the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center
No.15, Winter 2005/2006
BUSH MEETS IRAQIS WHO VOTED
IN THE JANUARY 2005 ELECTIONS
Maurice Shohet, New York
At the end of an Oval Office meeting on March 29th of 2005, President Bush asked me:'How many Jews are left in Iraq?' 'Twenty,' I said. 'Only twenty?' he asked, a surprised look crossing his face.
President Bush likes to talk to activists who lived under repressive regimes and hear their experiences first-hand. For this reason, and because we voted in the latest Iraqi elections, we were invited by the president to meet him at the White House.
When we entered the Oval Office, the president shook hands with each one of us and said to me,'Welcome from New York!'
After we took our places, the President said a few words of welcome and talked about the democratic process that had taken place in Iraq two months earlier. Following that, we each spoke in turn. We were nine people, Iraqi-born or of Iraqi descent. Among us were four Iraqi Arabs, two Kurds, two Christians and I, a Jew. The group included four women and five men.
I went to the White House without any definite idea on what I would be asked or what to talk about. During the meeting, I decided to provide some information about the Iraqi Jewish community following the Six Day War, since it was in 1968 when the Ba'ath party came to power in Iraq that eventually led to Saddam Hussein accepting to the presidency.
The president's meeting with us following the Iraqi election of January 29 sent a clear signal that it is not only the new Iraqi government that is on the U. S. agenda. It is also the Iraqi people who were at the forefront of making the change possible by working toward the goal of democracy and voting in the elections. The meeting was a recognition that President Bush does care about our effort.
In my conversation with the president, I thanked him for liberating Iraq and asked him to ensure that the rights of all Iraqi minorities, among them the Jews, are included in the draft of the new constitution.
To illustrate my concern about minorities, I mentioned a recent incident. The Iraqi government decided to add Saturday in addition to Friday to the weekend since world business markets are closed that day. This brought complaints from students and others who went to class and worked the first Saturday off to protest the introduction of a day of rest that coincides with the Jewish Sabbath. Leaders of the Karbala province, Al-Anbar University in Ramadi, the heartland of the insurgency, and other institutions changed the weekend on their own to Thursday and Friday. I noted that in spite of the new democratic process, religious hatred towards the Jews persists.
Still, I told the president that if he continues in his campaign for freedom and democracy in the Middle East, many in the Arab and Muslim world would listen to him. I based this view on the fact that I grew up in Iraq and have some understanding of Arab and Muslim thinking. I added that the successful elections that took place in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian Authorities are just the beginning. These have a domino effect that will eventually influence many countries, and we have already seen the recent demonstrations in Lebanon following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri, as well as the steps towards democracy being taken in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Ukraine.
To provide some background about the Jewish community, I explained that most Jews were forced to leave Iraq because of persecution, and I described the suffering of the remaining 3,300 Jews following the Six Day War and the rise of the Ba'ath regime in 1968.
I was living in Baghdad at the time, and Jewish high-school graduates were banned from attending universities, while Jewish employees were fired and households lost their source of income. Jews were not allowed to leave the country. This eventually led the vast majority of the Jewish community to leave everything behind and flee across the border. I told the president that I was one of those who took this route and was smuggled into Iran with the help of the Kurds. This statement brought a lot of satisfaction and smiles to the faces of the two Kurdish women present at the meeting.
President G. W. Bush with Iraqis who voted in January 2005 elections (First in the right: Mr. M. Shohet)
Because the Jewish community in Iraq is an ancient one, I told the president that no other country in the world except Israel could claim the special connection to the Jewish people that Iraq can. There are several tombs of Jewish prophets and high priests scattered in different Iraqi provinces. Due to the importance of the country to the Jewish people, several members of the Iraqi Jewish community decided to participate in the rebuilding of Iraq by restoring the tombs of the Jewish prophets and High Priests there, to encourage future Jewish tourism to Iraq.
Together with another member of the community and in coordination with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), I went to Iraq a year ago to study the possibility of restoring these sites. But a day after we arrived in Baghdad, the Fallouja insurgency erupted. For our safety, the CPA personnel who arranged our trip advised us to postpone our plan until the security situation improves in Iraq.
The president was interested in hearing about the experience of each person present. An Iraqi Arab raised the issue of corruption that was being heavily reported in the news among certain sectors of the new Iraqi administration. One of the two Kurdish women handed the president a picture of her assassinated father, telling him that those who were involved in his murder are currently active in the administration of the new Iraqi government. We were impressed to hear the president give an immediate order for a special meeting following ours, to include the secretary of defense, intelligence officials and the Kurdish lady whose father was assassinated, to hear more details about her claims.
Watching this, I was reminded that while following the president's approach to world issues during the last four and a half years, I concluded that human rights have always been central to his policy and that he has a genuine moral concern.
Our meeting with Bush stretched from a scheduled 25 minutes to 50 minutes. A high-level meeting between the President and us has not only symbolic importance but also potential for real importance given the presence of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who listened during the whole meeting but did not participate. The administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Andrew S. Natsios also attended the meeting.
Two weeks after our meeting Secretary Rumsfeld made a previously unannounced visit to Iraq. It is obvious that we cannot relate our meeting in any direct connection with that visit. But among the topics discussed by the secretary of defense, as reported in the news, were some that several Iraqis present in our meeting had raised with the president.
After the meeting at the Oval Office, we were invited to follow the president to the Rose Garden and stand behind him during the delivery of his remarks about freedom in Iraq. More than 300 Iraqis from all over the United States and many Americans specifically invited for the occasion were present. We were also joined by Iraqi law students visiting the United States for an international competition, by members of Iraq's religious communities in town to learn about democracy, and by others who helped organize the Iraqi out-of-country elections held in the United States. Among those present in the Rose Garden were the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Senator John Warner from Virginia.
The president welcomed and thanked all those present for coming to the White House. In his speech, he said: 'I met with a group of people dedicated to building a new Iraq…They come from different backgrounds; they practice different religions; they have one thing in common – they all voted in the January elections…' He added, 'I commend the more than eight million Iraqis who defied the car bombers and assassins to vote that day. The world has watched Iraqi women vote in enormous numbers. The world has seen more than 80 women take their seats as elected representatives in the new assembly… In forming their new government, the Iraqis have shown that the spirit of compromise has survived more than three decades of dictatorship… The free people of Iraq are now doing what Saddam Hussein never could – making Iraq a positive example for the entire Middle East.'
It was a great honor for Iraqi Jews to have their community mentioned in the news in connection with the first Iraqi democratic elections in more than 50 years. By inviting us to the White House and meeting with us, the president signaled that he was interested in knowing about our past, and not just about our individual fates, but the conditions and history that brought them about.
It was a privilege for me as an Iraqi Jew to be asked to be among the organizers and administrators of the first Iraqi Overseas Elections at its location near the U.S. capital. It was also a great personal honor to be invited to the White House, to sit with the president in the Oval Office and discuss Iraq. I grew up without any dream to meet any world leader, let alone the American president. It was a long journey, to go from growing up in Baghdad with fear and intimidation as a Jew during the Ba'ath era, to be invited by the president of the United States to chat and talk freely as a Jew.
The meeting was also a unique opportunity to thank both the president and the secretary of defense for sending American forces to liberate Iraq and topple the very Ba'ath regime that had kidnapped, tortured killed, and hanged to death ten of Iraqi Jews. Lucky is the community to have its voice heard by the leader of the free world.