The Tragic Demise of Iraqi Jewry

| ח׳ בתמוז ה׳תשע״ט (11/07/2019) | 0 Comments

by Alyssa Dwek

Until the 1950s, Iraq was home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, with a proud history spanning over 2,600 years. Today, fewer than ten Jews are left in the country. Within a few decades, a community of over one hundred thousand was reduced to practically nothing. What happened that caused the tragic demise of Iraqi Jewry?

Iraqi Jewry before the Twentieth Century

The history of the Jews in Iraq can be traced back to 586 BCE, when Babylon was under the control of the neo-Babylonians, who were ruled by Nebuchadnezzar II. At this time, Jews living in the Kingdom of Judah were uprooted and exiled to Babylon. When the return to Zion occurred around 50 years later, very few Jews living in Babylon chose to go back to the Holy Land, having settled and made lives for themselves in Babylon. Over the course of time, Babylon became a hub for Judaism, seeing the rise of some of Judaism’s greatest scholars. Following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, Babylon became a great center of learning and saw a number of schools and prominent Jewish religious figures arise.

This period culminated in the creation of the Babylonian Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of Jewish halacha (religious law) and Jewish theology. The Babylonian Talmud comprises the Mishnah and the Babylonian Gemara, the latter representing the pinnacle of more than 300 years of analysis and debate of the Mishnah by successive generations of Jewish scholars.

Over the centuries, the region was conquered several times, often leading to periods of great upheaval. Under the Sassanids, the Jewish community prospered, as the Jewish community benefited from good relationships with its leaders. The Mongol period followed, and while life under the new regime started off well for the Jews, by the end of Mongolian reign, Jews regularly experienced persecution. The Mongolian period was followed by Ottoman rule. Then too, Jews were not treated as equals and occasionally suffered terrible indignities and persecution, but nevertheless were allowed to flourish to the point that the Iraqi Jewish community became a hub for Middle Eastern Jewry.

Although not fully integrated into Iraqi society, up until the 1920s and 30s the Jews of Iraq generally enjoyed a relatively high standard of life, holding key positions in government and bureaucracy and being very successful economically. Jewish schools introduced modern methods of teaching, resulting in many Jews enjoying a higher level of education than the rest of the population. This allowed Jews to work in a number of fields, including in the government and economics, as well as in the arts and performance. However, the Jews’ success was a double-edged sword, and provoked resentment among the greater population.

The Rise of Zionism

Zionism rose to prominence following the First World War. However, few Iraqi Jews were initially interested in making Aliyah, believing that Zionism too closely resembled socialism. In addition, Iraqi Jews were generally not interested in the agricultural work required of those moving to Mandatory Palestine. Therefore, despite their sympathies with the Zionist vision, many disregarded moving to Israel as a viable option.

Two years after the Great War, in 1920, the “Jam’iyya Adabiyya Isra’iliyya” (Jewish Literary Society) Zionist group was founded in Baghdad. The society was initially permitted by the Iraqi government, but after two years a new law passed by the Iraqi government required societies and associations to register with the Ministry of the Interior. Despite existing for two years by then, the Minister delayed the Jewish Literary Society’s permit until 1924, and even then the society was allowed to operate in a limited area, thanks to much pressure from the Zionist Organisation in London. Over the next five years, a number of Zionist societies and groups were established; some clandestinely, some openly.

Just as Zionism began to gather steam as a force among Iraqi Jews, things changed for the worse when the 1929 Palestine Riots broke out in Mandatory Palestine. Angered by rumors of a Jewish attempt to convert the Western Wall into a synagogue, Muslims launched numerous unprovoked attacks on Jews, resulting in the loss of hundreds of lives and Jewish property being looted. Distorted reports of the clashes spread across the Arab world, claiming that thousands of Arabs were killed due to Jewish aggression, and soon reached the ears of Arabs in Iraq. Hearing this, the Arabs regarded the Jews as responsible for the alleged massacres of Muslims, and turned their anger on the local Jewish community, including against those Jews uninvolved in the Zionist movement. As a result of these events, Jews were met with hostility and Zionist movements in Iraq were banned later that year. According to many historians, this point marked the beginning of the end for Iraqi Jewry.

Throughout the 1930s, as the status of Mandate Palestine continued to be debated, the position of the Jews in Iraq became increasingly uncomfortable, with Zionists in particular targeted. The head of the Zionist Movement was exiled and had to leave Iraq. Discrimination towards the Jews worsened throughout this period. The Iraqi authorities routinely turned a blind eye to Muslims harassing their Jewish neighbors, with antisemitism viewed as natural by many in society. Jews were the victims of various cruel acts, with one Jew, Yitzhak Bezalel, remembering a particularly nasty incident in Baghdad when a group of hooligans, aware that Jews refrain from wearing leather footwear on Yom Kippur and therefore walk barefoot, spread broken glass on the ground, resulting in many Jews cutting their feet.

