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Iraqi-born Jews have mixed feelings about voting (JERUSALEM POST) By ORLY HALPREN 01/28/05)Source: http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull&cid=1106848123011 JERUSALEM POST JERUSALEM POST Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
When Neeran, a 47-year-old Iraqi-born British Jew, walked up to the table at the polling station for the Iraqi elections in Wembley, London, she burst into tears. "The emotions of 31 years since I left all came out in one second," she said.

Neeran, who wouldn´t give her last name, escaped Saddam Hussein´s regime with her family in 1973, leaving her home, her culture and her beloved country. In all those years she has kept alive her Iraqi identity – the food, the language and the traditions – never believing one day she would be able to reconnect to the country.

"When we left Iraq we never thought this day would arrive," said Neeran, a bookkeeper. "I feel very, very privileged to reach a point to take part in something like this."

But not all Iraqi Jews ran to register like Neeran. In the large Iraqi Jewish communities in Israel, Toronto, Montreal, New York, Los Angeles and London many elderly expatriates hesitated.

The first free Iraqi elections for the country´s National Assembly have given the tens of thousands of Iraqi Jews who fled Iraq between the 1950s and the 1970s the chance to be a part of their former homeland. Yet fear kept many away from the polling stations around the world, where registration for voting closed Tuesday evening.

"We had hesitations," said Miriam, an Iraqi Jew in her sixties who fled with her family to Toronto in the 1950s. Miriam did not register, expressing fear that she and her six brothers and sisters would be targeted by terrorists once their names were registered.

"Our names are going to the United Nations, which is stacked up with Muslims," she said. "My passport is going to be taken, my driver´s license is going to be taken and I don´t feel I´m handing it over to a secure source."

Miriam was also worried that the records identifying her and her family as Iraqis will go back to Iraq. "We could be targeted as Jews," she said. "Mostly I´m afraid that the names will end up somehow in the hands of terrorists."

Edwin Shuker, 49, a prominent Baghdad-born Jewish businessman in London and an active member of the British Iraqi Jewish community, registered to vote and encouraged many of his fellow countrymen to do the same.

"Some were very excited and registered on the first day, hoping to make a difference," he said.

But Shuker had trouble persuading many Iraqi Jews to go to the polls. "It´s absurd," he said. "They carry the trauma and fear with them." Shuker escaped Iraq in the Seventies during Saddam´s regime.

He registered to vote last Thursday using his old Iraqi identity card, which is yellow identifying him as a Jew. Although any official document stating place of birth as Iraq gives expatriate Iraqis the right to vote, many Jews thought they had to bring their Iraqi ID in order to register, so they did not come at all.

"Either they were scared that [the polling staff] are taking our names and maybe something will go wrong, or they say, ´I don´t know how they will receive me as a Jew, maybe they´ll turn me back,´" Shuker said.

At the last minute, Morris Cohen decided to vote, unlike the majority of the Iraqi Jews in his community in Toronto who don´t want to get involved, he said. "They don´t want to put themselves in a dangerous situation," said Cohen. "Even with the slightest chance that their name will fall in the wrong hands."

The retired 64-year-old Baghdad-born photographer is also scared to be identified as a Jew. "With a name like Cohen I am easily identifiable and those lists of names are going to Iraq," he said. "There is some risk. This is a challenge that I´m taking."

Two considerations, one national and one personal, made Cohen register. Like many other Iraqi Jews he wants a democracy for the Iraqi people. "Then," he says, "we as Jews can claim our rights and maybe the government of Iraq will recognize us [as exiles]."

Iraqi Jews left property behind worth hundreds of millions of dollars, which was subsequently frozen by the Iraqi government. Cohen´s upper-middle-class family had two maids and a chauffeur and lived in a large mansion before they fled in the 1950s.

Distance and the cost of travel were reasons for others not to vote. But not for Oded Halahmy, an Iraqi-born sculptor who lives in New York City. Despite the large Jewish Iraqi community there, the nearest polling station is in Washington DC. Halahmy flew there to register and will fly there again to vote this weekend. "I want to do something for the Iraqi people," he said.

In Israel, inconvenience and not fear was the main reason for not registering. The nearest polling station is in Jordan and for the more than 70,000 elderly Iraqi-born Jews in Israel, that´s too far.

"No one is going from here," said Mordechai Ben-Porat, who led the armed underground Zionist movement in Iraq in the ´40s and ´50s and today heads the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda.

"It´s too much of a problem," said the 81-year-old, noting the cost of travel and accommodation at the nearest polling station in Amman. "But if there were a polling station in Tel Aviv everybody would go to vote." (© 1995-2005, The Jerusalem Post 01/28/05)

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