How Iraq's 2,600-year-old Jewish community was decimated in
by Edwin Black
aghdad, June 22, 2004. Just days before the Coalition Provisional Authority is scheduled to return power to Iraqi control, four Iraqi Jews--two in their forties, two elderly--inconspicuously board a Royal Jordanian airplane to Amman. Their travel documents and $800 airline tickets suggest nothing out of the ordinary. But their journey is being closely monitored by HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), which for more than a century has been rescuing beleaguered Jews throughout the world.
In Amman, two of the refugees transit directly to Israel where their families eagerly await them; the other two travel to an undisclosed country while arrangements for family reunification are finalized.
With the exception of approximately eleven Jews who have not chosen to leave, these are the last vestiges of a 125,000-strong Jewish community whose ancestors flourished here for twenty-six centuries.
The dismantling of Iraqi Jewry, once the most established and affluent Jewish community in the Arab Middle East, began at 3 PM on June 1, 1941, some forty years before Saddam Hussein came to power. In Europe, the events of the next thirty-six hours would have been called a pogrom. Iraqi Jews called it the Farhud. Perhaps Farhud is best translated as violent dispossession.
The Farhud was not a spontaneous outburst; it was the culmination of an anti-Jewish campaign rooted in an alliance between the Mufti of Jerusalem and Adolf Hitler.
After the Allies had defeated the Turks in the First World War, the British engineered a League of Nations mandate over Iraq. Faisal, who fought alongside Lawrence of Arabia, was rewarded with the monarchy and designated King of Iraq. Faisal died in 1933; he was succeeded by his son Ghazi, who died six years later; and the next in line for succession was Faisal's 4-year-old grandson. So London installed as Iraq's regent Abdul al-Ilah, himself a Hashemite prince from Saudi Arabia. This appointment stirred deep resentment among Iraq's Moslem masses, who viewed the British "infidels" as occupiers and anyone who cooperated with them as lackeys. As resentment turned to armed resistance and terror, militants targeted the British, as well as anyone they deemed as collaborators--including many Jews who held top posts in commerce and civil service.
Seizing on the growing discontent, the pro-Nazi cleric Haj Muhammed Amin al-Husseini, Mufti of Jerusalem and leader of the Arabs of Palestine, railed against the Jews, accusing them of being part of a Zionist plot to dominate the Middle East. The Mufti--who was being sought by the British in Palestine on charges of terrorism--had slipped into Iraq on October 13, 1939, six weeks after the outbreak of World War II. In Iraq, he conspired with a group of pro-Nazi officers, the "Golden Square," to overthrow the Regent. The Mufti also entered into a secret pact with Germany, offering Iraq's precious oil in exchange for the destruction of the Jews of Palestine and the Reich's support of Arab national aspirations across the Middle East. Hitler himself, anxious to thwart Britain's domination of the oil-rich Middle East and secure the oil needed to fuel his planned invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, went along with the idea even though the Nazis reviled the Arab race.
On April 1, 1941, the Golden Square staged a coup, forcing the Regent to flee Iraq. British warplanes responded with a series of persistent bombardments against Golden Square forces. By May 31, invading British forces had taken up positions on the outskirts of Baghdad, awaiting the Regent's return the following day. Just days before, the Mufti, broadcasting by radio, incited the people of Iraq against the Jews by accusing them of having intercepted telephone and telegraph transmissions and passing the information to the British Embassy--thus causing the defeat of the "Golden Square." All Jews, he declared, were spies.
On June 1, 1941, the sight of Jews returning from the Baghdad airport to greet the returning Regent was all the excuse an Iraqi mob needed to unleash its vengeance. The attack began as the Jewish delegation crossed the Al Khurr Bridge. Jews were murdered and mutilated in the streets; women were raped as their horrified families looked on; infants were killed in front of their parents. Violence quickly spread across the city and beyond, as the gangs looted and torched Jewish shops, burned down synagogues, and defiled their Torahs.