In 1934, Jews were excluded from jobs in the public sector and the number of Jews accepted into institutions for higher education was limited through the use of quotas. Anti-Jewish sentiment was once again worsened by the arrival of a number of pro-Nazi activists. These activists from both Mandate Palestine and Syria incited hatred against the Jews.

Although they were spared the hell of the German death camps in Europe, Jews in Arab countries faced their own difficulties which have been largely overlooked. The eruption of the Second World War in the late thirties affected great swathes of the globe, and Iraq was no different. With the growing British presence in the country enraging Arab nationalists, support for the Germans rose. Iraqi government officials publicly spoke out in favor of the Germans, and pro-German messages were spread in Iraqi newspapers and radio. A nationalist movement, called the Al-Fatwa movement, was created. Inspired by the Hitler Youth movement, Al-Fatwa membership eventually became compulsory for all children and teachers. With the Nazis finding support among Arabs resentful of British rule, Baghdad was the early base for Nazi Middle East intelligence operations during World War II.

On April 1st 1941, former Iraqi Prime Minister Rashid Ali al-Gaylani attempted to carry out a coup against the British authorities, and announced that Iraq would no longer provide Britain with natural resources as required. The move infuriated the British, who were also concerned by the possibility of the Nazis gaining influence in the Middle East. By the end of the month, British forces struck back against the Iraqi army and regained control. The frustrations generated by these events led to a potent mixture of hatred and resentment stewing in an atmosphere of lawlessness, with disastrous consequences for the Jewish community of Baghdad. The resulting massacre of Jews, known as the Farhud, is regarded by many as the death knell heralding the demise of Iraqi Jewry.

The tensions and animosity towards Iraqi Jews worsened following the United Nations Partition Plan, the United Nations’ attempted solution for dividing Mandatory Palestine. The Foreign Minister of Iraq stated that if the Iraqi government did not agree with the decision made by the UN about the partition of Palestine, this would result in the demise of the positive relationship between the Jews of Iraq and their neighbors.

In 1947, Fadel Jamall, Iraq’s foreign minister addressed the General Assembly in New York, stating:

Partition imposed against the will of the majority of the people will jeopardise peace and harmony in the Middle East… The Arab-Jewish relationship in the Arab world will greatly deteriorate.

The Death Knell for Iraqi Jewry: The Farhud Pogrom of 1941

The events of June 1 and 2, 1941, in which the Muslim residents of Baghdad carried out a savage assault against their Jewish neighbors are perhaps the most widely-known attack on Iraqi Jews leading to the ultimate demise of the Iraqi Jewish community.

This pogrom, known by its Arabic name al-Farhud, arose during a brief power vacuum in between a failed coup led by pro-Nazi Arab nationalist Rashid Ali al-Gaylani and the resumption of British control.

According to some the violence started when Jews met with the returning Regent ‘Abd al-Ilah, an act that infuriated local Arab nationalists. Others believe that the rioting was set off by anti-Jewish preaching in a nearby, and that the violence was premeditated rather than a spontaneous outburst.

The massacre was preceded by a swell of Nazi propaganda in Iraq over the previous few years following the arrival of Jerusalem’s mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini. A good friend of Hitler’s, al-Husseini arrived in Baghdad in 1939 after evading a British arrest warrant. He was warmly received in Iraq, and constantly peddled violent incitement against the Jews. Al-Husseini saw Nazi Germany as a “defender of the Muslim world” and regarded the Jews as “dangerous enemies.”

Husseini’s links with the Nazis intensified the spread of anti-Semitic propaganda throughout Iraq via both public broadcasting and also the dissemination of Nazi German propaganda and messages in the Iraqi parliament and government officials. Pro-Nazi propaganda in Arabic began to be heard daily on public radio, followed by race laws against the Jews, mass dismissal from public posts, discrimination and harassment in the streets.

The situation intensified due to the increasing resentment from the Arabs towards the British. Jews were associated with the British and therefore, were regarded as targets for the discontent of the population.

These factors combined to form a potent cocktail in June 1941 when the outrage of Arab nationalists and Nazi sympathizers at seeing Jews excitedly welcome Regent ‘Abd al-Ilah’s return to Iraq turned into a violent attack on the Jews.

