The race to save Mosul’s last synagogue

With funds for reconstruction frozen due to political stalemate between Iraq and Israel, this historical synagogue, symbolic of Mosul’s long-ago state of religious pluralism, remains in a continual state of destruction

MOSUL, Iraq — 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.

A year after the city was liberated from ISIS in 2017 following the U.S.-led military offensive, remnants of historical religious places of worship, monuments and museums began to emerge from the rubble of war. One was the Sassoon Synagogue. According to UNESCO, 80% percent of the city’s cultural heritage, including the Jewish district, was destroyed. 

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 ISIS blew up in 2017, and Our Lady of the Hour Church (Al-Sa’aa in Arabic).

“The Sassoon Synagogue is the only surviving one in Mosul and its preservation is important as a symbol and a reminder of the coexistence that existed in Iraq throughout history,” Edwin Shuker, an Iraqi-born Jew who visited the site in 2019 and continues to champion for its reconstruction, told Jewish Insider. “I continue to champion the protection and preservation of what is left of Jewish landmarks in Iraq, particularly the shrines of the prophets.”

But for those like Shuker 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. 

This picture taken on Feb. 2, 2022, shows a view of the interior of the dilapidated Sasson Synagogue in Iraq’s northern city of Mosul. (Photo by ZAID AL-OBEIDI/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite a desire by international organizations, notably the Swiss-based International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas ALIPH, to reconstruct the synagogue, 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. 

Shuker said ALIPH designated funds to reconstruct the synagogue, but that the project has now been frozen due to the new Iraqi law criminalizing any relations with Israel. 

“Iraq is known as the cradle of civilizations and these sites, including the Sassoon Synagogue, are part of our shared heritage,” explained Shuker.

Following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the vast majority of Iraqi Jews were displaced and deported to Israel, and by the early 1950s no more than 8,000 remained from a peak of 150,000.

The systematic destruction of their memory and heritage going back 2,600 years became part of Iraq’s state policy.

This picture taken on Feb. 2, 2022, shows a close-up view of a relief in Hebrew at the entrance of the dilapidated Sasson Synagogue in Iraq’s northern city of Mosul. (Photo by ZAID AL-OBEIDI/AFP via Getty Images)

In the wake of the Jewish expulsions in the 1950s, shrines of the biblical prophets Ezra, Ezekiel and Jonah were turned into mosques and hundreds of synagogues disappeared, except for the Meir Toeg synagogue in Baghdad. Miraculously, the Sassoon Synagogue in Mosul survived, but was badly damaged.

Trying to resurrect the Jewish memory of the city and help rebuild the synagogue is also dangerous now, particularly following the kidnapping of Russian-Israeli researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov in Baghdad in June this year. 

Still, some Iraqis are championing to preserve the Jewish memory in Mosul and greater Iraq. 

One is Omar Mohammed, a senior researcher in the Program on Extremism at The George Washington University. He also runs the blog “Mosul Eye,” a site that has been anonymously reporting on Mosul since ISIS began its occupation in 2014. Mohammed recently concluded a project on the documentation of the oral history of the Jewish community in Iraq. He found that most of the Jews in Mosul who were deported and had their land confiscated during the 1950s under Baghdad’s pro-Nazi regime during World War II, and after Israel’s founding, are still alive. They are, however, no longer living in Iraq.

“We are interested in reviving the Jewish heritage of Iraq, which is something that has been omitted from our history books,” Mohammed told JI. “It is their own right to be remembered that they lived once in this place that they lived, they owned the property, they had their own life. But now it has been completely omitted.”

As for the Sassoon Synagogue, its once-grand structure remains derelict and abandoned, just like the lives of the very few Jews still residing in Iraq, some of whom have kept their faith hidden, their conversations about their history done in secret.

And yet, the synagogue, like the memory of the Jews of Mosul and in Iraq, is crucial to an understanding of religious pluralism and the importance of peace amid diversity. 

Remnants of the Sassoon Synagogue in Mosul, Iraq. (Credit: Edwin Shuker)

“When you walk into the synagogue it looks like a carpet filled with bullet holes,” remembers Shuker. Nearby, construction work speeds ahead, cranes pointing skyward, to rebuild the destroyed mosques and churches.

But it is quiet at the site of the Sassoon Synagogue, which, in many ways, serves a key part of Mosul’s history, memory and identity. The rich religious history of Mosul, and the entire Nineveh province, brings to light again how Muslims, Christians, Jews and Yazidis share a common history. As the Muslim and Christian religious monuments of Mosul rise up from the rubble, parliament’s new law against any contacts with Israel strikes a blow against that common history, and keeps the Sassoon Synagogue as a sacred ruin.

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