Forty-one years have passed since that terrible day in January when fourteen people were hanged in Baghdad and Basra on trumped-up charges of spying and treason - nine of them Jews. It was an occasion for the Ba'ath regime to orchestrate wild popular celebrations under the gallows, while the 3,000 Jews remaining in Iraq quaked in fear. Lital Levin of Haaretz researches the newspaper reports of the time: (with thanks: Iraqijews)
Preparations for a public spectacle were made at night, just after Baghdad radio broadcast the verdicts on the defendants. Speakers were placed in the streets of Baghdad about a hundred metres of each other, people from the countryside began swarming into the capital. People took their places near Liberation Square to watch the executions. Thirteen bodies hung in the square in the end, eight of them Jews. Another Jew was executed in his hometown of Basra.
"Two weeks before, Israel had launched an appeal for help to the world," declared a Ha'aretz editorial on 28 January 1969, following the hangings. "It was known then that death sentences had been issued against three Jews accused of treason and espionage; that out of seventeen defendants facing the same charge, eleven were Jews; that the risk of death hovered over the heads of more than three Jews and that the Iraqi government was planning to pass more sentences of this type. Today we have to state that our darkest fears have been realised."
"The trial", explained the (Ha'aretz) newspaper commentators, "was merely a revenge campaign against Israel dressed up in legalities": it was revenge for the Israeli air force attack on the Iraqi Army on the Jordan border after it had shelled agricultural settlements in the Jordan Valley.
The bodies of five non-Jews hanging on the gallows were removed from the square, leaving the bodies of Jews displayed there. (..)
The next day the celebrations subsided. In Israel flags were lowered to half-mast and there was an outburst of condemnation worldwide. Iraq officially announced that the espionage trials would continue and more executions by hanging were to be expected. The Iraqi Information Minister at a press conference expressed the widespread fear of retaliation by Israel.
For a long time the Iraqi minister tried to explain to journalists that in fact there was no persecution against the Jews: "The Jews executed were hanged not because of their Jewishness but because they were found guilty of spying for Israel." (..)
Israel demanded international intervention to stop the death sentences. The Iraqi Minister of Education declared to the crowd that "this was only the beginning". The Iraqis, on the other hand, said it was "purely an internal matter."
The British Foreign Minister said that he could not formally intervene as the executed were Iraqi citizens. On Baghdad radio the Chief Rabbi of the small Jewish community in Iraq, numbering around 3,000 people, said (obviously under duress - ed) that he "does not question the justice of the Revolutionary Court in Iraq."
Read article in full (Hebrew)
Note: It is thought that only 10 (including 8 Jews) were hanged in Baghdad (Saht Al-Tahrir) while the other three (including one Jew) were hanged in Saht Um Al-Broom in Basra. The Jew was Ezra Naji Zilkha, the Christian was Zaki Zeito and the Muslim was Haji Jetta Baie Kokel.
Update: Samir Zeito, son of Zaki Zeito, contacted Point of No Return to say that he believed his father was hanged in Baghdad, not Basra. He and his family have since moved to Sweden. He was four at the time and still seeks to know why his father was murdered.
Remembering the horror: names of the Jewish martyrs