Friday, August 26, 2005

The dying years of Baghdad Jewry

Maurice B was one of only three Iraqi Jewish students in London during the Second World War. He returned to Baghdad in 1946, hoping to re-establish himself after a seven-year absence and settle down. Little did he and the rest of the community then realise that the days of the oldest Diaspora were numbered. In 1950 Maurice, his wife and his newborn son, together with 120,000 other Jews, left Iraq for good. These extracts from Maurice B's personal memoirs convey the atmosphere of the time:

"After four years of relative quiet and considerable material prosperity of the Jews of Iraq, trouble seemed to have been over and life returned to its usual daily rhythm. Little did they know, however, what lay in store for them, for it took no more than another four years for their ancient community to be virtually liquidated, themselves dispossessed and reduced to the status of destitute refugees.

The authorities started to take practical measures aimed at reducing the position of prominence which the Jews seemed to occupy. The League of Arab Nations had just recently been established, egged on by the British Foreign Office. The Palestine question became virtually the only cause on which the Arab World was ostensibly united. The involvement of a number of Jews in Communist activities made it easy for the government to persecute Communists as alleged Zionists and vice versa. Strict censorship was introduced on all contacts by Jews with Palestine. Letters to relatives and friends were seized and filed, later to be used against their senders regardless of what was actually written in them.

Jewish civil servants, some in high positions, were dismissed or forced to resign their jobs. Jewish merchants, especially those in the export-import business, were not issued with the necessary papers, and many were impelled to go into partnership with Muslim businessmen in order to continue to trade. Hebrew instruction in Jewish schools was reduced to a bare minimum and no more Jews were being admitted to institutions of higher learning.

Anti-Zionist demonstrations took place and threats were being made with renewed anti-Jewish riots. Travel restrictions were imposed. The Government decided that Jews were allowed to leave the country only if they gave a guarantee of their return in the form of a cash deposit of three thousand pounds (quite a large sum in those days).

For me the travel restrictions were a big blow. I could not then contemplate a return to England in any foreseeable future.

The owners of the large and prestigious building project on which I was engaged decided not to proceed. The valuable site was left in limbo with the reinforced concrete columns sticking up above the ground for many years, a symbol of the demise of the Jewish community. I had to forego most of the interim fees to which I was entitled.

I could no longer follow my profession as a civil and structural engineer. There was a suggestion that I may be offered a post as a temporary teacher of English and Mathematics at the Frank Iny Jewish School but the offer did not materialise. In any case, not having had any previous experience in teaching, it would have been difficult for me to undertake such a job.

I was co-opted to become an honorary secretary of a committee in charge of administering some Jewish medical services in Baghdad including the only large hospital, known as Meir Elias Hospital, run and funded by the Community. There were also some sizeable donations made by wealthy Iraqi Jews in New York to provide the hospital with additional facilities including a building to house new X-Ray equipment.

I was in charge of the financial administration and all cheques had to be brought to me for authorisation and signature.

On 29th November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for the partitioning of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab States.

Fighting soon erupted between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. A group of so-called “Iraqi Volunteers” was sent with official encouragement and financial help to join the Arab forces fighting in Palestine. A campaign was launched to raise funds from the Jews for what was called the “rescue of Palestine”. The chief Rabbi Sasson Kadoouri was forced to issue a statement rejecting Zionism and expressing support for Arab rights in Palestine. The distinction between “Zionist” and “Jew” had become blurred. Violent demonstrations took place in which the main slogan was “death to the Jews”. Synagogues were attacked and desecrated.

The community was in a state of shock and fear. However, one bright spot to relieve my own gloom and depression was the growing mutual attraction between my future wife and myself. We never had a proper courtship. We were able to meet from time to time, but we seldom had the opportunity to be alone together. The parents on both sides would have been happy to see us get engaged as soon as possible; however, because of the dire threats, persecution and our uncertain future, I was for several months rather reluctant to commit myself fully to the prospect of marriage.

