I was born a Jew in Baghdad, in the Muslim country of Iraq. My roots there go back centuries: Legend has it that our first Khazzoom ancestor was born in Baghdad six hundred and fifty years ago
In 1951, at the age of 18, I left my family and the country of my birth, Iraq, to settle in the new state of Israel. Along with more than 850,000 other Jews from Arab lands, I was escaping persecution and seeking sanctuary in the Jewish homeland, after Israel's war of independence. With the rise of Arab nationalism during the nineteen thirties and forties, the everyday hatred directed toward Iraq's Jews by our Muslim neighbors snowballed into fearsome terror. Still, we did not decide to upend our lives lightly. Most of us who joined this migration left behind homes, loved ones, businesses and bank accounts in order to live in peace and security among fellow Jews.
One of my aims in writing what follows is to document a way of life that vanished with this exodus: the rich Babylonian Jewish culture that had flourished since ancient times in Iraq. I also wanted to put the current bloodshed in Iraq in a larger historical context. Much of the torture, assassination, bombing, kidnapping, hand cutting and beheading that dominate today's headlines (and that mistakenly many tend to attribute to the presence of our troops in Iraq) - is what we lived through and endured, except that at the time there were no TV cameras and no reporters to report to the world what was happening to us. Iraq was and remains a very violent society. Saddam Hussein was not an aberration. He is a product of that culture of violence. I witnessed this inherent violence of Iraqi society over and over as a child. However much I tried to erase it from memory, terror of the mob is imprinted on my soul. What remains -- what I have been unable to shed -- is a harrowing instinct to be prepared to flee at any moment.
I was young and had little to lose by way of material assets when I left Iraq. But my departure marked the first of many tearful partings and separations that would be my family's fate amid the incessant turbulence in the Middle East. For seven years after leaving Baghdad, I had no word from my parents who I'd left behind. To communicate would have put their lives in Iraq at risk. Eventually, they and my siblings followed me to Israel.
Life in Israel was a huge comedown for the refugees that streamed in from Arab lands, swamping the new nation's ability to provide jobs, housing, and even food. More painfully, we encountered discrimination and we were called "Arabs," and derided for our language and customs as primitive. So in 1958, I once more ventured into the unknown. I again took leave of my family -- to get my doctorate, marry, start a family and build a career as an economist in the United States and Canada.
The price of freedom has been almost unbearably high. The dispersal from our homeland, the expropriation of our possessions, the years of anxious separation and the demoralizing economic strains of life in Israel would ultimately tear at our once-close family bonds. The passage of time has helped repair the breach, but it came too late for some of my relatives.They died penniless and alone in Israel.