Saving the Last Synagogue in Mosul

August 22, 2023 | Rebecca Anne Proctor
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A century ago, the Iraqi city of Mosul—which encompasses the site of the biblical Nineveh—was home to Kurds, Arabs, and Turks and Sunni Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, and Jews. But the anti-Semitism of the mid-20th century and the more recent depredations of Islamic State have changed that. No Jews remain, although other religious minorities do—along with a historic synagogue. Rebecca Anne Proctor relates efforts to preserve it:

The graceful pointed arches and brickwork in muted earth tones—azure blue, burnt sienna, and yellow ochre—evoke a long-ago Jewish past in the now nearly ruined Sassoon Synagogue in the old Jewish quarter of this northern Iraqi city. It is the only surviving synagogue in Mosul, which, prior to Israel’s creation in 1948, was home to a thriving Jewish population of nearly 6,000. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the synagogue has been used to dump garbage, its mikveh transformed into a barn for horses.

Now, an effort led by several Iraqi Jews is underway to preserve the synagogue, and with it the Jewish heritage of Mosul that is in peril of being lost forever. The effort comes as numerous international cultural organizations dedicate funds and manpower to rebuilding the city’s important historic landmarks, such as the Great Mosque of al-Nuri and its distinctive “hunchback” leaning minaret, both of which Islamic State blew up in 2017, and Our Lady of the Hour Church (al-Sa’aa in Arabic).

But for those . . . trying to save the Sassoon Synagogue, a significant roadblock has recently emerged, one that puts the effort squarely in the crosshairs of the complicated politics of the Middle East: . . . the Iraqi parliament passed a law in May 2022—“Criminalizing Normalization and Establishment of Relations with the Zionist Entity”—that has made it nearly impossible to move forward. The law forbids any Iraqi inside or outside the country from connecting with any Israeli, or any Zionist. Those who disobey face the prospect of life in prison or even death.

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