Iraq – Residents in Basra, the second largest city in Iraq, are demanding that the government intervene and prevent the destruction of the city’s last remaining synagogue, which is today a warehouse of construction materials.
The ancient synagogue in the old El-Asar neighborhood is the last of Basra’s nine synagogues which is still standing. It is located in the city’s commercial center, not far from the El Amir mosque, one of basra’s famous landmarks.
The synagogue was abandoned by Iraqi Jews fleeing the brutal Ba’ath regime. The building was preserved until 1991, when it was nationalized by the Ba’ath government. The outer walls bear the Ba’ath slogan “Unity, Liberty, Socialism” but the inner walls still contain ornamentation and holy verses.
When the Americans invaded six years ago and deposed Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s cultural treasures were despoiled by the public. The Basra synagogue also fell victim to the pillaging hordes and was emptied of its remaining artifacts. Today, all it contains is cement sacks and building materials.
“The rabble pillaged the holy books and the prayer books,” said Rafa Taleb, a guard who works in the same building as the shul, to Sawa radio.
Businessmen in the area claim the government has been criminally negligent in caring for the synagogue. “It’s astonishing that the government did nothing to preserve the building, which was a heritage symbol and a testament to the peaceful coexistence which existed in Iraq in those times,” says one businessman. He adds that the synagogue was located between two mosques, one Sunni and the other Shi’ite.
“The businessmen here are willing to pay a modest amount to restore the synagogue,” says Hattam Akil Da’ud, one of the residents. “The Jewish community at its peak had 13,000 members, and most of them moved to Israel in 1950. But Basra still remembers the Jews well, despite large parts of the city being under control of Shi’ite militias supported by Iran.”
“The Jews were one of Iraq’s foundations,” said another city resident to the El-Faiha television channel, which was preparing a show about the abandoned synagogue. “They weren’t foreigners. They were Iraqi, like our grandparents. They were here from the times of Hammurabi and Nevudchanetzar.”
An elderly interviewee stood in the street of the shul, and pointed to the nearby buildings. “All these buildings belonged to the Jews who rented them. They lived in harmony with the Muslims and helped everyone. If someone had a problem and needed money, the Jews gave it to him.”