- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2005

TEL AVIV — Tens of thousands of Iraqi Jews with Israeli citizenship could vote in the upcoming Iraqi election if they could mail absentee ballots, although it’s unlikely that they’ll get the opportunity, local community leaders said.

The desire to participate in the voting reflects the nostalgia among Israel’s Iraqi Jews for a country where their ancestors once thrived but were ultimately denied basic civil rights. Casting ballots is seen as a way to improving ties between Israel, which has been their home for decades, and Iraq.

“It could be an opening for future relations between Israel and Iraq,” said Mordechai Ben-Porat, a Baghdad native who oversaw the immigration of 130,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel shortly after its establishment. “I’m encouraging voting among Iraqi Jews, both those in Israel and those elsewhere in the world.”

But Mr. Ben-Porat, 80, conceded that few, in any, Israeli citizens of Iraqi origin will vote, because they must travel to Jordan to cast ballots.

“If they made election stations in Israel, I would vote, but I won’t go to Jordan. I don’t have time for it,” he said.

Iraq’s election commission has said anyone outside the country who can prove that they or their father once resided in Iraq is eligible to vote. The International Organization of Migration estimates that 1 million Iraqis in 14 countries would be able to participate.

As many as 240,000 Iraqis living in the United States can take part in the Jan. 30 election by voting in five designated cities with large Iraqi populations, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

Voters must personally visit a polling station — in Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit or Nashville, Tenn. — first to register on Jan. 17 to 23 and again to cast their ballots on Jan. 28 to 30.

As in Israel, Iraqi expatriates in the United States, who say they are very enthusiastic about their motherland’s first election in nearly half a century, criticized the selection of the five cities, because distance will make voting difficult.

“Our main concern and the overwhelming complaint in our community is that it’s not feasible for many people to travel twice to a place far from their home,” said Jafar Qazwini of the group Future of Iraq in Los Angeles.

“For example, there will be five stations in L.A., but none in San Diego, Phoenix and San Francisco.”

Mr. Ben-Porat, who heads the Babylonian Jewish Heritage Center in the Tel Aviv suburb of Or Yehuda, estimated that 244,000 Iraqi Jews live in Israel and an additional 45,000 reside elsewhere.

Israeli Housing Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who left Iraq at 12, told the Ha’aretz newspaper that he didn’t think Israelis would vote in Iraqi elections out of a sense of loyalty to their new home. But others said there was no conflict in participating in the Iraqi vote, noting that large numbers of American and Ukrainian expatriates with Israeli citizenship recently participated in elections in those countries.

At the time of the Iraqi-Jewish exodus, the community had been stripped of their citizenship cards, barred from universities and subjected to pogroms. Despite the scars of discrimination, Iraqi Jews still romanticize sultry summers in Baghdad and boast about the country’s first finance minister, Yehezkel Sasson, who was Jewish.

“We still listen to Iraqi classic music, and we’re still fans of the Baghdad orchestra,” said Sheffi Gabbai, also a Baghdad native who hosts a program on Iraqi culture on Israel Radio’s Arabic broadcast.

“I want democracy in Iraq because I want to visit cemeteries of my ancestors, my neighborhood, and my school,” Mr. Gabbai also said he wouldn’t travel to Jordan to vote, but added that he would gladly send an absentee ballot to Jordan’s embassy in Tel Aviv.

Nicholas Kralev contributed to this report in Washington.

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