In some of the city's districts, the riot quieted by 10 PM; in others, the shooting, burning, and mayhem continued throughout the night. Some Jews found refuge in Moslem homes, but most felt defenseless, as policemen joined the attackers. The Lord Mayor of Baghdad pleaded with the director-general of the police to issue "shoot-to-kill" orders to stop the pogrom, to no avail. Finally, on the afternoon of June 2, British forces, assisted by two Iraqi brigades loyal to the Regent, opened fire on the rampagers, quickly dispersing the mob. A curfew was imposed at 5 PM. Only after scores of violators were shot on sight did the violence cease. A government commission later reported that at least 180 Jews had been killed and 240 wounded, 586 Jewish businesses pillaged, and 99 Jewish homes burned.
The Mufti's charge that the Iraqi Jews had pledged their loyalty to the Zionist cause was ironic, for the zeal that had led waves of European Jews to settle in Palestine had no parallel in the Arab world. In fact, Iraqi Jews were decidedly anti-Zionist in the 1920s and 1930s--so much so that no immigration representative, or shaliach, of the Jewish community in Palestine had been posted to Baghdad, and none was welcome. One high Zionist official, Chaim Arlosoroff, put it plainly: "The Jews there live contented lives, they are involved in all branches of commerce and economy, and therefore have no thought of emigrating." To the Iraqi Jews, explained eminent Baghdad Jewish community leader Menahem S. Daniel, "any sympathy with the Zionist Movement is [seen as] nothing short of a betrayal of the Arab cause....Jews in this country hold indeed a conspicuous position. They form one-third of the population of the capital, hold the larger part of the commerce of the country and offer a higher standard of literacy than the Moslems....[The Iraqi Jew] is, moreover, beginning to give the Moslem...successful competition in government functions, which...may well risk to embitter feelings against him. In this delicate situation the Jew cannot maintain himself unless he gives proof of an unimpeachable loyalty to his country."
The lesson of the Farhud was clear: the Jews of Iraq could no longer stand on their ancient history and their steadfast fealty to the nation. And so it was that on June 1, 1941 they woke up anti-Zionist, but by bedtime on June 2, Zionism and Jewish Palestine had become an option--perhaps their only option.
In the weeks following the Farhud, hundreds of Jews disregarded assurances from the Regent and British authorities that pogroms would not recur and smuggled their families and their possessions out of the country. About 1,000 Jews also applied for visas to enter India. Many sought refuge in Palestine. But by October 1941, as the political climate stabilized, the older generation of Jews believed the worst was behind them.
The younger generation did not share their parents' optimism. Concluding that a horrible end was coming, they formed secret Zionist societies akin to the underground Jewish defense organizations in Nazi-overrun Europe. The first such group in Baghdad, Youth for Salvation, and its sister group in the south, the Committee of Free Jews, made contact with Zionist emigration emissaries in Palestine, who slipped into Iraq to train the youth in underground tactics and self-defense--including the use of firearms.
After the defeat of the Golden Square, the Mufti escaped to Nazi Germany, where he was accorded the personal protection of his host, SS chief Heinrich Himmler. Using Radio Berlin, he now called on Moslems throughout the Middle East to defeat the British and slaughter the Jews. In one fatwa he declared: "O Moslems! Proud Iraq has placed herself in the vanguard of this Holy Struggle....It is the duty of all Moslems to aid Iraq...and seek every means to fight the enemy....The English have committed unheard of barbarisms.... Bring all your weight to bear in helping Iraq that she may throw off the shame that torments her....Kill the Jews wherever you find them. This pleases Allah, history and religion. This saves your honor."
