Local Iraqi Jews back the war — with resignation

It's been a half-century since David Dror fled Baghdad, but he still remembers a childhood fraught with terror.

As a small boy walking to and from school, he feared being beaten up. "I had this fear someone would catch me and know I was a Jew," said Dror, now a 60-year-old San Francisco resident.

He recalls the humiliation on the way to synagogue one day when he and his grandfather, who was a rabbi, were surrounded and taunted by a crowd of young Iraqis. "I remember the group was pulling on my grandfather's beard," he said. "They used to call us 'frightened Jews.'"

One of a small and dispersed community of Iraqi Jews living in the Bay Area, Dror views the U.S.-led attack on Iraq from a unique perspective.

"Unfortunately, this war had to happen," said Dror, a filmmaker who eventually hopes to make a documentary about the plight of Iraqi Jews. "This is cleaning the house, the way I see it."

Dror is among an estimated 113,000 Jews who fled Iraq during a mass exodus in the early 1950s as life became increasingly hostile and dangerous in their homeland. Today, the Jewish population of Iraq numbers just a few dozen, according to Yitzhak Santis, director of Middle Eastern affairs for the Jewish Community Relations Council.

"The majority are old," said Joe Dabby, a 56-year-old businessman and synagogue president in Los Angeles whose family fled Iraq in 1971.

Dabby, who said he was arrested three times in Iraq and accused of being an American spy, estimated that 3,000 to 4,000 Iraqi Jews live in the Los Angeles area.

"It's very sad," he said of the current conflict. But, he added, "we really have no choice."

Expressing pity for the Muslims who were once his friends and neighbors, Dabby said:

"I've seen how they tortured young Iraqi dissidents who couldn't trust their own families, and how frustrated they were that the Americans didn't finish the job in 1991."

As for the handful of Jews still in Iraq, "I understand they're living in fear."

Since the 1930s, that was a familiar condition for a people who had previously been members of the wealthiest and best-educated Jewish community in the Arab world, said Norman Stillman, chairman of Judaic history at the University of Oklahoma.

Many trace the "defining moment" of anti-Semitic hatred to 1941, the year a murderous anti-Jewish riot called the farhud erupted with the collapse of a pro-Nazi regime, Stillman said. For two days, local mobs, unchecked by British troops, attacked Jews returning from Shavuot celebrations and left about 200 dead.

Several Jews whose families left Iraq between the 1940s and early 1970s said the Jewish population faced regular imprisonment as suspected Zionist spies, increasingly discriminatory laws and outright violence.

Like Dror, most of the Iraqi Jews interviewed by the Jewish Bulletin said they support the current war, albeit with regrets.

"Hopefully," said Dror, "it will be very, very quick.

"I'm anti-war, but I'm for cleaning up and for security."

Dror not only backs American action in Iraq but also was unperturbed by a recent visit from two FBI agents.

On March 20, the day after the war began, Dror said he had a surprise visit from local FBI agents who questioned him about his Iraqi background.

"I opened the door to them with open arms," said Dror, who lived in Israel for almost 20 years and holds an Israeli passport. Their call came a day after he'd gone to the immigration office in San Francisco to extend his green card. As part of the paperwork, he had filled out a form listing his birthplace as Iraq.

Dror described the agents' 15- to 20-minute visit as "very, very friendly" and said he briefly recounted his family's experience in Iraq.

"I wasn't surprised," he said of the encounter. "For me, it's very obvious they have to know about the Iraqi people in the United States."

Afterward, he said, "they got the sense of what happened to the Jews of Iraq."

But as the war enters its second week with continuing protests in San Francisco, fears of misunderstanding and backlash troubled at least one Jewish Iraqi businessman. He declined to be interviewed for this story, worried that anti-war demonstrators might retaliate against his Bay Area shop because of his views.

Meanwhile, for Rachel Wahba, a 57-year-old therapist whose mother fled Iraq in the mid-1940s, the war is "so complicated.

"I can't go and stick a big American flag on my house, and I can't march with peace marchers," said the San Rafael resident who is writing a memoir about her family.

"I have no love for Iraq but I don't want to see people suffer."

Wahba was born in India, reared in Japan and moved to the United States when she was 18 with help from the Red Cross because she was stateless and had no passport.

Though she has never been to Iraq, "what I grew up with was a mother who was terrorized," said Wahba. Her mother lived in a suburb of Baghdad when the anti-Jewish riots broke out in 1941. "The mobs were basically let loose for 48 hours," Wahba said. "They raped and looted and maimed and killed."

After going through the Jewish quarter, the mobs turned toward the suburbs, according to Wahba.

For her mother, "the screams, they never got out of her head. She slept in her shoes for two weeks."

Those who fled Iraq in the years that followed were forced to leave all their belongings behind.

Dror, whose father also was a rabbi, noted that "we had to leave our house, our property, our money, everything."

His family wound up in Israel, where they spent three or four years in a tent in a huge refugee camp.

Dror's sister, Simha Canoush of San Francisco, remembers that her mother's lone memento from Iraq was a bracelet. "That's the only thing she brought," Canoush said. "They left all their lives."

And Elias Shamash, a 52-year-old Marin County resident who left Iraq in 1970, said his father had to open a small grocery store in Baghdad after being forced to leave his job at a British-owned bank.

With a family of seven, "it was very hard to make a living," he said.

As for the current war, Shamash fears that American and British troops may walk into a booby trap when they enter Baghdad. He worries that Saddam Hussein-armed civilians will turn their weapons on allied forces.

Not all local Jews of Iraqi descent take such an approach, however.

Julie Iny, a 30-year-old Oakland woman, opposes the war and demonstrated with a group of Jewish friends last week in San Francisco. Iny, whose grandfather moved to India from Basra around 1920, carried a sign reading, "Iraqi lives are precious." She said she likewise thinks that "Jewish lives are precious."

The war on Iraq is "really inflicting terror on people who were already suffering," Iny said.