Jewish refugee Mazal Elijah: “Leaving Iraq was like the exodus story”

In an exclusive interview with JerusalemOnline, Mazal Elijah, a Jewish refugee from Iraq, recounts her modern day exodus story: “It was the same thing like the exodus story. We had no freedom. We just left like our ancestors left Egypt.”
Photo Credit: Mazal Elijah

According to the Passover Seder, “In every generation, each Jew should see himself as if he was personally liberated from Egypt.”  For Mazal Elijah, an Iraqi Jewish refugee, these words have special meaning given the fact that she was part of the modern day exodus of Jews who were compelled to leave Iraq: “It was the same thing like the exodus story. We had no freedom. Zero. In the airports, they checked us and took everything. We had nothing. We just left like our ancestors left Egypt.”

Elijah claims that the second that Israel was declared to be a state, the Iraqis no longer wanted to see any Jews within their country: “They hated us. There was a fear to go out. There were a lot of murders, kidnappings and assaults. People went to synagogue and got beaten up. It was impossible for the children to play outside. I studied but in fear. My parents took me to and from school by hand. There were no cars. If they didn’t do that, they would kidnap the children. There were women and it was impossible for them to be left alone. It was forbidden for them to go out. They would get raped. Especially the Jews would get raped. We were scared of the Arabs. They were terrorists. Just like we got terrorists here in Israel; that was how it was in Iraq.”

According to Elijah, whenever there was a bar mitzvah or wedding in Iraq, one had to bribe the police so that the event would go ahead peacefully. Otherwise, Arab rioters would come and disrupt the event. She emphasized that around the time that Palestine was partitioned and Israel was declared to be a state, there were many anti-Jewish pogroms in Iraq. For example, on May 9, 1947, a Baghdad mob killed a Jewish man after he was falsely accused of giving poisoned candy to Arab children. In the Jewish Quarter of Fallujah, Jewish homes were ransacked. In 1948, it became a capital offense to be a Zionist: “They wanted to kill us like they killed the Jews in Germany. That is what they told us.”

She stated that around that period of time, Arabs used to systematically break into Jewish homes, steal whatever they wanted to and then flood the homes so that the Jews could not leave there anymore. She noted that Iraqi Jewish women used to prepare preserved foods for the winter months and the Arab rioters could come in, stealing all of the food that they prepared: “They went from house to house. They tried to flood our house. There was no court to appeal this to.  This is how we grew up. All of the Arabs were against the Jews. The Jews became like trash.”

However, once she made Aliyah to Israel, she feels as though she went from living under bondage to freedom: “We came out of Egypt to Israel. That is what the older Iraqi Jewish people feel. I went through sorrows but at least now, I am free.  Here, people can go to school by themselves.” In the Iraqi Jewish custom, Elijah noted that they have a tradition at the Seder of the children acting out the exodus story from Egypt in a special play. The family asks the children, who are traditionally carrying a sack with matzoth, “Where are you from?” They answer: “From Egypt.”  They then ask, “To where are you going?” They answer: “To Israel.” Then, the children have to prove that they are Jewish by saying the Shma Israel. Afterwards, they ask the Four Questions in Iraqi Arabic: “We enjoyed it. All of us knew it well but in Arabic, it was special.”  

For Elijah, this part of the Seder has special significance because since she was so poor in Iraq, her dolls were made out of rags just like the sacks the children present at the Iraqi Seders carry are also made out of rags.  However, just as the children at the Seder left that impoverished life behind to go to Israel, so did Elijah: “In the beginning, it was difficult for we had nothing. We spent several years in a tent, just like the Jews who left Egypt lived in sukkahs. I grew up in poverty. We had no clothes or anything. The schools were not what they should be. Big children studied together with small children.  And there was not enough food. Meat was only rationed to the children and when my mom cooked it, it was uneatable. It tasted like horse meat.” Just as the ancient Israelis depended on G-d for food to survive, so did Elijah and her family: “But after several years, they gave us a house. Here, we got no fear. No one comes to beat us. The picture in Israel is very different from Iraq. Now, I don’t even have a desire to go back to Iraq for a visit.”

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