On March 31st, 1940, Rashid Ali al-Gaylani – an Arab nationalist – was appointed Iraqi Prime Minister. He refused transit rights to British troops and sought closer ties with the Axis powers. The embassy of Nazi Germany had been heavily involved in promoting Arab nationalism and anti-Semitism. Concerned that the Germans would have access to the country’s oil reserves, the British imposed economic sanctions on Iraq and al-Gaylani was forced to resign in January 1941 by the pro-British regent, Abd Al-Ilah.
He regained power in a coup in early April and quickly moved against a Royal Air Force based at Habbaniya. The British, in response, landed troops at Basra and subsequently relieved the siege on Habbaniya before moving against Fallujah and Baghdad. By the end of May, al-Gaylani was fleeing Baghdad as the British advanced.
In the power vacuum that followed, Baghdadis turned on the city’s Jewish community. Resentment had been building for some time with figures and organisations fomenting anti-Semitism and in the absence of any authority maintaining law and order, the city’s mobs gave full vent to their hatred. In the bloodletting that followed between June 1st and 2nd, it is estimated that some 180 Jews were killed and about 240 were wounded. 586 Jewish-owned businesses were subjected to looting and 99 Jewish houses were destroyed. Other accounts speak of a much higher numbers of dead and wounded with over 2,000 injured and 600 unidentified bodies being buried in a mass grave. One way or another, what became known as the Farhud marked a turning point in history and presence of Jews in Iraq.
“They’re not refugees. They wanted to go to Israel. It was all a big plot by the Mossad. They planted those bombs to scare people into leaving.”
So runs the typical argument by the Israel haters on one discussion website I’m familiar with when the topic of Jewish refugees from Arab and Islamic countries comes up for debate. Pointing out the glaring contradictions in the above claim makes no difference; in their world view, there’s only room for one set of victims and none of them can be Jews.
Of the various Jewish communities forced to leave Arab countries in the aftermath of the foundation of the State of Israel, the story of Iraqi Jews is one of the most tragic. It was the land of Abraham the Patriarch who left the city of Ur some 4,000 years ago to travel to Canaan. It was the land to which tens of thousands of Jews were exiled in the first millennium BCE by Assyrians and Babylonians. By the time of the Arab conquest of Iraq, the Jewish presence was already ancient.
By the time of World War I, Iraq was under the control of the Ottoman Empire and since the Ottomans were on the losing side in that conflict, responsibility for the country passed to Great Britain. Due to its higher education levels and administration skills, Iraq’s tiny Jewish community played a disproportionately large role in the running of the country during the period of the British Mandate.
However, this provoked resentment from Muslims and on August 27th, 1934 – some two years after independence – large numbers of Jews were dismissed from public service by the then Minister of Economy and Communications, Arshad al-Umari and limits were put in place on the numbers of Jews to be admitted to the civil service and higher education institutes.
The position of Jews in Iraq continued to deteriorate throughout the 1930s culminating in the tragic events of early June 1941 when, in the aftermath of the overthrow of the pro-Nazi dictator, Rashid Ali Gaylani, nearly 200 Jews (some sources give a higher death toll) were murdered and 1,000-2,000 injured in Baghdad in what became known as the Farhud Pogrom. British forces stationed some 90km away did eventually restore order although there were suggestions that they deliberately delayed their intervention because it was in their interest to see divisions between Jews and Muslims in Iraq.
Following the declaration of the State of Israel in May 1948, Iraq was placed under martial law and a series of anti-Jewish measures were implemented including:
- Forbidding Jews from engaging in banking or foreign currency transactions,
- Dismissal of Jews from the railways, the post office, the telegraph department and the Finance Ministry on the ground that they were suspected of “sabotage and treason”
- Banning the issuance of export and import licenses to Jewish merchants
- In late October 1948, the discharge of all Jewish officials and workers from all governmental departments
As the anti-Jewish persecution worsened, the local Zionist underground was smuggling Jews out at the rate of about 1,000 per month. By then, the Iraqis were developing plans to force Jews to relinquish their citizenship and leave, compelling them to surrender their property to the state treasury. A hoped for side effect was that the influx of well over 100,000 impoverished refugees would cause the fledgling state of Israel to collapse. On March 2nd, 1950 (the eve of Purim), Prime Minster Al-Suwaidy passed a law of one year’s duration permitting Jews to leave if they surrendered their citizenship.
