Israeli outreach to Iraqis can have substantial benefits

There is an old Arab saying: “A man’s worth depends on his two smallest organs – his heart and his tongue.” This means that in the Arab culture, conversation and dialogue are considered very positive and worthy. Those who use their tongue for engagement with others are considered of value.

A few days ago, Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry launched a new Facebook page, specifically dedicated to engaging and creating a dialogue with the Iraqi public.

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The page, called “Israel in Iraqi-Arabic,” will serve as a digital bridge between the two peoples. The new page focuses on content of interest to Iraqi audiences, such as stories about the large Jewish-Iraqi community that previously lived in Iraq and today lives in Israel, as well as similarities between the Israeli and Iraqi cultures. The Facebook page will also introduce the diversity and achievements of Israel to the Iraqi audience.

As an Iraqi Jew and Zionist, I see this outreach as welcome and natural.

The connection of Jews to Iraq, formerly Babylon and Mesopotamia, is the oldest of any country outside of Israel. Jewish life in Iraq spanned more than 2,500 years, and despite the way it ended, there is much to celebrate, rejoice and delight in Iraqi Jewish history.

The Jewish community of Babylon included Ezra the Scribe, whose return to Judea in the late 6th century BCE is associated with significant changes in Jewish ritual observance and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Babylonian Talmud was compiled in what is now modern day Iraq.

From the Babylonian period to the rise of the Islamic caliphate, the Jewish community of Babylon thrived as the center of Jewish learning. Even during the last century, Jews played an important role in helping Iraq become independent.

Iraq’s first minister of finance, Sir Sassoon Eskell, was a Jew, and Jews were important in developing the judicial and postal systems in modern Iraq. Records from the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce show that 10 out of its 19 members in 1947 were Jews and the first musical band formed for Baghdad’s nascent radio in the 1930s consisted mainly of Jews.

Jews were represented in the Iraqi parliament, and many Jews held significant official positions.

Many of my family members have often described the paradise on the banks of the fabled and soothing River Tigris, described by medieval poet Ibn al-Arabi as the necklace of Baghdad, where a Jew, my mother, could be crowned Miss Baghdad and receive her sash from the crown prince himself.

Even though I was a child, I remember an Iraq where it mattered little the religion of your neighbor, the direction they prayed, or their background. We played together as Iraqis.

Sadly, this all ended in the second half of the last century, when a community of 150,000 Jews was forced out from the only home they had known for millennia.

TODAY, with some reflection, Iraq has become so many things to those Jews who fled it.

For many, it is a place too cruel to look back and wonder. For others, it is a place whose past and future is still coveted.

Some have turned their back on it forever, while other Iraqi Jews have returned to visit, vote in its elections, seek its citizenship and even buy homes.

I think for all of us, friend or foe, Iraq is still in our blood and in our bones. It’s like a distant bell ringing in the back of our heads, always reminding us where we came from.

That is why the Iraqi Jewish community, whether in Israel, the US, Europe, or elsewhere can serve as an important bridge between modern Iraq and the wider Jewish community.

To be a Jew is sometimes to be a bridge to the past, but I believe we can also serve as bridges to the future.

In the Iraq where I was raised, Jew, Christian, Muslim, Sunni or Shia, worked, learned, sang and danced together. We lived side by side in peace and harmony.

And while this reality is sadly behind us, with no Jewish community left in Iraq, in our digitized world, perhaps we can renew a taste of it online. We can share our stories, see the perspective of the other and chart a new future of fraternity between peoples, faiths and ethnicities.

This is desperately needed in a world where tensions, xenophobia and intolerance are again on the rise.

The more we talk, engage and dialogue, the more we will learn that our divisions are far fewer than that which unites us. The Iraqi Jewish community is bound by a language, culture and tradition shaped by both our Iraqi and Jewish heritage.

I am certain that even if it begins on Facebook, greater interaction between Israelis and Iraqis, Jews and Arabs, can only be beneficial for greater harmony, understanding and acceptance in our region and beyond.

Our relationship will start through the tongue, involving greater dialogue and engagement, and eventually it will also affect the heart as well.

The author is a businessman and philanthropist, has been vice president of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq (WOJI) for the past 10 years and is the honorary president of the Association of Jewish Academics from Iraq, and recently commissioned the internationally acclaimed film Remember Baghdad.