Law banning contact with ‘Zionists’ threatens desperate attempts to save the last synagogue in Mosul

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Law banning contact with ‘Zionists’ threatens desperate attempts to save the last synagogue in Mosul

Iraq has banned citizens from engaging with any Israeli or 'Zionist' on pain of death, freezing efforts to reconstruct the historic Jewish building built in 1902

The Sassoon synagogue, Mosul, Iraq. Pic: Edwin Shuker
The Sassoon synagogue, Mosul, Iraq. Pic: Edwin Shuker

International efforts to save the last surviving synagogue in Mosul, northern Iraq have reached an impasse due to a brutal law by the country’s government. 

Mosul includes the site of the biblical Nineveh and was previously home to around 6,000 Jews. Built in 1902, the Sassoon shul has fallen into terrible disrepair and near ruin since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Its primary use is now as a dumping ground for rubbish, and its mikveh used as a barn for horses.

A group of Iraq’s former Jews, now an ageing population of refugees scattered across the world, are making determined attempts to reconstruct the building and preserve its historic heritage.

Funds were made available to do so by the Swiss-based International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (ALIPH).

Inside the ruins of Mosul’s last synagogue. Pic: Edwin Shuker

What is preventing them from being accessed is a law issued by Iraq’s government in May 2022, which punishes by death or life imprisonment any Iraqi, inside or outside the country, who engages with a “Zionist” or Masonic individual or organisation.

Edwin Shuker, born in Iraq, a prominent member of the Iraqi Jewish community in the UK and Vice-President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, visited the Sassoon synagogue at great personal risk, in 2019 and again in July of this year.

Ruins of Sasson synagogue, Mosul, Iraq. Pic: Edwin Shuker

He tells Jewish News that: “Mosul in 2019 was difficult and dangerous for all. There were many checkpoints which were manned by different factions and it was hairy to manoeuvre between them. The access to the synagogue was made more difficult because there was no official authority in charge of the area.”

The law issued by Iraq’s government in May 2022, which punishes by death or life imprisonment any Iraqi, inside or outside the country, who engages with a “Zionist” or Masonic individual or organisation.

Shuker believes that any records or sacred books from the synagogue were taken out by the Jewish community at the time. Four people are all that remain from the once thriving mainstream Iraqi Jewish community, and “only one is in a position to represent the ‘community’ and its vast assets.”

The stalemate can only be lifted, says Shuker, by “pressure on the Iraqi government to repeal the brutal and anti-semitic law” of 2022.

“This law has to be repealed or at least amended as it has no place in a modern democratic state which Iraq claims to be. The law is badly written and does not distinguish between an Israeli or a Jew or even a Christian Zionist or an Israeli Arab. It is a license for the government to persecute, imprison or even kill any Iraqi they deem to be sympathetic to normalisation with Israel or even hold an interest in Iraqi Jewish heritage

Interior details of Mosul’s Sassoon synagogue, Iraq. Pic: Edwin Shuker

Speaking to Jewish News last year, Shuker referred to the bill as “barbaric” and “an affront to Iraq and the good people of Iraq with whom we grew up, who desire peace, and to reconnect with Iraqi Jews wherever they have been displaced”.

Still, Shuker remains hopeful, preferring to regard the situation as “not a stalemate but failmate!” He says he believes that that “Iraq will eventually be restored to its status as the cradle of civilisations, built upon a mosaic of diversity and inclusivity.”

Edwin Shuker inside the ruins of Mosul’s Sassoon synagogue, Iraq. Pic: Edwin Shuker.

Iraq’s Jewish population, numbering around 150,000, began fleeing the country due to persecution under the country’s pro-Nazi regime during the second world war and with increasing urgency following the founding of the state of Israel in 1948.

Since the main deportation of Iraqi Jews in the early 1950’s, the country has attempted to obliterate any evidence of Jewish life by various methods including the conversion of synagogues to mosques. UNESCO estimates that 80% of Mosul’s cultural heritage was obliterated when it fell to ISIS in 2014.

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