The festival of Shavuot, which falls tomorrow evening, has special poignancy for the Jews of Iraq. On 1 and 2 June 1941, hundreds were murdered, mutilated or raped and property wrecked in a devastating Nazi pogrom. Abraham Miller explains why it is important to grasp that it was the terrible events of Shavuot 65 years ago, and not, as Arab apologists would have it, the creation of Israel, which sounded the death knell for 26 centuries of Jewish life in the Land of the Two Rivers. (With thanks: Joseph)
Farhud is Arabic for “violent dispossession.” This is the word used to describe the pogrom of 1 June 1941 against the Jews of Baghdad. In its wake, the Farhud left some 200 dead, 2000 injured, and 900 Jewish homes destroyed. It was the beginning of the end of the Jewish community of Iraq, a community that existed for twenty-six centuries, preceded Islam by a thousand years, and once numbered over 125,000 souls.
Today, there is not a single Jew left in Iraq. (At any rate, no more than a dozen - ed)
Arab apologists trace the dismantling of the Jewish communities of the Arab world (Mizrachim) and of North Africa (Sephardim) to anti-Jewish sentiment growing out of the creation of Israel. Explicit in this is the imposition of collective responsibility, as if the Jews of the Arab world and North Africa were directly responsible for whatever Israeli Jews did or did not do.
Although the Arab and Muslim communities in America and West understandably have gone to great lengths to publicly cry, “foul” or “racial profiling,” when the events of 09/11 are linked to them or their religion, they are unhesitant and shameless in their invocation of collective responsibility when applied to Jews.
Writing in the interfaith newsletter here in Contra Costa County, Dr. Amir Araim, the Imam of Concord, California and himself an Iraqi who represented Saddam Hussein’s regime to the United Nations, directly links the dismantling of the Jewish community of Iraq to the controversial events of Deir Yassin in the Arab/Israeli war of 1948.
Among the many problems with this woefully unhistorical analysis, is that the Farhud occurred long before there was an Israel or even a single Palestinian refugee.
The Farhud began at 3:00 PM on 1 June 1941, the Jewish holy day of Shavuot. The violence began when a pro-Nazi mob attacked representatives of the Jewish community as they crossed Baghdad’s Al Khurr Bridge to greet the returning Iraqi Regent Abdul-al Ilah. The mob then murdered, burned and raped its way through the Jewish community. Jewish infants were special targets, killed as helpless parents looked on. The superintendent of police refused to stop the riots because he did not want to kill or injure Muslims to save Jews.
The Farhud is doubly embarrassing for Arab apologists. First, it resurrects the problem of the nearly one million Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. They received no recognition from the United Nations and no assistance outside of the Jewish community and the State of Israel. Instead of languishing for four generations in refugee camps, as have Palestinian refugees, within a few years, they became both contributing members and citizens of Israel and Western societies.
Second, the Farhud was a Nazi riot, and it is embarrassing because while Arab propagandists routinely use “Jew” and “Nazi” in the same breath, Nazism is in reality very much part of Arab political culture. Ba’ath socialists of Iraq and Syria, for example, draw their inspiration from Nazism. This further belies the Arab claim that antisemitism is exclusively a Western and not a Middle Eastern phenomenon.
The Farhud was the result of the work of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin el Husseini. The Mufti cut a deal with the Nazis to overthrow the British-sponsored government of Iraq and provide Hitler with Iraqi oil vital to Germany’s war efforts. In return, the Nazis would eliminate the “Jewish problem” in Mandate Palestine. In October of 1939, the Mufti came to Iraq to precipitate a coup that was to be led by Iraqi officers who embraced Nazism and were known as the “Golden Square.”
As a unifying inspiration for the coup, the Mufti invoked Nazi propaganda themes of antisemitism focusing on the Jews as “enemies of the state.”
The coup failed. The Mufti fled Iraq to Berlin and the hospitality of SS Chief Henrich Himmler and later Hitler himself. Although the Nazis held the Arabs in only slightly higher esteem than they held Jews, the Nazis saw the Mufti as a useful ally against the British, and his antisemitic propaganda broadcasts in Arabic from Berlin further served mutual purposes.
The Mufti’s legacy of antisemitism became part of Iraqi culture.
In 1947 when the United Nations took up the question of the Palestine Mandate, Iraqis organized new pogroms and used Nazi confiscation techniques to seize Jewish property.
On 23 September 1948, Safiq Ades, Iraq’s wealthiest Jew was publicly hanged on phony charges and his property seized. His body swung in the public square in Basara, where celebrant Iraqis mutilated it.
A month later, all of Iraq’s Jews employed in the civil service were summarily fired. Iraq then set about systematically seizing Jewish assets and impoverishing its Jews. With a degree of almost unmatched cynicism, the Iraqi political oligarchy profited from requiring the use of its travel agents for Iraqi Jews to flee to Israel. All the while, Iraq saw the imposition of 15,000 penniless Jews a month on the newly created Jewish state as a mechanism to defeat Israel by precipitating a major economic crisis. Indeed, Israel accepted these Jews at a time when there were not even enough tents or refugee camps to house them.
Iraqi Jews went to Israel and lived in refugee camps. So little is known about the plight of the Mizrachi and Sephardic Jewish refugees that even informed Jews are dumbfounded upon learning this. Yet, within a space of a few years, these refugees were absorbed into Israeli society and not left, as the Arabs have left the Palestinians, to languish for generation after generation in camps, in poverty, and without hope.
Slowly but inevitably the truth about the one million Jewish refugees from Arab lands is coming to light. Remembering the Farhud is part of restoring the history of an oppressed and forgotten people, whose suffering and persecution have been far and away too long ignored. Arabs and Muslims must ultimately take responsibility for the antisemitism of their world, a racism that resulted in Arab Jews becoming the largest ethnic group in Israel.
Abraham H. Miller is emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati.
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