At this stage, the Israeli government had no choice but to intervene and started working with the local Zionist Organisation to register Iraqi Jews to give up their Iraqi citizenship and move to Israel. Shortly afterwards, what became known as Operation Ezrah and Nehemiah began: the transfer of 104,000 Iraqi Jews, 95% of the community to Israel. Al-Suwaidy’s law expired in March 1951 but was extended after the Iraqi government froze the assets of departing Jews.
The quote at the start of this article refers to a series of bombings in 1950 and 1951 which targeted synagogues and the Jewish community in general. While fewer than 5 Jews were killed in total, the attacks did have a huge psychological impact and spurred more Jews to register for the move to Israel. No evidence has ever emerged to prove who planted the bombs but that hasn’t stopped accusations that they were planned by the Mossad – this despite the fact that the Iraqi government stood to gain by far the most from the departure of Jews and the seizure of their wealth and property. The belief appears to be that persecution, discriminatory laws, seizure of property and the ever-present threat of further pogroms are not enough on their own to cause a community to flee.
By January 1952, only a few thousand Jews remained in Iraq – a 2,600 year old story had been brought to a sudden and dramatic end. The community was to decline further with renewed discrimination and persecution under the Baath Party in the 1960s including bans on the selling of property, being compelled to carry yellow identity cards, property seizures, freezing of bank accounts, dismissal from public posts, forced closure of businesses were closed, revocation of trading permits, being placed under constant surveillance or even house arrest and (bizarrely!) being forbidden from using phones.
In late 1968, dozens of Jews were jailed on charges of engaging in espionage on behalf of Israel. This was followed by the public hanging in 1969 of nine Jews for allegedly spying for Israel. In a macabre display encouraged by the regime, some half a million people danced and celebrated around the scaffolds. By the early 1970s, under international pressure, the Baath regime allowed most remaining Jews to leave. While a few dozen were found to be remaining in Baghdad in the aftermath of the 2003 US invasion, it’s believed that there are now fewer than 10 Jews there.
The author (Ciarán Ó Raghallaigh) would like to thank AP and her Iraqi Jewish cousin for much of the information in this article. His personal testimony gives the lie to the narrative that there is only one Naqba, only one set of refugees.
- Arabs and Nazis – Can it be True, Elliot A. Green, Think-Israel, Jan-Feb 2005
- ‘The Hand of God’: How my Father Survived the Nazi-Inspired Farhud, Tiffany Gabbay, The Blaze, 6 Dec 2012
- Farhud memories: Baghdad’s 1941 slaughter of the Jews, Sarah Ehrlich, BBC News, 1 June 2011
Graphics from top to bottom
- The Farhud, by Edwin Black http://www.farhudbook.com/ Dialog Press (November 16, 2010)
‘The Nazis needed oil. The Arabs wanted the Jews and British out of Palestine and Iraq. The Mufti of Jerusalem forged a far-ranging alliance with Hitler resulting in the June 1941 Farhud, a Nazi-style pogrom in Baghdad that set the stage for the devastation and expulsion of the Iraqi Jews and ultimately almost a million Jews across the Arab world. The Farhud was the beginning of what became a broad Nazi-Arab alliance in the Holocaust.’
- Ghetto Fighters House Archives Cat 35442 http://www.gfh.org.il/
- By Dr. Avishai Teicher Wikimedia Common
- Ghetto Fighters House Archives Cat 35443 http://www.gfh.org.il/
- Photograph by David Guy, June 2013
- The Babylonian Jewry Museum, Or Yehuda
- UPI original source unknown
About the Five-in-a Star. How do you define Iraq? By a flag which has changed several times since 1921 when the Kingdom of Iraq was founded under British Administration? By a map from the same period? How many would recognise the map of Iraq, anyway? I decided to take an icon of when Iraq was Babylon. The Jewish connection stretches that far.