The Arab League decided that before the British Mandate in Palestine was officially ended, the regular Arab armies from neighbouring Arab countries should intervene. And so it was that on 15th May 1948, immediately after the State of Israel had been proclaimed, the Iraqi troops crossed into their allotted sector in Palestine. It was the first time that Iraqis had used their troops abroad. Martial law was imposed throughout Iraq. Military courts were established, civilian officials in almost all areas of life were subordinated to the military; censorship was made more strict.

It was in this atmosphere of doom and gloom that we became formally engaged on 28th May 1948. The engagement party took place in my fiancee’s parents' house and garden and was attended solely by members of our two families. We were both happy and fully committed to face our uncertain future together.

At first, false reports were circulated by the Government and media about the victories achieved by the Arab armies in Palestine. Once the true story of the defeats of the Arabs at the hand of the Israelis emerged, stronger anti-Jewish measures were applied. Almost all Jewish civil servants were dismissed arbitrarily from their posts without notice, severance pay or pension. Jewish banks were forbidden to have transactions with foreign banks and institutions. Jews were charged with such fanciful crimes as having Zionist leanings, expressing support for Israel or making derogatory remarks about the Iraqi army. The procedure was simple enough, and the fact that the work was left to the police and the military courts made it easy for petty officials and fanatics to victimise the Jews with a vengeance.

First, the victim’s house was searched for any evidence of contacts with the Zionist enemy; then, whether or not such “evidence” had been found, the accused was arrested and brought to court and summarily sentenced to a year or two in jail, with the option of a fine of over £2,000. The searches provided the police with an excellent opportunity in acts of extortion and bribery. Millions of pounds were collected from Jews to cover the high cost of the country’s abortive military adventure in Palestine. The fines which the courts imposed on Jews were payable to the Ministry of Defence.

All prominent and wealthy Jews had become very worried about their personal safety and the harrassment they were likely to face. My father thought it necessary to leave Baghdad for Europe on “medical grounds”. My fiancee’s parents also left for Persia. Each person had to pay a cash deposit of £3,000 before a passport could be issued to them. My brother-in-law, who was one of the three Jewish members in the Iraqi parliament, was also very scared and left for Europe with my sister and their two children.

My brother and I were both summoned by the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) on trumped up charges. For several days we were kept on tenterhooks and greatly worried about what horrible fate might befall us. Fortunately, an intermediary who knew the chief of the CID was able to intercede and arrange for the charges against us to be dropped at a cost of a substantial bribe.

On the 28th December 1948, my fiancee and I were married quietly in our house, only members of the family being present. Her parents, my father, my sister and her family were all abroad. The person who officiated at our wedding was Shamoon Muallem, the same gentleman who officiated at my parents’ wedding thirty three years earlier. My mother was the only parent present at our wedding.

By the beginning of 1949, the anti-Jewish campaign appeared to have passed its peak. Armistice agreements had been signed between Israel and its surrounding Arab states. Iraqi forces were withdrawn from Palestine and martial law was lifted.

My mother managed to obtain a passport to travel to Europe to join my father. My brother had also obtained a passport enabling him to study in England. They each had to deposit the sum of £3,000 with the authorities, which would be forfeited if they failed to return to Iraq within a specified time.

A second cousin of mine, Naim B, used to be a senior employee of the Iraqi Railways. During the latter part of the Second World War, he was in charge of a project to develop tourist resorts in the mountains of Kurdistan. Naim knew the country well and had many prominent Kurdish friends. In the summer of 1949, we felt confident enough to travel with Naim to spend a holiday/honeymoon in the resorts of Salah El Din and Haji Umran, then largely deserted by tourists. Haji Umran was the most northerly point of Iraq, adjoining the frontiers of both Iran and Turkey and it could only be reached by car through a treacherous and mountainous unpaved road. The landscape resembled the mountains of Switzerland. It was covered with luscious green vegetation and several waterfalls. Naim introduced us to some of his Kurdish friends. We were happy to have been able to spend some ten days in the mountains, away for the simmering heat of Baghdad.

