Remembering the Farhud
Today marks the 65th anniversary of the Farhud. Arabic for “violent dispossession,” this is the word used to describe the infamous pogrom of June 1, 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 had existed for twenty-six centuries, preceded Islam by a thousand years, and once numbered over 125,000 souls.
Today, not a single Jew is left in Iraq. 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. Implicit 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 the West publicly cry foul when the terrorist attacks of September 11 are linked to them or their religion, they do not hesitate to ascribe collective responsibility to Jews. For instance, writing in the interfaith newsletter in Contra Costa County, California, Dr. Amir Araim, the Imam of Concord, California, and an Iraqi who once represented Saddam Hussein’s regime to the United Nations, links the dismantling of the Jewish community of Iraq directly to the controversial events at Deir Yassin, the Arab village that was captured by Israel during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 and where pro-Arab propagandists have long claimed a “massacre” took place.
Even leaving aside that highly contestable claim, Araim’s allegation that there is a direct line running from Deir Yassin to the Farhud in Baghdad is woefully ahistorical: the pogrom occurred long before there was an Israel or even a single Palestinian refugee. The Farud began at 3 PM on June 1, 1941, the Jewish holy day of Shavout. The violence erupted 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. He was not about 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. In contrast to Palestinian Arab refugees, 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, like the 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. 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 anti-Semitism 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 anti-Semitic propaganda broadcasts in Arabic from Berlin further served mutual purposes. The Mufti’s legacy of anti-Semitism became part of Iraqi culture.
This is embarrassing because while Arab propagandists routinely use “Jew” and “Nazi” in the same breath, Nazism is historically very much a part of Arab political 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. Similarly, the Ba’ath socialists of Iraq and Syria draw their inspiration from Nazism. This further belies the Arab claim that anti-Semitism is exclusively a Western and not a Middle Eastern phenomenon.
The aftermath of the Farhud spelled the end of Iraq’s Jewish community. On September 23, 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 Iraqi celebrants 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 by requiring expelled Iraqi Jews to use Iraqi travel agents in order 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 the space of a few years, these refugees were absorbed into Israeli society. Unlike the Palestinian Arabs, they were not abandoned to languish without hope for generation after generation in impoverished camps.
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 too long been ignored. Arabs and Muslims must ultimately take responsibility for the anti-Semitism of their world, a racism that resulted in Arab Jews becoming the largest ethnic group in Israel.