On June 26, the Iraqi military, backed by U.S. airstrikes, liberated Fallujah from ISIS. For two and a half years, the terrorist organization ruled the city of a quarter-million in virtual darkness from the media. Glimpses of its barbarity are coming into view: beheaded and decaying bodies, cages where prisoners were held, bomb-laden schools.
The very name Fallujah conjures up war and danger. Yet this town on the Euphrates 40 miles west of Baghdad is one of the most important in the history of the Jews. In ancient and medieval times, it was called Pumbedita or Pallgutha, from which the name Fallujah derives.
In 586 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, expelling the Jews and forcibly relocating them throughout his empire. Vanquished by the Persians 50 years later, Babylonia became a place accepting of Jews. Jewish life flourished. Academies of learning sprang up, most famously at Pumbedita and Sura.
It was in Pumbedita and Sura that the second most important work of Judaism was written: the Babylonian Talmud. From 250, through the Islamic conquest until 1000 and despite episodic pogroms, Pumbedita and Sura were the most important centers of Jewish learning in the world. The greatest praise of intellectual acumen was to be likened to the sages of Pumbedita.
At Pumbedita, Judah bar Ezekiel, known as Rav Yehuda, introduced an analytic method that became the hallmark of Jewish study: The dialectic approach, in which rabbi and rabbi or student and student argue a subject from all perspectives — a spirit of give-and-take where participants exhaust all analytic possibilities. Debates at Pumbedita between rabbis Rava and Abaye stand as unparalleled dialectic in the Talmud.
Presaging a now more familiar Fallujah, in 1040, the Abbasid Caliphate, headquartered in Baghdad, imprisoned, tortured and killed Hezekiah Gaon, the last head of Pumbedita Academy.
Fallujah stands not just for the violence and horror of the modern era, but the lost heritage of Jews everywhere in the world. Persecuted, scapegoated, expelled, murdered — Jews strove against the odds, keeping spiritual and intellectual life alive, rising like Phoenix from the ashes when overlords gave them a chance to live freely.
Riots, killing and dispossession of Jews in the decades before the creation of Israel led to the eventual departure of all of Iraq’s Jews. Today, it is a land bereft of Jewish presence. Behind the horrific scenes in Fallujah, all but lost in the mists of time, is the two-and-a-half-thousand-year Jewish light in Babylonia.
Adam Cole is a lawyer in San Francisco and national commissioner of the Anti-Defamation League.