peress was immediately contacted by one of the organizers of the Miss Iraq pageant. For the purposes of the contest, he asked Peress if he could connect him with David Dangoor who lived in Canada and whose mother, Renee, was the first Miss Iraq crowned in 1947. Peress was quite surprised since Dangoor was his cousin.

Renee Dangoor was openly and proudly Jewish, a fact that did not prevent her from being crowned. In fact, it may have even aided her. Iraqi Jews constitute one of the world’s oldest and most historically significant Jewish communities.

In a quid pro quo, Peress asked him if he was familiar with the Jewish cemetery in Baghdad and he responded that he was. 

“Within 48 hours I had a photo of my grandfather’s gravestone,” Peress said. The image raised mixed emotions. On one hand, Peress was overjoyed to see that his grandfather’s grave was intact but he was dismayed to see that it was horribly neglected, covered with garbage and weeds. Through his new contact, Peress made a financial arrangement to clean up 150 of the more than 3,000 graves remaining in the Sadr Cemetery.

“I had to pay the gatekeeper, the police, the government guys,” Peress said. “Everyone has their hand out. I sent money and he sent photos.”

“But eventually, people started getting too greedy, so I stopped,” Peress said. 

The events left Peress wanting to do more to honor his family’s long history in Iraq. He decided to hold a public recitation of Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer) and randomly chose a date; November 30. Coincidentally, the date had also been chosen by the Israeli government as the memorial day commemorating the tragedy of the Jews forced to leave the Arab countries and Iran where they had lived for millennia, solely because of their Jewish identity. ​

Last year, 18 synagogues in Canada, the US, the UK, Mexico, and Germany recited the prayers. 

“This transcends religion and nationality,”Peress said. “No government should have the right to demolish your ancestor’s grave.”

Jewish cemeteries across the Arab world were vandalized or destroyed by Arab governments. The Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein reportedly planted grenades among the gravestones in Sadr City Cemetery. The government under General Kassem (1958 -1961) refused to revoke an order to bulldoze the old Baghdad Jewish cemetery so that a highway could be built. Most of the tombs were destroyed, including the mass grave containing the remains of the victims of the 1941 Farhud (pogrom) that killed over 200 Jews.

The plight of the Jewish refugees from Arab lands is rarely spoken of, possibly because it offsets the plight of the Palestinian refugees from Israel. In January, the Israeli government decided to demand compensation totaling a reported $250 billion from seven Arab countries and Iran for property and assets left behind by Jews who were forced to flee those countries following the establishment of the State of Israel. Of the 850,000 Jews who fled Arab countries, approximately 800,000 settled in Israel. The descendants of these immigrants from Arab countries now account for a majority of Israel’s Jewish population. Only 8,500 Jews remain in these Arab countries. 

The total area of land confiscated from Jews in Arab countries amounts to nearly 40,000 square miles — about five times the size of Israel’s entire landmass.

This claim by the Israeli government offsets a claim made by the Palestinian Authority ten years ago which sought over $100 billion in compensation from Israel for assets left behind by Arab residents of what is today Israel.

“The reality is that Jews from Arab countries were either incorporated into Israel or into other host countries,” Peress said. “Palestinians were not absorbed or accepted. They were encamped and used as a political tool. It’s the way that those countries decided to deal with the situation, perhaps in the hope that one day, Israel will be wiped out and the Palestinians will go back. This is the sad reality.”

The Jewish community of what is termed in Jewish sources “Babylon” or “Babylonia” included Ezra the scribe and was the source of the Babylonian Talmud. In the 20th century, Iraqi Jews played an important role in the early days of Iraq’s independence. Jews were represented in the Iraqi parliament, and many Jews held significant positions in the bureaucracy, which often led to resentment by the Muslim population.

The growing Iraqi Arab nationalist sentiment in the 1920’s included Iraqi Jews as fellow Arabs, but these views changed with the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian Mandate and the introduction of Nazi propaganda. Despite protestations of their loyalty to Iraq, Iraqi Jews were increasingly subject to discrimination and anti-Jewish actions.

After Israel became a state in 1948, the status of the Jews living in Arab countries changed. Anti-Zionist laws targeted Jews. Between 1950 and 1952, 120,000–130,000 of the Iraqi Jewish community (around 75percent) reached Israel in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.

Communities who wish to participate in the prayer initiative can contact Sass Peress at sass@peress.me