It was in 1949, when Nuri al-Said took office as Iraqi Prime Minister, that the idea of exchanging the 160,000 Jews of Iraq for the Arab refugees created by the war in Palestine was first floated. In an essay entitled ‘The break between Muslims and Jews in Iraq’, in Jews among Arabs (Ed Cohen and Udovitch) the late, lamented Iraqi-Jewish historian Professor Elie Kedourie shows how the idea started as a threat, then took on a life of its own.
The Jews of Iraq – settled in the country since Biblical times but increasingly being driven from their jobs and treated as if they had no right to be there – were now seen as ‘pawns and hostages to…allow Nuri to appear as champion of the Palestinian Arabs’.The outside powers too, cynically viewed the Iraqi Jews as useful pawns for resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict.
The Israeli foreign minister, Moshe Sharrett, initially refused any possible linkage between the two sets of refugees. As the Jewish exodus got underway, Levi Eshkol, treasurer of the Jewish Agency, told the Zionist Underground in Baghdad that they must not rush: Israel did not have enough tents. “If they come, they’d have to live on the street,” he said.
Even before the passing of a law allowing Jews to renounce their Iraqi citizenship and leave for Israel,some 30 or 40 a day were fleeing Iraq illegally through Iran. When the law was passed it was thought that not more than 10,000 Jews would leave Iraq. By the time the law expired at the end of March 1951,some 120,000 had chosen to leave. A thirst for vengeance seemed to be driving Nuri al-Said, who tried unsuccessfully to get the Jordanians to agree to truckloads of Jews, whom he branded exploitative, seditious and worthy of punishment, being dumped on the border with Israel.
Now came Nuri’s masterstroke. A law passed in secret froze the property of the Iraqi Jews, in contravention of all undertakings Iraq had made to safeguard minority rights. The property of those who were abroad and failed to return within two months would also be confiscated, even if the Jews had not given up their Iraqi citizenship. There were 25 such cases in Britain.
By then Sharrett had accepted the linkage of the two sets of refugees. A Foreign Office memo approvingly spoke of the two accounts, of the Iraqi Jews and the Arab refugees, standing in perfect symmetry and precise balance. And all this before the expulsion of Egyptian, Syrian and North African Jewry, with all their lost assets, were added to the equation.