Meir Basri, the last president of the Iraqi Jewish community, was born on September 11, 1911. He died on January 3, 2006, aged 94. Here is his obituary in the Times of 26 January (scroll down).
A prolific writer, historian, biographer and poet, Basri was educated at the Alliance Israelite School in Baghdad, which he left in 1928 to join the inchoate Foreign Ministry of Iraq following the establishment of the new State under Hashemite rule; at the age of 17 he had already been fluent in Arabic, French, English and Hebrew.
With a notable Iraqi politician, Sayyid Ja’afar Abul- Timman, he was co-founder in the early Thirties of the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce, which he continued to serve as secretary-general for many years.
Despite the high positions he held and the great respect he earned among Iraqi Muslims, he suffered great hardships under the Baathist regime; and on January 27, 1969, when nine members of the Jewish community were hanged in public, he was detained at the public security compound, where he was to spend three months.
It was not until 1974 that he was allowed to leave Iraq. He was given refuge in the Netherlands, which he left after six months to settle in London.
The Jewish Chronicleof 3rd February published the following:
A leader of Baghdad Jewry, Meer Basri was admired as a good administrator and accomplished scholar.
A grandson of the Iraqi Chief Rabbi Hakham Ezra Dangoor, he attended the Alliance Francaise (sic) school, graduating in 1928. He worked in the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, then the Post and Telegraph Directorate and Baghdad Chamber of Commerce, where he became director in 1943 and led official missions abroad. As Jews were squeezed out of government, following Israel’s statehood in 1948, he kept his links with public bodies such as the Iraqi Dates Association, until he was forced out entirely into the private sector in 1953.
His interest in Hebrew led him into Torah and Talmud Studies, Jewish history and literature. He was also adept at economics, Arabic poetry and literature, and was a fine poet in Arabic, English, French and Hebrew.
From an early age his literary work was published in Arabic journals.
He defended the remaining Iraqi Jewish community after the exodus to the new state, especially after Israel’s stunning victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, when the defeated Arab aggressors turned on their own Jewish communities. Persecution in Iraq reached new heights as Jews disappeared after being kidnapped , or were publically hanged.
On the death of the Chief Rabbi, Hakham Sassoon Khedouri in 1971, Meer Basri was elected acting president of the community. After being jailed himself, he reluctantly took his family out of Iraq in 1974 during a period of detente.
Settling in London he continued writing and meeting self-exiled Arab friends, who valued his kindness, compassion, honesty and moral strength, as well as his intellectual abilities.
He is survived by his wife of 57 years and loyal partner Marcelle, four daughters and 10 grandchildren.
Meir Basri sets the record straight
Towards the end of his life, as a surviving witness to the persecution of the Jews, he fought to set the record straight on why the Iraqi Jews had left. In 2002 Haaretz reported that Basri, along with other Iraqi exiles, had begun to challenge the orthodox Iraqi account, which claimed that the Zionists themselves had caused the Jewish exodus. Here’s an extract of that article reprinted by MEMRI:
“Less than two years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the events that caused all the Jews of Iraq to leave their homes and immigrate, for the most part, to Israel, an exiled Iraqi attorney and publicist living in Europe published an article in which he analyzed the reasons that he believes were responsible for this mass migration. The article by Khaled Issa Ta’a, which appeared in the London-based Arab newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat, was similar in content to hundreds of articles on the subject published by Arab and Iraqi journalists and intellectuals over the past decades.
“The Jews, stated the article, enjoyed complete freedom and full and equal rights in Iraq, and they left only because they were responding to the subversive activity of emissaries of the Zionist movement in Iraq. By behaving this way, the article claimed, the Jews demonstrated ingratitude toward a country and a society that had treated them with great sympathy and consideration.
“Issa Ta’a’s article was, in fact, routine, but the debate it aroused, which continues to this day, deviated from the familiar. Like articles by other Iraqi writers, it presented the usual positions accepted by Arab and Iraqi historiography. But this time, as opposed to in the past, these writers were confronted by a group of Iraqi journalists and intellectuals, virtually all of them exiles in Europe, who wanted to question the traditional narrative and to present a different view. Its main thrust: It was not a Zionist plot, but an outburst of Arab nationalism that caused the Jews to leave; it isn’t Israel and its emissaries who should be blamed, but the Iraqi leaders who persecuted the Jews, identified them unjustly with Israel, and thus pushed them toward the planes en route to Israel.
“This fascinating debate, which is being conducted mainly in the pages of the Arab press published in London, was covered in a slim pamphlet published recently by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a Jerusalem group that keeps track of the Arab media, and distributes translations of articles in the Arab press on Israeli and Jewish subjects. Yotam Feldner, who collected the articles about the Jews of Iraq, translated them into Hebrew and edited the pamphlet, wrote that “the development of a new historical narrative in relation to the Jews in Arab countries and to Zionism is an exceptional phenomenon of great importance,” which can be compared to the phenomenon of the “new historians” in Israel.
“As opposed to the historical debate taking place in Israel regarding the 1948 war [of independence], the Iraqi debate doesn’t rely on burrowing through the archives or on any documentation, but mainly on personal experiences and on intellectual analysis.” The “new Iraqi narrative” that has been taking shape during this debate contradicts both the traditional Iraqi narrative, and the traditional Israeli-Zionist narrative. It’s a new Iraqi narrative, which is strongly sympathetic toward the Jews of Iraq.
The first reaction to attorney Issa Ta’a’s article was written by Meir Basri, a Jew who continued to live in Iraq even after most of the Jews had left. Until 1974, when he immigrated to London, he served as head of the Jewish community in Baghdad. In his article, also published in Al-Sharq al-Awsat, he claimed that the Jews were “loyal Iraqi citizens” who “were forced to leave their homeland during the years 1950-1951 and to move to Israel” only because of the “policy of persecuting the Jews” that was pursued by the government.
Issa Ta’a was quick to publish a reaction to Basri’s article, demanding that he “bring proof” of his claim that the Jews were persecuted. “King Faisal I,” he wrote, “never stopped nurturing the Jewish community, and gave it an important position in the hierarchy of honors and in the official royal ceremonies … Nuri al-Sa’id, the most prominent figure during the era of royalty, represented a school of thought that never opposed the Jewish community. How can one claim that he opposed the Jews, when the school of thought he headed supported the policy of England, which had promised to established a national homeland for the Jews in Palestine?”