Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Bracing for Arab revenge after Israel's 1967 victory

Max Sawdayee z''l, author of 'All waiting to be hanged'

The Six-Day War, whose 44th anniversary passed a few weeks ago, had serious repercussions on the remnants of the Jewish communities in Arab countries. Max Sawdayee's memoirs, 'All waiting to be hanged', now uploaded
by his daughters to the Internet since his death in February this year, contain a detailed and moving record of those anxiety-filled days in Iraq. If Israel won, the Arabs would wreak terrible revenge - on the local Jews. And so it came to pass.

"A particular problem faces us Jews here, though it isn’t so grave yet. We do realise that the country persecuted us in times of stress, and punished us even when we had nothing to blame for. It has always been like that, since Babylon. But we must admit that when the enormous majority of our community emigrated to Israel in 1950 and 1951 according to a special authorization from the Iraqi government, it was time then to quit. We did not. We stayed behind. Consequently, everything concerning Israel that would have repercussions in the area was bound to affect us directly or indirectly. So we, the last of the adventurers, have got to take it. We have got to accept the consequences.

Monday, June 5, 1967: This morning I didn’t feel quite well. I’m rather disturbed. So I decide to leave for the office at a late hour.

Mother rings up at 9:00 a.m., tells me to turn on the radio, and hangs up.

The Iraqi news broadcast shrieks like a storm. ‘Today is the big day! It is the holy day!’ The tone is violent and martial. Stress is laid on such words and phrases as revenge, death, murder, ‘throw them into the sea!’ and so on. With stirring songs and martial music to fill the time; a stream of communiqués and commentaries, all of them extremely harsh. They howl about Zionists having started their evil aggression, and about Egypt already driving them back and causing them heavy losses and casualties. They speak of Arab aircraft having destroyed a large number of military targets and heading for Tel Aviv and Haifa.

So it’s war after all. The war that we all hated and were frightened of.

The Israeli broadcast is almost mute: martial music and a few short but vague communiqués of which nothing can be made out.

My wife returns from the market at 10 a.m., pale and alarmed. She has seen Jews returning from downtown and trying to get home quietly but quickly. Muslims, on the other hand, are jubilant, excited, with transistors in hand, and happily discussing the news. ‘We are winning! A couple of days and Israel is finished!’

I tell my wife not to worry, to get busy doing something and leave me alone with my transistors. I’d like to follow the news more closely for a while.

From the window I see little Jewish children running home without understanding what has happened; some are accompanied by their schoolteachers. I am glad to see my daughter back.

At noon Iraq is blazing with the flame of victory and expected revenge. High schools and universities close, workers flea their factories, employees stop working. The streets are crowded with people shouting and cheering. In their imagination Israel is about to disappear. It’s a matter of hours.

At 2:00 p.m. there is still no way to understand anything solid from Israeli broadcasts. They are vague all the time, while Iraqi and other Arab broadcasts are growing hysterical. They speak of a hundred and forty two Israeli aircraft shot down. But it’s already clear that the war is being fought mainly on two fronts – with Egypt and Jordan.

At 4:00 p.m. the situation reaches a state of commotion and tumult. I begin to gather all unnecessary papers and photographs in order to burn them. I also hide a sum of money, some of my wife’s jewels, and a number of personal papers and documents. Anything is likely to happen, I tell myself, loudly enough to let my wife hear me well. Finally, I hide my diary behind the bathtub.

Only at tea at 5:30 p.m., a little relaxed, can I truly realise that the war is being most seriously fought now. Only then do I begin to imagine how grave it is, what consequences it will have generally, and how it will affect us Iraqi Jews in particular. I get lost in deep thought, when my sister in law asks, ‘What do you think of this war, and what about us Jews here?’

‘What can I say of the war, my dear?! Tomorrow or the day after something may crystallise. As regards our community, it is of paramount importance how the Arabs will come out of the present conflict.’

The Jews here are surely worried but not yet afraid. In fact, the whole situation is still murky. The evening passes without anything being made clear. English, American and French news bulletins paint no definite picture. They simply repeat the two adversaries’ communiqués, adding vague and pointless commentaries.

At midnight I notice that my living room is saturated with smoke, my ashtrays filled with cigarette stubs, and my table occupied with several transistors. I’m awfully tired and hungry, and still completely ignorant of the outcome of the last day’s operations in the area. Israel continues its usual programs on the air, with martial music, while Arabic broadcasts blare and howl. I decide that this uproar leads nowhere. I go to sleep.