For the Iraqi government, the Mufti's diatribes created the perfect scapegoat for the nation's ills--the Jews. Seeking to distract the public from Iraq's failures--no great industrial achievements to lift the spirits of the average Iraqi, no fair disbursement of the nation's oil wealth--Prime Minister Nuri Said allowed his censorship office to overlook libels against the Jews in the press and permitted the inciters of the Farhud to regain key government positions, especially within the police. By 1942 Arab unity would coalesce around the notion that all Iraqi Jews were Zionists and therefore enemies of the state.
During the remainder of the war years, anti-British and anti-Jewish hatred was everywhere palpable in Iraq. Typical of the mood, when the war film For Freedom was screened in Baghdad cinemas, audiences booed Churchill and cheered Hitler.
The defeat of the Third Reich in 1945 only heightened hatred of Jews, as thousands of Holocaust survivors made their way to Palestine. The situation grew even more precarious with the UN's decision in February 1947 to take up the question of partitioning Palestine. Iraq's newspapers warned that if "the Zionist entity" came into nationhood, no Iraqi government could control "the Arab Street" in Baghdad; indeed, the number of attacks on Jews intensified. For example, on May 9, a Baghdad mob killed a Jewish man it claimed had given poisoned candy to Arab children. In the Jewish quarter of Fallujah, Jewish homes were ransacked and their occupants expelled. Arab nationalists regularly extorted "donations" from Jews to be sent to Palestinian Arabs; "donors'" names were then read on the radio to encourage more of the same.
Still, many Jews remained in denial. As one Jewish Agency emissary in Iraq observed: "No attention is paid to the frightful manifestations of hostility around them, which place all Jews on the verge of a volcano about to erupt."
On November 29, 1947, the UN voted 33 yes, 13 no, with 10 abstentions, to create two states in Palestine: one Arab, the other Jewish. In response--and using the pretense that every Iraqi Jew with money was secretly funding Palestine--the Iraqi government adopted Nazi confiscatory techniques. Whether wealthy or not, Jews were forced to pay exorbitant fines as punishment for trumped-up offenses. One man, for example, was ordered to pay the equivalent of 10,000 pounds for possessing a gun, even though he had a permit. All the while, chants of "death to the Jews" were frequently heard on the streets of Baghdad and across the Iraqi provinces.
In April 1948, a month before Israel declared its independence, Iraq shut down the Kirkuk-Haifa oil pipeline, thereby slashing its own oil royalties by half. It then joined other Arab countries in a military invasion of the new Jewish state. "This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres," promised Azzam Pasha, secretary-general of the Arab League. Israel survived the war and signed a UN-negotiated armistice agreement with Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Only Iraq refused to sign, demanding "a second round."
In its war on the Jews, the Iraqi government turned next to the statute books. On July 19, 1948, penal code Law 51 against anarchy, immorality, and communism was amended to include "Zionism." Though the word was never defined, anyone accused of "Zionism" would face up to seven years in prison. The police conducted sweeps of thousands of Jewish homes searching for "evidence" of Zionist activity. If walls needed to be demolished to search, so be it. One Jewish man was sentenced to five years' hard labor for merely possessing a scrap of paper with a biblical Hebrew inscription; the paper was declared a Zionist instrument. Hidden money was often deemed proof of illegal aid to Israel. Denouncing a Jew required the testimony of only two Moslem witnesses; the accused was allowed virtually no avenue of appeal. Hundreds of Jews were arrested, forced to confess under torture, heavily fined, sentenced, and jailed.
In perhaps the greatest shock to the Jewish community since the Farhud, the wealthiest Jew in Iraq, Ford automobile importer Shafiq Ades, was accused of transporting cars to Israel, fined the equivalent of $20 million, and sentenced to death. On September 23, 1948, Ades was publicly hanged in Basra. His body was allowed to languish in the square for hours to be abused by the celebrating crowds.
