As part of the wave of peace washing over the Middle East, a leasing Iraqi politician is calling for establishing normalization with Israel, leading the Biblically minded to ask, “Is this Babylon reloaded or the repentance of Ishmael?”
The Baghdad Post reported on Saturday that in the wake of the pending normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, Iraqi Sunni politician and the leader of the Ummah Party, Mithal al-Alusi, called for the normalization of ties between Iraq and Israel. According to the report, Alusi explained that until now, the conflict between Israel and Palestine has been exploited by some countries for their own interests and not for the good of the people of Palestine.
“There are nearly 700,000 Iraqi Jews who currently live in Israel,” Alusi said. “Why should we enter a war with them for the sake of Gaza or for the sake of the bank accounts of the Palestinian groups,”.
He also pointed out that the top Iraqi political leaders have had meetings with Israelis, “but they are afraid of the Iranians because Iran is the policymaker in Iraq”.
Iraq does not recognize Israel and consequently, the two countries do not have any formal diplomatic relations. Iraq declared war on the newly established Jewish state in 1948 and since then the two countries have technically been in a state of war. Iraqi forces participated in wars against Israel in 1967 and 1973. During the Persian Gulf War (1990-91), Iraq fired 42 modified Scud ballistic missiles at Israel, to which Israel did not respond militarily, because of pressure from the US not to retaliate.
There have been efforts to jumpstart relations between the two countries. In 2019, it was reported that three Iraqi delegations comprised of 15 political and religious figures, from both the Sunni and Shiite communities visited Israel. The delegations met with Israeli government officials and Israeli academics. The Iraqis also visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
Iraq is geographically located where Babylonia once was but it may be inaccurate to consider the modern-day relations with Israel as based on the Biblical framework. Rabbi Ken Spiro, a historian and Senior Lecturer and Researcher for Aish HaTorah Yeshiva,
“When considering peace with the Arab world, the Emirates is quite different,” Rabbi Spiro said. “The colonial powers got smart and rather than create an artificial country that has no inner cohesiveness based on historic or even religious connection, the UAE was created as a federation of different tribes. This has clearly worked better than the Western paradigm of a national identity that was forced on Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria by the British and French.”
Rabbi Spiro noted that Iraq is also an artificially created national identity that has been unsuccessful in producing a cohesive government.
“This will make it difficult for an agreement like the one made with the UAE to work between Israel and Iraq. I don’t see the country unifying enough for that. With the UAE, ”
“Historically, Iraq is geographically what we call Mesopotamia, or Babylonia. But Iraq, as we know it today, is a 20th Century creation. Assyrians and Babylonians don’t exist anymore. In the same way, Italy is not the same as ancient Rome. Despite the geography which is described in the Bible, these are not the same people or culture.”
“If you want to look at this from a Biblical perspective, the Arabs of the UAE are most likely closest to the Biblical ‘Bnei Yishmael’ because as Bedouin they are probably more authentically truly Arab than many other people in the Arab world,” Rabbi Spiro said. “Because of this, in addition to the practical and political issues, we may see a real peace based on the reconciliation of Ishmael and Isaac.”
“This is the paradigm for the future reconciliation of Arabs with Jews,” Rabbi Spiro said.
It should be noted that al-Alusi has long advocated for opening ties with Israel and the US, and he has paid a heavy price for this belief. In 2004, after making a public visit to Israel, al-Alusi was expelled from the Iraqi National Congress and sacked from his job at the De-Baathification Commission. He was indicted by the Central Criminal Court of Iraq for “having contacts with enemy states”, a crime under a 1969 Baathist law. He was subsequently released. Six months later, Al-Alusi’s car was ambushed by armed assailants in Baghdad. His two sons were killed in the attack, as well as one of his bodyguards. In September 2008, he again visited Israel and spoke at a conference on counter-terrorism organized by the IDC. He praised Israel, saying “In Israel, there is no occupation, there is liberalism” and criticized Iran, saying it was continually meddling in Iraq. He was threatened with prosecution for “visiting a country that Iraq considers an enemy” by the Minister for Parliamentary Affairs the Supreme Federal Court ruled that no crime had been committed.
It may be that the state of Israel-Iraq relations has a direct benefit to the US. Last week, the US military announced that it would reduce its presence in Iraq from 5,200 to 3,000 troops this month. This is the manifestation of a campaign platform in which Trump promised to end the country’s “endless wars.”
The Jewish community in Iraq was one of the earliest of the diaspora. In 722 BCE, Jews from the Northern Kingdom surviving the invasion by Assyria were taken there as slaves. A larger community was established in 586 BCE when the Babylonians conquered the southern tribes of Israel and enslaved the Jews. In later centuries, the region became more hospitable to Jews and it became the home to some of the world’s most prominent scholars who produced the Babylonian Talmud between 500 and 700 CE. Over the centuries, the community grew and by World War I, they accounted for one-third of Baghdad’s population. In 1936 the Iraq Directory claimed 120,000 Jews and Hebrew was listed as one of Iraq’s six languages.
But this golden age ended with the departure of the British and the birth of Israel in 1947. Pogroms broke out and Zionism was mandated as a capital crime. In 1950, Iraqi Jews were permitted to leave the country within a year provided they forfeited their citizenship. A year later, however, the property of Jews who emigrated was frozen and economic restrictions were placed on Jews who chose to remain in the country. From 1949 to 1951, 104,000 Jews were evacuated from Iraq in Operations Ezra & Nechemia (named after the Jewish leaders who took their people back to Jerusalem from exile in Babylonia beginning in 597 B.C.E.); another 20,000 were smuggled out through Iran.
Government persecution fo Jews increased and in 2020, the US. State Department reported fewer than six adult members in the Baghdad Jewish community. It was estimated there were 70 to 80 Jewish families in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. There are possibly more, but some Jewish families are afraid to publicly acknowledge their religion for fear of persecution and practice their faith in secret. Other Jews may have converted to Islam.