Thursday, November 06, 2008

At last, Iraq's last Jews find their voice

The long-neglected and little-known experiences of Iraq's Jews have finally been published in a new book, Iraq's last Jews. Tamar Morad, the book's lead editor, tells Jamie Glazov of Front Page magazine all about it (with thanks: Eliyahu):

Morad: The book is an oral history collection for which we interviewed a total of 64 Iraqi Jews living in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Israel. Twenty of these first-person accounts appear in the book. It tells the story of the last generation of Iraqi Jews: of wealthy businessmen and Communists, popular musicians and reformist writers, Iraqi patriots and early Zionists. It records the personal experiences of those who lived through the “golden age” of the community, in the 1920s and 1930s, when Jews lived and thrived in Iraq’s urban centers, mainly Baghdad. It tells the personal tales of undercover Israeli agents who helped orchestrate the mass emigration of Iraqi Jews to Israel in 1950-1 and those who argued for the lives of their loved ones in the brutal prisons of Saddam Hussein. It describes persecution suffered by Jews at the hands of Muslim leaders and mobs but it also describes acts of heroism and bravery by Muslims who saved the lives of their Jewish neighbors when they were under attack.

FP:What were some of the main factors that led to the disappearance of the Jewish community in Iraq?

Morad: The community was the oldest in the Jewish Diaspora, at 2,600 years, and was the focal point of Judaism for many centuries—the place where the Talmud was written and where Jews traveled to from all corners of the globe to consult the rabbinic experts at the world’s most renowned yeshivas. But in the middle of the 20th century that history came to an end, a result of Arab hostility, Zionist emigration, Nazi influences and, conclusively, the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

"Various experts put varying weight on each of these factors but it’s clear that all were factors. The British-installed King Faisal, who took the throne in 1921, encouraged tolerance to all religious minorities and Jewish life thrived under his reign. Jews enjoyed key positions in government, law, journalism, business, and culture. Jewish boys waved Iraqi flags. Demographically, Jews comprised fully one-third of Baghdad’s population; Jews were also numerous in Mosul and Basra and smaller cities like Al Hilla.

But King Faisal died in 1933 and his much less tolerant son Ghazi came to power that year.. Meanwhile, in the following years, the British expelled Palestinian leaders from Palestine and many settled in Iraq, bringing with them anti-British, anti-Zionist and increasingly pro-Nazi sentiment. The Farhoud, in 1941, a pogrom in Baghdad in which dozens of Jews were killed and hundreds wounded, was largely an outgrowth of this burgeoning Nazi ideology among Iraqi leaders and, increasingly, ordinary Iraqis. The Farhoud was a major turning point for the Jews of Iraq. Zionism—until then simply a religious yearning for the restoration of Israel—suddenly became a real alternative, particularly after its creation in 1948.

The year of Israel’s creation was also the year in which Shafiq Adas, Iraq’s wealthiest citizen and a Jew, was hanged in the doorway of his Basra home—lynched by a government humiliated by the defeat of the Arab armies at the hands of Israel in the War of Independence. Iraqi Jews thought: If this fate befell Shafiq Adas, who was so accepted in the government’s inner circles, what might happen to us?

During the 1940s and especially after Adas’ smurder, Israeli emissaries from the Mossad’s precursor, the Mossad L’Aliya Bet, began encouraging and nurturing the growing desire among Iraqi Jews to leave. People like Shlomo Hillel and Mordechai Ben Porat, whose accounts are included in our book, were at the forefront of these efforts, and many local activists enabled efforts to smuggle Jews over the borders, first to the east via Jordan, Syria and Lebanon; then via Iran to the east. In 1949, Hillel, backed by his Mossad boss in Tel Aviv, spearheaded what later became known as Operation Ezra and Nehemia which brought most of the 130,000 Jews of Iraq on more than 900 flights to Israel.

