Iraqi-born Jews have mixed feelings about voting (JERUSALEM POST) By ORLY HALPREN 01/28/05)
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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
"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,´"
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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