Due to the nature of the incident and the absence of reliable records, the exact number of Jews killed is unknown. According to most historians, it is believed that some 180 Jews were massacred, with another 600 injured in the carnage. Some independent researchers, however, estimate that over 1,000 Jews were killed. As well as Jews being killed and wounded, hundreds of Jewish-owned property were destroyed with around 1,500 homes and stores broken into, ransacked, and set ablaze.

It is important to note that during this massacre, a number of Muslims attempted to help their Jewish neighbors, inviting Jews into their homes and providing them with food and shelter.

Speaking about how the pogrom led to the ultimate demise of Iraqi Jewry, Yitzhak Bezalel stated:

Many Jews began to reconsider their situation and some decided to emigrate…illegal immigration to Eretz Israel began to increase.

The Farhud massacre heightened the already existing unease among the Jews of Baghdad. In response, a Jewish self-defense organization, the Iraqi ‘Haganah’ was established. The Haganah was a visible sign that the positive relationship between the Jews and the Muslims that once existed had fallen apart and the Jews of Iraq required physical protection. More than any other event, this massacre set in motion the chain of events leading to the eventual downfall of Iraqi Jewry.

Operation Ezra and Nehemiah

In 1957, Iraqi officials outlawed the emigration of Jews to Israel. Hundreds of Jewish citizens were punished for attempting to flee from Iraq, with many more successfully managing to evade capture and arriving in the Holy Land, as well as finding refuge in other countries. In 1951, negotiations between Iraq and Israel led to Jews being allowed to leave Iraq and move to Israel. However, this permission was granted on the condition that any Jews wishing to emigrate would renounce their Iraqi citizenship. Jewish emigres were also required to sell their assets and permitted to take no more than 140 dollars and 66 pounds of luggage with them.

Much to the surprise of both the Israeli and Iraqi governments, the majority of Jews decided to relinquish their Iraqi citizenship in favor of making Aliyah. The Israeli government made use of an American travel company in order to extract the Jews from Iraq, who were brought from Iraq to Cyprus. From there, the Jews were transported to Israel. Through this operation, over 120,000 Jews were brought to Israel, leaving less than 6,000 Jews left in Iraq.

Initially, when moving to Israel, the Iraqi Jews had a tough absorption into Israel, with the majority living in tents outside Tel Aviv. These Jews frequently endured discrimination, having a tough time assimilating into Israeli society. However, in modern-day Israel, Iraqi Jews no longer experience discrimination in the same way and are seen as a core part of Israeli society. Jews of Iraqi extraction have risen to hold key government positions, work in top jobs in the private sector, are influential cultural figures, and are generally a respected and highly-integrated part of Israeli society.

The Remaining Jews

Following the departure of the majority of Iraqi Jews, the demise of Iraqi Jewry continued. The Arab nationalist Ba’ath Party came into power in 1963, leading to a deterioration in conditions for the Jews. Laws were imposed banning Jews from selling their property and compelling them to carry a Jewish identity card on their person at all times.

1967 was a momentous year for the Middle East, with Israel’s victory in the Six Day War making clear that Israel’s existence was no mere quirk of history but now a permanent fixture in the modern Middle East map. But Israel’s victory came at a price for those remaining Jews across the Middle East. Frustrated at seeing their army defeated by Israel, Iraqis took out their frustrations on the local Jewish community. Jews were subjected to violence, arrests and the confiscation of their property. Many lost their jobs and were confined to their homes, having been put on house arrest.

Less than two years later, in January 1969, another atrocity occurred, when the remaining Jewish community of Iraq came under attack as the Iraqi government hung nine Jewish men falsely accused of acting as spies for Israel. This was a way for the Ba’ath party to reassert its dominance over, and facilitate the demise of, Iraqi Jewry. A local radio station, Baghdad Radio, encouraged citizens to congregate at a central square in Baghdad and celebrate the deaths of the men. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis came, with some estimates suggesting over one million people attended.

By 1972, 50 Jews had been arrested and had disappeared. These deaths encouraged the majority of the last Jews in Iraq to escape, despite emigration for Jews being illegal. Kurdish smugglers were responsible for helping many Jews flee from Iraq.

Iraqi Jews Now

By the 1970s, the majority of the remaining Iraqi Jews fled to Israel. Others moved to Britain — with Iraq previously part of the British empire, Iraqi Jews felt culturally close to the British and many spoke English. Similarly, a large number of Jews were attracted to India, another former British colony, one with close commercial ties to Iraq. Over time, the Indian-Iraqi Jewish community moved on, with large numbers relocating to Britain and Israel.

Today, the demise of Iraqi Jewry is almost complete, with fewer than 10 Jews believed to remain in the country.

[ original here ]

Category: Iraq

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