Many more arrests, confiscations, and executions followed. A quarter of all Iraqi Jews worked in transportation, administering the railways and ports, but in October 1948 most Jewish government civil service employees--an estimated 1,500--were summarily dismissed, crippling communications, railroads, ports, and other key infrastructure. Some 350 Jewish workers were fired from the Railway Administration, despite the absence of replacements. Jewish banks, key to foreign commerce, lost their licenses to import money. Jewish businesses were boycotted and their owners arrested; their firms disappeared. Destitute Jewish businessmen and former government employees were now reduced to selling matches on the streets to avert arrest for vagrancy.
As the pressure mounted, the Zionist underground sought to establish an escape route through neighboring Iran. In late 1948, Israel's Mossad, the clandestine agency created to spirit Jews out of Europe during the Holocaust, entered into secret negotiations with Iranian Prime Minister Said Maragai and his aides, who, over time, received bribes totaling $450,000. On February 13, 1950, Maragai announced that his country would open its doors to Jews as a grand humanitarian gesture in keeping with its 6,000-year tradition of tolerance. Soon, some 1,000 Jews per month were flowing into Iran, requiring the creation of refugee transit camps. One of the most overcrowded camps was in an Iranian cemetery. It was nicknamed "Hell."
On March 3, 1950, to stem the flight of Jewish assets, Prime Minister Tawfig as-Suwaydi introduced a one-year amendment to Law 1, the Denaturalization Act. The amendment revoked the citizenship of any Jew who willingly left the country. All his assets would be frozen--though upon exit they could be drawn down to pay debts and obligations within Iraq. Once a Jew registered to emigrate, the decision was irrevocable, and the individual was required to leave within fifteen days.
The Iraqi leadership was stunned by what happened next. Government officials had anticipated that only the 7,000-10,000 most "undesirable Jews"--mainly those who had already been pauperized--would choose to leave the country. The wealthier Jews, they had surmised, would remain to protect their livelihoods and assets. They were wrong. Thousands of Jews, poor and rich, immediately registered to leave. Wave after wave of refugees joined the exodus, exiting via Iran.
The massive flow surprised the Mossad as well. Now they were working against time--they needed to rescue as many Jews as possible before Iraq changed its mind and closed its borders to Jews. The solution: an airlift. In the spring of 1950, the Mossad called in its most reliable partner for airlifting Jews--Alaska Airlines, whose president, James Wooten, had just months earlier been instrumental in rescuing the Jews of Yemen.
For the Iraqi Jewish airlift, Wooten entered into a secret partnership with El Al. Together they created an American charter company, Near East Air Transport (NEAT). Only Mossad knew that NEAT was not strictly an Alaska Airlines venture. The goal: to fly out 40,000 Jews that first year, about a third of Iraqi Jewry. Flights would operate through Cyprus or proceed directly to Israel--if the route could be kept secret. To secure charter rights in Iraq, NEAT needed an Iraqi partner, so it teamed up with Baghdad-based Iraq Tours, an operation chaired by none other than Iraqi Prime Minister Tawfig as-Suwaydi.
On May 19, 1950, two C-54 Skymasters airlifted the first 175 Jews out of Iraq (code-named Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, after the prophets who, in the fifth century BCE, shepherded returning Jews to Israel after the Babylonian exile). Within days, some 30,000 modern-day Iraqi Jews had registered for the exodus at their synagogues. But only 7,000 had managed to complete the lengthy and redundant bureaucratic process of obtaining all the right forms, from all the right people, with all the right stamps, in all the right order. At the airport, the "lucky ones" were abused and humiliated by airport security workers. Rings were pulled from their hands and linings ripped from their hats, all in the search for valuables.
Life for those left in bureaucratic limbo became a nightmare. Enraged at the magnitude of the exodus, the government threatened to throw the now stateless Jews into "concentration camps"--a question discussed openly in the Iraqi parliament--if Jews were not removed--and swiftly--from the country. But there simply weren't enough seats in the tiny NEAT fleet to fly the tens of thousands of desperate Jews to freedom. At the same time, Israel could barely absorb Iraqi Jews in such large numbers. Its fragile infrastructure was strained to the limit by the thousands of refugees who were also streaming in from war-ravaged Eastern Europe as well as other expelling Arab nations. Israel did not know if she had enough tents, let alone housing units.
