Shared History Of Oppression
Hussein's capture sparks celebration, memories for local Jewish and Chaldean Iraqis.
ith the capture of Saddam
Hussein almost a week
ago, world leaders ponder
their next steps, including
how best to try the deposed Iraqi dicta-
tor and repair the country he left
Meanwhile, Jewish Iraqis living in the
Detroit area express their personal reac-
tions and the memories triggered by the
surprising capture Saturday, Dec. 13.
Some interviewed talked about the
very old and beautiful Jewish communi-
ty that once existed in Iraq before the
mid-1950s, while others mentioned the
important connection they shared with
other Iraqis, some not Jewish, who saved
Rabbi Avi Kidron of West
Bloomfield, who was born in Iraq,
remembers a thriving Jewish culture in
his homeland before he left in 1955 at
"We [Jews] lived in Iraq for thousands
of years, since the destruction of the first
temple," said the rabbi, a teacher at
Yeshivat Akiva in Southfield. "My fami-
ly was rich, we were educated and
worked as doctors and lawyers. There
were 20-30 Jewish congregations. For a
long time, the Iraqi government appre-
ciated the Jews."
He recalls his mother had a lot of
Arab friends and that the family would
buy milk, cheese and bread from them.
But when times got bad for the Jews,
Rabbi Kidron said, his family and thou-
sands of others had to leave. His father
was imprisoned in Iraq; his family never
saw him again.
His parent's Arab friends helped the
young Rabbi Kidron, his mother and
two stepsisters escape to Israel.
After the capture of Saddam Hussein,
Rabbi Kidron now wants to visit Iraq.
"I pray they [the Arabs who rescued
his family] are still alive. I want to thank
them for what they did for my family,"
Rabbi Michael Cohen of Keter Torah
Synagogue, the Sephardic synagogue in
West Bloomfield, has many members
from the Middle East and Iraq. While
the news of Hussein's cap-
ture caught him and his
congregation by surprise,
everyone had the same
desire when they went to
the synagogue on Sunday,
he said. "We all said we
have to say Hallel [joyful
psalms praising god] this
Keter Torah member Eli
Rashty of West Bloomfield, Kidron
a native of Iraq, said, "The
capture of Saddam Hussein
is a big victory for the Iraqi
people, for Americans and
for Israelis." For Israelis, he
said, because Hussein
Rashty, who fled Iraq
with his family when he
was 10, said the news of
Hussein's capture triggered
thoughts about his old
neighborhood in Iraq. He
said he hopes to take his son to Israel,
where his family first moved, and then
to Iraq, to show him the way Jewish
people once lived there. He also wants
to see his old synagogue, the only one
that still remains in Baghdad.
Israeli Jeff Kaye, director of resource
development and public affairs for the
Jewish Agency, recently returned from a
mission to help and rescue the remain-
ing Jews in Baghdad. He said he had a
feeling of coming full circle seeing
Hussein in the hands of coalition forces
and reduced to the position of captive.
"I remember entering Baghdad in
June and seeing this dusty city with the
broken statues and graffiti on the por-
traits of Saddam Hussein and thinking
how this city had lost the arrogance and
pompousness of the military parades
and public display of missiles and other
weapons," said Kaye, a former shaliach
(emissary) in Detroit from 1993-1997.
He doesn't believe there will be any
significant change in the near future in
Iraq, especially for the few Jews still
"It will remain unstable for the fore-
seeable future," he said. "Even when I
was in Baghdad there were
warnings painted on the
walls of the market telling
people not to do business
with Jews. I pray and hope
that no harm comes to these
people. Certainly the Jewish
Agency will be there to
bring any Jew home to Israel
who wishes to come here."
Not all Iraqis, however, are
enemies of the Jews, said
Martin Manna of
Bloomfield Hills, a
Chaldean or Christian Iraqi.
Manna said both the
Jewish and Chaldean com-
munities in Iraq were perse-
cuted minorities that took
care of each other.
Chaldean and Jewish com-
munities in Iraq always pro-
tected one another and
worked side by side," he said.
Jewish Iraqi Rashty agrees with
Manna. "It was a close relationship
between the Chaldeans and the Jews, > >
Manna said he and his family came to
the United States in the late 1960s,
immediately after the editor of the Iraqi
daily paper was assassinated. Manna's
father was the assistant editor.
"We (Chaldeans) have no bigger simi-
larity than with the Jewish community,"
he said. Manna noted that Chaldeans
still speak Aramaic, the oldest continu-
ous spoken language in the world,
which is similar to Hebrew.
"We are a community similar to the
Jews before the creation of Israel," he
said, noting that Chaldeans are scattered
all over the world with no country of
He said of the 140,000 people of
Iraqi decent in southeast Michigan,
120,000 are Chaldean and 20,000 are
Yet, he said, in the United States
there's an underlying negative sentiment
between the Jewish and Chaldean com-
munity. One reason, he said, is because
Chaldeans are friendly with Arabs.
He feels both Jews and Chaldeans
should be more educated about each
other's cultures and the positive relation-
ship between them in Iraq. There are
misunderstandings and stereotyping on
both sides, he said.
One similarity between the Iraqi Jews
and Chaldeans was their celebration
over the capture of the Iraqi dictator.
"When the news broke, people were
calling one another and congratulating
each other over the capture," Manna
said. For those who lost family or
friends to Saddam Hussein's violence,
the capture meant important closure to
that time in their lives.
With the closing of a chapter in Iraqi
history, a new chapter may be opening
for local Jewish and non-Jewish Iraqis
who begin to reconnect. Sharona
Shapiro, executive director of the
American Jewish Committee, has found
the Shiite Imam Hassan Qazwini of the
Islamic Center of America in Detroit a
willing partner in bringing the two
Around Thanksgiving, she said, she
and her family were invited to break the
fast that concluded Ramadan with the
imam and members of his mosque.
Like the Chaldeans, the Shiites are a
discriminated minority in Iraq, Shapiro
News of the capture was announced
while members of Shapiro's and the
Imam's communities were exploring the
idea of sharing a Chanukah celebration.
Shapiro sees an interesting connection
between Hussein's military capture and
the military victory of the Maccabees
celebrated on Chanukah.
"How interesting that we embarked
on the Jewish holiday that is a celebra-
tion of a military victory," she said.
Under Judah Maccabee, the Jews revolt-
ed against the Greco-Syria occupation of
Israel, and won.
Even more, she said, "This holiday
celebrates the freedom to practice one's
How fitting that the death of a despot
opens dialogue between Jews and non-
Jews who share a common past in Iraq
and the knowledge of the plight and the
resilience of being a minority.