After the mass exodus, only about 10,000 Jews remained in Iraq, mostly the wealthiest who had the most to lose if they left. But burgeoning Arab nationalism, Arab anger about their countries’ stunning defeat at Israel’s hands in 1967, and the rise of the Ba’ath Party and Saddam Hussein put a final end to the community. Hundreds of Jews were imprisoned and tortured starting in 1968 and then there were the infamous Jan. 27, 1969, hangings in which nine Jews (along with other Iraqis) were hanged in Baghdad’s Liberation Square, following bogus trials in which they were accused of spying for Israel against Iraq. By the mid-1970s, most Jews had left and the community consisted of a mere 20 when U.S. tanks rolled into the Iraqi capital in 2003. Now less than a handful of Jews live in Iraq.

FP: Tell us about some of the people who tell their stories in this book.

Morad: One of my favorites—well, they are all my favorites, honestly—is by Shlomo el-Kevity, who tells the story of his father and uncle, the musical duo known as the Kuwaity Brothers, the most famous musicians in Iraq in the first part of the 20th century and known and celebrated widely throughout the Arab world at that time. Shlomo describes how music was the realm of the Jews in Iraq, as during Ottoman times Muslims were forbidden from playing music so Jews became the stewards of Iraqi music. The Kuwaity Brothers established Iraqi radio and the Iraqi Broadcasting Authority Orchestra—radios only played live music then. Shlomo describes how the prime minister, Nuri el-Said, turned on his radio on Yom Kippur in 1942 to hear silence—and was confused and infuriated. When he called the Broadcasting Authority to ask why, he was told that there was no music because the Jews didn’t work on Yom Kippur.

Israeli novelist Sami Michael and Israeli filmmaker Salim Fattal both describe how like many other Jews, they turned to Communism as the solution to growing anti-Semitism in Iraq. They decry the subordination of that storyline by Israeli leaders who have always preferred to emphasize the Zionist nature of Iraqi Jews.

In addition to the dramatic Operation Ezra and Nehemia tales I just mentioned, there is Ilana Marcus, the Mossad’s air stewardess on many of the flights to Israel, who recounts—more than the anticipation of passengers—their uncertainty and even trepidation, flying for the first time in their lives and fearful of leaving behind everything they knew to come to a land they only knew about in prayer books.

Then there is Oddil Dallall, who describes her life, and mothering two young sons, during the imprisonment of her husband Yitzhak, who was ultimately hanged by Saddam. Richard Obadiah talks about his father, the headmaster of the Frank Iny School, the last Jewish school in Iraq, and how his father felt the day he closed the school doors for the last time in the mid-1970s. Aida Zelouf describes what it was like to be one of the last Jews to leave, in 1974, since her father, Meir Basri, was the community’s leader at the time and was pained to leave any Jews behind.

But for me, the most moving words are the very last ones of the book, an observation from a Shiite Muslim named Dhiaa Kashi, “Many Iraqis, and I am one of them, feel that if the Jews had stayed in Iraq, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are now and might not have experienced all the atrocities we have in the last 50 years. That is because if the Jews had been allowed to stay in their positions of power, as the elite of society, they would have managed the country far better than it was indeed managed. They would have been a moderating influence on society. Second, if the conditions had been right for them to stay in the country in the first place, that would have meant that we wouldn’t have had to experience this extreme brand of Arab nationalism.”

FP: Why is this book important?

Morad: Because it will help the world preserve this incredibly rich and important piece of Jewish history. Jews can visit Europe and see the sites where their ancestors lived and died but the Arab world is largely closed off to Jews so it is therefore even more important to tell these stories and remind the world of the Jews of Arab lands.


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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent post. I too found the quote by the Shiite Iraqi very moving. He says that many Iraqis feel that the Jews should never have left, and that Iraq would be a better place today because of them. While I'm sure the speaker is expressing his genuine feelings, I ask myself if this is the expression of an older person who remembers Jews in Iraq. The vast majority of Iraqis today were born after the expulsion of the Jews, and they have been subjected to non-stop anti-Jewish propaganda for years on a daily basis. I might expect that they would not feel the same way at all. If so, it will be an almost insurmountable challenge to get young Iraqis and young Jews/Israelis to know each other and no longer feel fear or hatred of the other.

bataween said...

I would say Dia is in his early 60s. He is quite exceptional. He has maintained links with Jewish friends and understands the importance of tolerance for minorities to the health of Iraqi society.