In March 1951, newly re-installed Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Said realized that his 125,000 captive Jews could be turned into a demographic weapon against Israel. Said marshaled the passage of another anti-Jewish statute: Law 12, which permanently seized all the assets of Jews who had been denaturalized by the previous law. Technically, those seizures were deemed a mere "freezing" of accounts, not a legal "confiscation," so under international law the assets could never be claimed. Formulated in secret, Law 12 was presented to leading Iraqi government officials and the Parliament only minutes before the vote. As the measure was being ratified, Baghdad's telephones went dead, ensuring that Jews did not learn of the law in time to transfer their assets. And if those precautions weren't enough, the government ordered the banks closed for three days.
Israel's Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett vociferously condemned Iraq's extortion and state-sponsored theft as "robbery by force of law." "We have a reckoning to conduct with the Arab world," Sharett declared, vowing "the value of the Jewish property frozen in Iraq will be taken into account by us in calculating the sum of the compensation we have agreed to pay to Arabs who abandoned property in Israel."
Hoping that the Jewish state would crack beneath the economic burden of the mass rescue, Prime Minister Said demanded that Israel absorb 10,000 Iraqi Jewish refugees per month. He also set a deadline--May 31, 1951--after which no more exit visas would be issued. If Israel did not accept these stateless enemies at once, he warned, the concentration camps would be readied.
Israel had no choice but to accelerate the rescue of Iraqi Jewry by as many as 15,000 per month. The number of flights increased day and night--twin engines, four engines, any craft available. The daily spectacle of forlorn Jews, clutching nothing but a bag and their clothes, being hustled into truck after truck, was cause for great jubilation on the streets of Baghdad. But the Jews were able to get out. Between January 1950 and December 1951, Israel airlifted, bussed, or otherwise smuggled out 119,788, all but a few thousand who were too elderly or too unconvinced to leave.
In the 1960s, state harassment of the remaining Jews rose and receded with the political tides. One of the low points came on January 27, 1969, when the six-month-old Ba'ath regime of Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr tried fourteen men, nine of them Jews--including the son of Iraq's chief rabbi and family members of prominent Iraqi Jewish merchants--most falsely accused of being Zionist spies and saboteurs. Despite worldwide revulsion over the show trials as well as foreign and UN pleas to halt them, the military court sentenced all fourteen to death by hanging in the public squares of Baghdad and Basra. The condemned Jews wore signs--marked "Jew"--affixed to their clothes. In Baghdad, the entire city had been summoned by radio to enjoy the "happy occasion." A chanting throng of 200,000, led by President al-Bakr himself, marched to the square. As the men were executed, the crowd erupted in a roar. During the full day that the dead men were left hanging in the sun, exhilarated Baghdadis desecrated the bodies.
In mid-July 1979, al-Bakr announced his resignation for "health reasons." His right-hand man, Saddam Hussein, immediately assumed the presidency and launched a murderous assault on anyone he deemed disloyal. Jews were afraid to leave their homes. Their synagogues became surreptitious gathering places. The systematic pauperization placed many Jews on the brink of starvation.
After each war with Israel, Baghdad's persecution of its dwindled Jewish community ratcheted up, and more and more terrified Iraqi Jews smuggled themselves out of Iraq and into Israel. The most recent of these exits was on June 22, 2004.
Today, about eleven Jews are all who remain of the once glorious Iraqi Jewish community--2,600 years in the making, but dismantled in a decade.
Edwin Black is author of the just-released Banking on Baghdad--Inside Iraq's 7,000-Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict (John Wiley & Sons), nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, as well as the award-winning international bestsellers War Against the Weak, IBM and the Holocaust and The Transfer Agreement.
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