An Iraqi Jewish family took in Saddam Hussein’s mother in 1937 and talked her out of an abortion, according to Israel’s leading expert on Iraq and the large traditional Jewish community that once prospered there.
“The story is true,” says Amatzia Baram. “I’ve pretty much confirmed all of the details, but the family doesn’t like to talk about it. There was this fear that people would blame the Jews for Saddam.
The family, originally from Tikrit, Hussein’s birthplace, lives in Or Yehuda, home to a large community of Iraqi exiles in Israel, says Baram. The family befriended Hussein’s mother while she was pregnant with the future dictator. One of only two Jewish families in Tikrit at the time, they took in the woman and persuaded her not to abort, reports South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel.
“After it became public, the family got this angry response from some people saying they should have done something,” said Baram. “But it was ridiculous. We weren’t talking about killing a dictator but a fetus.”
About a decade after the birth of Hussein, Jews across Iraq began a secret exodus of Iraq’s increasingly besieged Jewish community to the new state of Israel.
In Operation Ezra and Operation Nehemiah, some 120,400 Jews left Iraq with little more than the clothes on their back for the freedom of the Jewish state. Only 38 Jews are left in Baghdad, according to the most recent count. All told, about 450,000 Iraqi Jews now live in Israel, which has a population of 6.5 million, making them the fourth-largest immigrant group behind Russians, Moroccans and Romanians.
Meanwhile, today, the survivors in Or Yehuda show up every day at the Museum of Babylonian Jewry. The old men and women look at the pictures of the way things were in Iraq. They walk down a replica of a Baghdad street from their youth, and pause at old Torah scrolls smuggled out of the country.
Iraqi Jews were, at one time, part of a privileged elite in Baghdad. They were prosperous landowners, merchants, authors and intellectuals who made up a large percentage of the society’s teachers, attorneys and physicians.
Leaving many of their possessions behind, they wound up in horrid camps in the fields that eventually would became Israeli cities such as Or Yehuda and Ramat Gan.
During the early 20th century, the Jewish Quarter of Baghdad numbered about 137,000 people worshiping at dozens of synagogues. Under the Ottoman Turks, who ruled the region until World War I, the Jews of Baghdad were dhimmis, a so-called protected minority, guaranteed freedom of worship but subject to discriminatory taxes and forbidden to own arms.
When the Ottoman Empire fell, relations began to sour as Jewish agitation for a homeland grew stronger.
There were periodic attacks on Jewish neighborhoods and schools, but the turning point came in 1941 in the aftermath of a pro-Nazi coup, when 135 Jews were murdered during a two-day rampage. By the end of 1951, only 9,000 Jews remained in the Iraqi capital.