In its simplest terms, the message of the 1941 Farhud is that the Near East is an Arab Sunni Muslim world that must be violently purged of all other elements. Excellent report from the Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty website by Karam Mnashe and Charles Recknagel on the 69th anniversary of the pro-Nazi pogrom against the Jews of Iraq.
Few people in Iraq know what happened in Baghdad exactly 69 years ago.
But on June 1-2, 1941, something previously unthinkable in the city occurred. Mobs attacked the capital's prosperous and influential Jewish community, killing more than 100 people and looting homes.
By the time the orgy of murder and pillaging was done, the Jewish community was so shaken that it would never recover. Within 10 years, the vast majority would leave the country, leaving behind just the handful of people who tend the capital's empty synagogue today.
The two days of terror are known in Iraq as the Farhud, the Arabic word for pillaging or looting an enemy. Yet most Iraqis know very little about the event because Iraq's history books rarely speak of them. Those writers who do mention those days simply explain the violence as the result of the Iraqi Jewish community's "Zionist activities," without detailing more.
But people who survived the attacks and remember the events tell another story -- like Layer Abudia, who now lives in Israel, who was a child at the time of the pogrom.
"I watched people killing at least four to five Jews in front of me," Abudia says. "Every car that passed by was stopped by the mob that pulled Jews out and killed them. I heard they killed 20 to 25 people in the airport area."
Abudia and the others who experienced the two days of horror will never forget standing on the rooftops of their apartments as the violence started on the first night.
For many, the first warning was a dull orange glow that appeared over the very heart of the city center where the Jewish and Muslim communities abutted. Then came distant screams and banging, which grew louder as looters moved deeper into the Jewish neighborhoods. Finally, up close, there was the horrifying sight of the neighbors desperately trying to leap with their children to an adjoining rooftop as armed men broke down their doors.
"That night we heard screams coming out of the houses of Jews," recalls Nassim al-Qazzaz, another survivor who now lives in Israel. "They were killed and their homes were pillaged. This continued for less than 24 hours."
"The next day, approximately at noon, the regent Abdul Illah issued an order to fire on the mob," Qazzaz says. "He could have done that the same day of course, before things got worse, but he preferred not to interfere so the mob could release their anger at the Jews."
The Farhud was so shocking because, based on most of the 1,000-year history of Jews in Iraq, no one could have expected it.
At the time of the pogrom, Jews made up some 3 percent of the Iraqi population, with some 90,000 living in the capital. Many were successful in business, many worked as officials in the British-mandated government, and many were among the country's leading intellectual and cultural figures.
But by 1941, several things had happened to make the Iraqi Jews' position especially vulnerable.
One was the rise of fascism in Europe, followed by the Axis powers' sweeping successes against Britain in the first years of war. And central to the Nazi ideology was hatred of the Jews. Finally, there was the common cause some Arab Muslim leaders made with Nazism and its hatred of Jews in hopes the Axis powers would propel them to power in the Middle East.
One such leader, who arrived in Iraq in 1939, was Amin Muhammad al-Husayni, the grand mufti of Jerusalem. He had fled British-mandate Palestine after the failure of the Palestinian uprising of 1936-39 against growing Jewish immigration.
Husayni had been a key instigator of violence on the Arab side as the number of Jews jumped from 17 percent of Palestine's population in 1931 to 30 percent in 1935. Many of the arriving Jews were fleeing Germany and now the grand mufti was seeking Berlin's help to expel both them and the British mandate authorities from the Holy Land.
But it was in Iraq, not Palestine, that the kind of alliance Husayni was proposing got its first test. There, Berlin backed an anti-British coup in April 1941 led by nationalist Rashid Ali al-Gaylani -- a Husayni ally -- and supported by high-ranking army officers. The coup easily toppled the country's weak Hashemite monarchy, which was originally from the Hejaz region of Saudi Arabia and widely regarded as London's puppet.
The coup was soon suppressed with the arrival of British-led Indian and Arab Legion troops, who reached Baghdad by May 29. But the combination of the failed coup amid months of the sort of pro-Nazi and anti-Jewish propaganda espoused by Husayni proved to be fatal for Jewish Baghdadis.
Exactly what set off the pogrom is not known, but it may have been the Jewish community's celebration of its annual harvest festival, Shavuot, on June 1. The sight of Jews celebrating became a pretext for fascists to portray them as welcoming the coup's failure. And the chance to act came as British troops waited outside Baghdad so that royalist Iraqi soldiers could enter first, creating a power vacuum in the city.
Survivor Qazzaz says that even today he doesn't know what happened to his father in the pogrom. But he says after such violence, most Iraqi Jews felt they had no option but to emigrate.
"Since then we have not heard anything about the fate of my father and his companion. Some 180 Jews were killed in this massacre. Scores of houses and shops were looted and plundered, women violated and murdered," Qazzaz says. "That was the Farhud. In my opinion it was one of the main reasons that drove Jews to leave Iraq."
Most of the exodus took place in the early 1950s, after tensions over the 1948 Arab-Israeli war isolated the Jewish community even further. The Iraqi government declared "those who want to leave can leave" and some 100,000 left for Israel.
Today the Farhud -- Baghdad's Krystallnacht -- remains significant not only for breaking the spirit of Baghdad's once thriving Jewish community. It also proved how powerful the fusion of fascism and radical Islam could be.
That fusion would develop further as Husayni spent the rest of the war in Nazi Germany and broadcast messages across a sizable segment of the Middle East via a powerful radio located in Bari, Italy.
His messages were a continuous call for uprisings to evict the allies. But he reserved his greatest invective for Jews, saying their "spilled blood pleases Allah, our history, and religion," and proclaiming "if America and England win the war, the Jews will dominate the world."
At the same time, he vigorously recruited European Muslims for the Wehrmacht and for special Waffen SS units, especially in the former Yugoslavia. And he actively lobbied against any deportation of Jews to Palestine from Romania and Hungary, urging they be sent to Poland -- with its death camps -- instead.
Throughout, what Husayni wanted from Hitler and finally got in 1942 remained the same. It was a letter sent by the German and Italian foreign ministers to him and a fellow exile in Nazi Germany, al-Gaylani, promising three things: Axis support for the independence of the Arab states from British and French colonial rule; the right of the independent Arab states to form a union; and the right of Arab authorities in Palestine to eliminate the proposed Jewish homeland there.
Husayni was always accorded the respect due a head of state in Berlin, leading many historians to speculate he may have hoped to be the Axis' fuhrer of the Middle East, had it won the war. But it didn't, and as Germany surrendered, Husayni was arrested by the French.
Astonishingly, however, the French too treated Husayni with deference as a Grand Mufti with influence in the Muslim world. He was placed under house arrest in Paris and, when it became clear he might be indicted for war crimes based on testimony emerging at the Nuremburg trials, he secured an invitation from Egypt's King Farouk and fled to Cairo.
Husayni went on to serve for decades in Egypt as a central member and ideological inspiration of the Muslim Brotherhood. His ideas have since passed on to generations of radical Islamists, far outlasting his own death in Syria in 1974 at the age of about 80.
What is the ultimate message of Husayni that was also so brutally expressed 69 years ago in the Farhud?
In its simplest terms, it is that the Near East is an Arab Sunni Muslim world that must be violently purged of all other elements.
The argument flies in the face of history in a region that has always been home to many religions and ethnicities. But it continues to be a justification for intimidation and attacks as fundamentalist groups today try to cleanse their home countries of "others" just as the Nazis once did in Europe.
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