For years anti-Zionists have maintained that the Zionist underground in Iraq had planted bombs aimed at Jewish targets to cause or hasten the Jewish exodus in 1950 -51. Now evidence published in Haaretz by Tom Segev – an Israeli ‘new historian’ – vindicates the official Israeli line that Iraqi Muslims, not Jews, threw the deadly bomb at the Masuda Shemtov synagogue in January 1951 which killed four Jews and injured 10. (With thanks:Lily)
On January 14, 1951, at about seven in the evening, a bomb – or perhaps it was a hand grenade – was tossed into the open courtyard of the Masuda Shemtov synagogue in Baghdad. The courtyard served as a gathering place for Jews, prior to their departure for the airport, on their way to Israel. At the time of the terror attack, the place was filled with several hundred people. Four of them, including a 12-year-old boy, were killed; about 10 were wounded. The Iraqi authorities blamed two activists from the Zionist underground, and had them executed.
The British embassy in Baghdad relayed to London its own assessment of the motives behind the attack: Activists of the Zionist movement wanted to highlight the danger for the Jews of Iraq, in order to spur the State of Israel to accelerate the pace of their immigration. At the time, there was serious debate in Israel on this issue and some wished to slow down the rate of emigration from Iraq. The British embassy’s appraisal is quoted in a book by Esther Meir of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The embassy also offered a second possible explanation: The bombs were meant to influence well-off Jews in Iraq who wished to stay there, to get them to change their minds and come to Israel, too.
Compared to the terror currently raging in Baghdad, the 1951 bombing barely rates a footnote, but in the history of immigration to Israel, it still has significance, some of it political – because the bombing at the synagogue fueled a whole host of rumors and accusations. Some claimed that it was carried out by Mossad agents, with the objective of frightening the Jews and encouraging them to move to Israel. This claim is also accepted by several Mizrahi scholars and activists, and is sometimes cited as one of the arguments against Zionism.
The rumor particularly haunted former minister Mordechai Ben-Porat, the Mossad’s man in Baghdad: Ben-Porat even sued for slander, and won an apology. In the Haganah archives, correspondence between Mossad agents in Baghdad and their handlers in Tel Aviv is preserved, and includes their reports on the synagogue bombing. The impression that arises from the exchange of telegrams is that the Mossad agents in Baghdad and their superiors in Tel Aviv did not know who was responsible for the attack.
Nonetheless, the issue has remained a mystery – for one thing because the state continues to conceal information related to the episode. I am referring to information David Ben-Gurion wrote in his journal on October 10, 1960. On that day, nearly 10 years after the incident, the prime minister received a detailed report about it from Isser Harel, then head of the Shin Bet. A few lines of what Ben-Gurion wrote are classified. Some time after Harel reported on the incident to Ben-Gurion, the Mossad established a commission of inquiry that “did not find any factual proof that the bombs were hurled by any Jewish organization or individual.” The commission’s conclusions were made public in a book written by Ben-Porat.
Now, a recent publication is shedding new light on the mystery. The revelations come from Yehuda Tager, an Israeli agent who operated in Baghdad, was exposed and spent about 10 years in prison there. According to Tager, the bombing of the Masuda Shemtov synagogue was not carried out by Israelis, but by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, at least one activist from the Zionist underground, Yosef Beit-Halahmi, did apparently carry out several terror attacks *after the arrest of his comrades, in the hope of proving to the Iraqi authorities that the detainees were not involved in these actions. This is the first time someone involved in the episode is confirming that members of the Zionist underground did commit bombings in Baghdad.
The interview with Tager, now 83, appears in a new book by the British journalist Arthur Neslen, titled “Occupied Minds.” Tager quoted a conversation he had with Beit-Halahmi’s widow: “She said she had asked him (if he had thrown the bombs) and he had replied that if a bomb was thrown while we were in prison, it would have proved that it was not us who bombed the Masuda Shemtov. She implied that he, on his own initiative, without orders from Israel, did it in order to save us.”
Evidence from Beit-Halahmi’s widow is still not conclusive. She does not say outright that her husband had thrown the bomb, she ‘implied’ it – Ed.
Ehud Ein-Gil, deputy editor of Haaretz Magazine, who came across this information, called up Tager and the latter confirmed the version of events depicted in Neslen’s book. But when he appeared before the Mossad’s commission of inquiry in 1960, Tager did not tell this part of the story.
Ein-Gil asked him why.
Tager: “There is a time and a place for everything. At that time, saying something like that would have been greatly frowned upon by the community.
The conditions have changed since then, and here in Israel the true story is already known, at least among former Iraqis.”
*According to the book Fascinating life and Sensational death by Gourgji Bekhor, only two bombs were thrown subsequent to the Masuda Shemtov incident. A bomb on 5 June 1951 targeting the Jewish firm Stanley Shashoua on Rashid Street caused no casualties. Another on the Amana market in Rashid Street did not explode. These incidents would not have affected the Jewish exodus ( by March of that year, all but about 6,000 Jews had decided to register to leave Iraq) and preceded the arrest of the Jewish activists Yusef Basri and Shalom Saleh in June 1951. Both were hanged in January 1952.
Bombs update: Mordechai Ben-Porat, Mossad’s leading operative in Baghdad, had his name cleared in an Israeli court when he sued an Israeli magazine for libel. The court heard evidence (see Porat’s book To Bahgdad and Back) in support of the theory that non-Jews threw the January 1951 bombs and that Muslim peddlars were tipped off to clear the scene just before grenades were thrown at the Messouda Shemtob synagogue. The two Jews who were accused of planting bombs and hanged in January 1952 were never accused of the January 1951 incident.