After the lifting of martial law, illegal emigration by young Jews from Iraq to Palestine increased greatly and was organised by the Zionist underground. Various escape routes to Iran, old and new, were used to capacity mainly via Basra, across the Shat-El-Arab in the South and through the mountainous borders in the north. Arab and Kurdish “guides” were paid handsomely and border security guards and policemen were bribed and conveniently looked the other way. Mass evacuation operations could no longer be kept secret, since many families chose to follow their children and started selling their household effects and property.

Confronted with such determination, the government decided to legalise emigration. On 2nd March 1950, a law was passed permitting the Jews to leave the country provided they surrender their Iraqi nationality. It was first suggested that the law might be a trap to enable to authorities to round up suspected Zionists and during the first few weeks there was little response to the new law. When finally word was given by the Zionist underground that Jews could start registering for emigration, there was a flood of people who decided to register, a kind of vicious circle was set in motion and many of those who had no wish to leave the country forever decided to follow suit, finding it difficult to remain when their children, relatives and friends or business associates were about to leave. In March 1951, the day of expiry of the law allowing Jews to leave, it was found that all Iraqi Jews, with the exception of some five to six thousand, had registered to leave.

It was then that the final blow was dealt. The government, led by Nuri-al-Said, went into secret session and decided to convoke parliament, again in secret session. Two laws were proposed and passed. The first decreed that the possessions of all Jews who had registered for emigration were to be “frozen”, the second stipulated that Iraqi Jews who had not given up their Iraqi nationality and who were abroad, would lose their nationality should they not return within a specified period of time, and eventually their possession would be forfeited to the Iraqi government. Overnight, nearly 80,000 Jews waiting to be airlifted to Israel were rendered penniless, having from now on to make do with whatever immigrant absorption authorities there would offer.*

The massive airlift which became known as Operation Ezra and Nehemiah was carried out fairly smoothly although the number of emigrants by far exceeded all original estimates. While immigration authorities in Israel had been planning to received about 300 new immigrants a day – and this, with difficulty, the daily influx at its peak reached the enormous number of 1400. The total number of Iraqi Jews who surrendered their citizenship and were airlifted to Israel was 107,603 while some 16,000 had left the country by other means. It was estimated that at the beginning of 1952, no more than 6,000 Jews remained in Iraq. *

As I am writing these lines early in 2004, there are less than two dozen Jewish men and women spending their last remaining years in a country in which they and their ancestors had lived for close on three millennia.

We were desperate to leave Iraq as soon as possible and me to return to the UK where I had spent the war years and where I had a good chance to earn a living. In the meantime my wife had become pregnant and the baby was expected in June 1950.

My brother-in-law had returned from Europe with my sister and her children. He was still one of the three Jewish members in the Iraqi parliament who were now just figureheads and ignored by the government and other MPs.

He was anxious to move with his family from a rented house to my parents’ house as soon as we were able to leave Baghdad. He succeeded in getting us issued with passports without having to lodge the £3,000 cash deposit per person with the authorities.

On 30th June 1950, our son Danny was born in a private room at the Meir Elias Hospital where I was still the Honorary Secretary. It was an unduly hot summer in Baghdad where the maximum temperature in the shade climbed to nearly 50 degrees centigrade. There was no air conditioning but every effort was made by the hospital staff to try and cool the temperature in the delivery room by providing blocks of ice ventilated by electric fans.

The ceremony of the Pedion for the first-born male took place in our house one month later. My paternal grandmother Salha was then 104 years old and although rather frail, she had retained all her faculties. She was very happy and excited about the baby. I myself was named Moshe after my grandfather who was the husband of Salha. My grandmother realised that we were soon going to leave Baghdad for good and she would never see us again. She made me promise that if ever a little girl is born to us, we would name the baby after her, a promise which I duly kept.

On 23rd August 1950, with Danny only seven weeks old, we flew from Baghdad to London via Rome and Amsterdam. The journey was tiresome and took over 12 hours. At last we were able to lead our new lives in a free and democratic country. We were happy to face the challenge of finding a new home, and for me to earn my living in a new job. But this is another story."

*With acknowledgements to Nissim Rejwan and Prof Elie Kedourie.

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