In bed I try to make an assessment of the situation because I’m overcome with the sleeplessness. First and foremost, what will our position be in this country? We’re living among fanatics and extremists, unfortunately, and with all sorts of parties and groups of various political trends. Whatever the developments of the coming few days, the rising passions do not bode well for us.

Tuesday June 6, 1967: The doorbell rings persistently. I jump out of bed. It’s 4:00 a.m. I open the door. Cousin dashes through.

‘What’s up, for heaven’s sake?! You’ve terrified me!’

‘Have you heard the latest news?’

‘No, what?’

‘The Israeli Chief of Staff Rabin and Air Commander Hod boast that they destroyed four hundred Arab warplanes!’

‘Oh Jackie, are you out of your mind? How can that be true?!’

‘I’ve just heard it myself.’ he says.

I can’t believe my ears. Nor do we feel comfortable about this piece of news. I wonder whether the BBC reports the same thing?

We sit down to chat for a while. My wife Sa’ida takes the car at dawn and goes to see neighbours and friends and to inquire how they feel. Nothing seems to be clear yet of all this mess of a conflict. When the hour comes for the first Israeli broadcast this morning, it speaks of Israeli forces having penetrated deep into Sinai in the south and the West Bank of the Jordan in the east, and of the feat of smashing the air forces of four Arab countries in about three hours. Can that be true?!

At 7:00 a.m. we hear Baghdad, Amman, Damascus and Cairo stations. They are all wildly abusing America and Britain for their ‘intervention’ in favour of Israel. Something has gone wrong. I cannot believe that America or Britain has intervened, nor would Israel see help at this stage.

Today I forbid my daughter from going to the kindergarten. She asks if I’m afraid for her. I reply, ‘Maybe, but I’d like you to stay at home and help me clean the ashtrays as I’m smoking too much.’ She understands, and agrees to take up the duty I’ve assigned her. However, she painstakingly tries to find out whether I’m afraid. Her query upsets me, but I assure her that there is no reason to be afraid.

My wife, like all other Jewish housewives here, does not go to the market this morning. She prefers to wait till the afternoon and see how matters develop.

Some Jewish businessmen are going to work today, in spite of everything. I myself consider it rather too risky.

At 10:00 a.m. a joyful spirit still prevails, and most Iraqis entertain the illusion that the war will end in an Arab victory within the next few days. Later on, I hear that riotous demonstrations against America and Britain take place in Baghdad, especially in front of the U.S.I.S. and the British Council.

Quite a few Jews send their children to school today. The children do feel the electricity in the air and feel a little worried, even afraid. It’s a pity. A spirit of fear has transmitted itself to them, despite parents’ endeavours to appear as though they are taking things easy.

At noon I feel bored by the uncertainties that have enveloped us for now the second day of the war. Against my will, I leave the house, if only to test the pulse on the streets of Baghdad. It should be of interest to see for myself how wartime Iraq looks. The first thing that arrests my attention is the extraordinary big newspaper headlines. Never in my life have I seen such giant titles and subtitles. And all speak of victory over the enemy.

‘We Have Won the War!’ ‘No More Israel!’ And so on. The papers are capitalizing on people’s passions. The faces I saw yesterday expressed faith and hope. Today they express hope and faith – more of the former than the latter. Some of them betray nervousness and doubt. One or two are listening to an Israeli news bulletin, though it is strictly forbidden by the government. Another even has the courage to announce what he has just heard from Israel’s radio, that Israeli troops have occupied some parts of the West Bank of the Jordan. But another quickly retorts, ‘It doesn’t matter. The big tanks of Egypt will teach them an unforgettable lesson!’

Yitzhak Rabin, Chief of Staff, who led Israel to victory in 1967

I call on a friend. He and his wife are busy hiding some money and jewels upstairs. ‘Hey!’ I exclaim. ‘You’re one day behind schedule, my dear! I did that yesterday!’ While there we hear from a Baghdad broadcast that demonstrations have grown bigger, and that demonstrators are violently denouncing the U.S. and Britain, accepting the lie that those two powers are actually helping Israel. In consequence of this big lie it is understood that Iraq has decided to break off relations with the powers. At tea in the evening father and mother, as well as myself feel extremely sorry that the situation has so deteriorated. This portends a wave of persecution against us Jews.

At 7:00 a.m. Christian friend of mine comes to see me and says that the Iraqi H-33 Air Base has been hit hard by Israeli aircraft. This renders the situation still worse for us local Jews, as the war now involves Iraq directly as well.

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