Half a century after his family fled, Elan Carr flew into Iraq as a major in the US army.
Although he calls his subsequent tenure in Baghdad “a twist of fate that could not have been envisioned,” his path to that moment would make Carr’s arrival, in October 2003, seem more like destiny than coincidence.
A seasoned lawyer fluent in Iraqi Arabic, Carr brought with him a unique set of professional skills, as well as a deep appreciation for his family history and for Iraq‘s Jewish past as a whole.
The son of an Iraqi-born Jewish mother and an Ashkenazi father, Carr would ultimately draw great personal meaning from his army service, integrating his heritage by regularly leading Shabbat services for fellow soldiers — and by lighting Hanukkah candles at Saddam Hussein’s presidential palace.
“What an appropriate service to begin with,” Carr told The Times of Israel, speaking recently on the sidelines of a conference of Jewish activists in Connecticut. “Hanukkah: the symbol of freedom, of conquering a profane and cruel tyranny that defiled a land. We were profoundly moved by the experience.”
A lawyer with degrees from Berkeley and Northwestern, Carr landed in Baghdad as an anti-terrorism officer, serving in a unit that reported to US Central Command. In addition to assessing threats and recommending responses, Carr served as a judge advocate in the US military’s legal system, prosecuting insurgents before Iraqi judges at the Central Criminal Court.
Now 45, Carr wasn’t the first member of his family to enter an Iraqi courtroom. His grandfather, once a prominent leader of Baghdad’s Jewish community, also appeared repeatedly in legal settings — but in his case as an unwilling participant in show trials, staged as part of Iraq’s anti-Semitic response to the establishment of Israel in May 1948.
Carr grew up hearing stories about his grandfather, a descendant of Abdallah Somekh, a chief rabbi of Baghdad in the 19th century. Despite Iraq’s long history as home to a large, flourishing Jewish community, the country was roiled by anti-Semitic violence in the years leading up to Israel’s founding, and Carr’s grandfather was already planning the family’s escape to Australia when he was imprisoned.
“My mother remembers him coming to the door with shaving cream on his face when they arrested him,” Carr says. A young girl at the time, she “remembers vividly the hysteria.”
Convicted on false charge of distributing communist propaganda, Carr’s grandfather received a sentence of three years in prison — plus an additional two for “calling Muslim witnesses liars.” In 1950, as he remained behind bars, the rest of his family immigrated to Israel, where he was eventually able to join them.
In Israel, Carr’s mother performed her army service in intelligence, then pursued a graduate degree in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies in New York City, where she met Carr’s father.
Despite a childhood that was in many ways typical for Jewish New Yorkers, “I was always Iraqi,” Carr recalls.
Educated at a Jewish day school, the young Carr spoke exclusively in Hebrew with his mother, and traveled to Israel every year. But he credits Alpha Epsilon Pi, his Jewish fraternity at Berkeley, with truly shaping his Jewish identity.
‘It is never a good thing to go to war, but I was thrilled at this particular mission’
“To be part of an organization that is profoundly connected to Jewish nationhood, the brotherhood of Am Yisrael [the Jewish people], is eye-opening, awakening,” he says.
Now the organization’s international president — his official title is “supreme master” — Carr says the group “takes Jews and gives them a sense of belonging — not just to the fraternity, but to the larger fraternity of Am Yisrael.”
Following graduation, Carr went on to law school, bringing to Northwestern the image of his grandfather “naively attempting to exculpate himself in an Iraqi court that was never intended to be a fair tribunal.”
While the trial was rigged, Carr says he found inspiration in his grandfather’s refusal to surrender, and in the legal thinking that underpinned his efforts.
“He actually had the audacity to defend himself,” Carr observes. “He stood up in the court and said, ‘Your honor, with respect, I can bring witnesses to prove that I was not in the city — I was in Basra at the time.’ ”
‘My mother remembers [my grandfather] coming to the door with shaving cream on his face when they arrested him’
After law school, Carr accepted a position at a prestigious New York law firm, practicing commercial litigation. He left in the mid-’90s to become a legal adviser to Israel’s Ministry of Justice, where he helped create Israel’s first public defender’s office, now a major institution in the criminal justice system.
Upon his return to the US in 1997, Carr moved to Los Angeles and joined the military, a decision he’d always considered. “I wasn’t going to make [the army] a career, but I said, ‘In some small way, I want to shoulder a portion of the burden of defending the United States,’ ” he says.
Shortly after he took his oath as a commissioned officer, the Sept. 11 terror attacks changed what it meant to be in the US army. In 2003, a year into his relationship with his future wife, Carr received an email notifying him of his deployment to Iraq — a development he accepted enthusiastically.
“Here I was, a military officer landing in Iraq, helping Iraqis create a free, democratic society,” he says of his thinking at the time. “It is never a good thing to go to war, but I was thrilled at this particular mission.”
In addition to his primary responsibilities as an officer, Carr’s role in Jewish life within the army included a Passover seder and regularly leading Shabbat services on Friday nights.
Overseeing missions by day, Carr also took part in the Hanukkah ceremony at a former presidential palace, the first Jewish event ever to held at one of Saddam Hussein’s residences.
“What a privilege it was to express myself Jewishly and provide Jewish services to Jewish soldiers in as unlikely a place as Baghdad, from which [Scud missiles] were launched into Israel only a few years before,” he says. “We lit a Hanukkiah and said, ‘Banu hoshekh legharesh — we have come to banish darkness.’ ”
Despite the violence of the time, Carr says he was profoundly moved by what he sees as Iraq’s great potential as a democracy. He views the more recent uprisings across the Arab world as a direct result of Hussein’s downfall, and of images of Iraqis voting in free elections.
Since his return to the US in 2004, Carr has served as a criminal prosecutor in Los Angeles County, where he lives with his wife and two daughters.
Now a deputy district attorney, Carr also lectures on terrorism and the Middle East, traveling across North America and Israel to address Israel-advocacy groups and chapters of AEPi.
Wherever he goes, his grandfather’s hardships continue to inspire him — both as a lawyer and in his view of a country’s duties to its citizens.
“I remember that story,” he says, “and how important it is that the government treat its people with decency, kindness and equity under the law.”