There was not a spare seat at the Screen on the Hill last night when Carole Basri's film Last Jews of Baghdad was shown for the first time in London as part of the Jewish Film Festival.
The film was one of the first in the Festival to sell out, proof of the public thirst for information on the neglected Jewish communities of Arab lands. It did not make for easy watching. We saw the progressive nazification of Iraq from the 1930s, as decree after decree was passed excluding Jews from jobs and education and pauperising them.
The community was made to pay $80 million to the Palestinians after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Traumatized by the hanging of Shafik Ades, an anti-Zionist businessman with influential Muslim friends, the great majority of the 150,000-strong community left in 1950 - 51 carrying nothing but a small suitcase. Exceeding both Israeli and Iraqi expectations, 60,000 registered to leave in the first two months. But the Jews soon regretted having left their comfortable lives back in Iraq when confined to the misery and squalor of the ma'abarot, the tent camps and wooden huts in Israel, while those who chose to stay in Iraq enjoyed the last few years of freedom and prosperity under Kassem. However, these 5,000 Jews were soon to regret bitterly having stayed, as discrimination, arrests, show trials and hangings took hold in earnest in the 1960s.
The film made clear the role of Saddam Hussein in the persecution of the Jews. Aged 22, he first came on the scene after an abortive attempt to assassinate the Iraqi leader Kassem. He was the driving force behind the summary arrest as Israeli spies and execution of nine Jews as the Ba'ath party cemented its hold on power in 1968.
One of the film's most poignant moments was the sight of Shaoul Haham Sassoon Kedourie, who spent a year in jail in 'Saddam's Palace', being told the news that Saddam Hussein had finally been caught." Is it true? asked the 95-year-old repeatedly." I would have liked to catch him myself!"
Carole Basri had begun collecting film footage since she was nine. She made the film because her family had never been open with her about their past. She disputed the Israeli government spin that the Jews from Arab countries were Zionist immigrants. The Jews were victims of human rights violations. What had happened to the Jews from Arab countries was 'ethnic cleansing'. Only when both sides in the conflict feel the pain of the other can reconciliation come about.
This film deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.