tereotypes of Israeli Jews abound in the world at large, one of which is that all Israeli Jews are descended from European Holocaust survivors. This stereotype is what led Helen Thomas, a Lebanese-American, to call on Israeli Jews to “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home” to “Poland, Germany and America and everywhere else.” But, as any Israeli can tell you, at least half of our Jewish population has no connection to Europe whatsoever. The visitor to Israel is struck by the variety of colors that Jews come in. From black to brown to white and every shade in between. In my tiny community of Kibbutz Hannaton there are Jews whose families hail from Iraq, Yemen and North Africa. (We also have a family with three adopted African-American kids, which you can read about here.)
Tonight begins the Shavuot holy day and here in Israel, where almost the entire Iraqi Jewish community and their descendants resides, this marks a tragic day in their history: Shavuot, June 1, 1941.
Iraq’s Jews lived in Iraq (aka, Babylon, Assyria, Mesopotamia), for close to 2,400 years. This ancient Jewish community was established in 586 BCE with the arrival in Babylon of the prisoner exiles of Judea. (See Psalm 137 “By the rivers of Babylon [i.e. the Tigris and Euphrates], there we sat, and we wept when we remembered Zion.”) This is where the Babylonian Talmud was redacted, and some of the most important and influential Jewish centers of learning were established. Over 60 years ago, some 150,000 Jews lived in Iraq, with one-in-three Baghdadis being Jewish. Today there are no Jews remaining in Iraq.
A friend of mine, Semha Alwaya, is an Iraqi Jew living near San Francisco, but most of her family lives in Israel. In March 2005 she penned an article in the San Francisco Chronicle called “The vanishing Jews of the Arab world: Baghdad native tells the story of being a Middle East refugee.” In it, she tells of the events of June 1941 when a pro-German coup against the pro-British Iraqi government
brought a reign of terror to Iraq’s Jews. This culminated in what we remember as the Farhud, an Arabic word akin to ‘pogrom.’ In a two-day period Arab mobs went on a rampage in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq, murdering, raping and pillaging these cities’ Jewish communities.
This episode, recognized by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum as part of the Holocaust, describes the atmosphere that led to the Farhud:
Nazi influence and antisemitism already were widespread in Iraq, due in large part to the German legation’s presence in Baghdad as well as influential Nazi propaganda, which took the form of Arabic-language radio broadcasts from Berlin. Mein Kampf had been translated into Arabic by Yunis al-Sab’awi, and was published in a local newspaper, Al Alam al Arabi (The Arab World), in Baghdad during 1933-1934. Yunis al-Sab’awi also headed the Futtuwa, a pre-military youth movement influenced by the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) in Germany. After the coup d’etat, al-Sab’awi became a minister in the new Iraqi government.
The principle leader of the pro-Nazi coup was Rashid ‘Ali al-Kailani, an anti-British nationalist politician from one of the leading families in Baghdad. He was assisted by
the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husayni. Since his arrival in Baghdad in October 1939 as a refugee from the failed Palestinian revolt (1936-1939), al-Husayni had been at the forefront of anti-British activity. (See full quote here.)
The Grand Mufti was the first formal leader of Palestinian Arab nationalism. There is much to be said about this man’s career, particularly his relationship with Nazi Germany in the 1930s until Germany’s defeat in 1945. His influence on Palestinian politics can still be felt today, particularly among the more rejectionist parties, such as Hamas or Islamic Jihad. In some future blog I will cover this aspect of the events that led up to the 1948 first Arab-Israeli war. Meanwhile, here is some background on al-Husayni from the USMM web site.
The Farhud had permanent and far-reaching consequences for Iraq’s Jews. Within ten years most Iraqi Jews fled the country, ending one of Jewry’s oldest and most influential communities. Today’s Jerusalem Post carries a story on the Farhud, interviewing a number of Israeli Iraqi Farhud survivors. After Israel’s establishment, writes the Post,
life in Iraq became unbearable, with public hangings of prominent Jews that shocked the community to new depths. When the Iraqi government finally allowed to (sic) Jews to leave in 1950 on condition they forfeit their nationality and all their money and property, the entire community registered en masse, leaving only 2,000 Jews by 1952.
What happened in Iraq was repeated in a number of other Arab countries, before and after Israel’s establishment. As Alwaya wrote in the Chronicle:
I am a Jew, and I, too, am a refugee. Some of my childhood was spent in a refugee camp in Israel (yes, Israel). And I am far from being alone. This experience is shared by hundreds of thousands of other indigenous Jewish Middle Easterners who share a similar background to my own.
Palestinians in recent days and weeks have set about remembering the “Nakba,” Arabic for “catastrophe,” which is how they view Israel’s establishment in 1948. What the memory of the Farhud shows is that the events leading up to, during and after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war were complex and multi-layered (for instance, not all Holocaust victims were Europeans and the Nazis had important allies in the Arab world). There is no simple, single narrative that explains the entire history of this conflict, and remembering the Farhud can only broaden understanding of the conflict’s origins.