The last of the Arabic Jews

The phrase ‘Arab-Jew’ sounds like an oxymoron: it’s like saying ‘fat-thin’, or ‘black-white’. But there was a time when there was such a creature. Listen to this fascinating lecture given last November by Sasson Somekh at Vanderbilt university. It was part of a series called Jewsamong Arabs: the future of their past. (With thanks: left but not anti-zionist)

Somekh, a scholar of Arabic literature and emeritus professor at Tel Aviv university, calls himself ‘the last Arabic Jew.’ He was 17 when he left Iraq, together with the great mass of the Jewish community in 1951, having been steeped in Arab culture and Arabic literature while growing up. This makes him a ‘rare bird’. There were not many like him to follow.

But as he himself admits, the community’s ‘Arabic Jew’ interlude was comparatively short-lived. Jews did not know Arabic script and were still writing in Judeo-Arabic (Arabic using Hebrew characters) in 1900. Their dialect was quite different from that spoken by Muslim Arabs. The education received by the Jewish middle class at the Alliance Israelite Universelle taught them English and French as well as Hebrew and Arabic, and equipped them for modern life with the necessary skills for public service and commerce. They were able to thrive under the British mandate. It was thanks to these skills that many Iraqi Jews were able to walk into jobs almost as soon as they arrived in Israel, unlike the Jews of Morocco, for instance.

Somekh is at pains to dispel the prevailing (Ashkenazi) stereotype that the Jews of Iraq were religious, and therefore primitive in some way. “I never went into a synagogue in my life”, he says.

More controversially, Somekh says that 250 Muslims were killed defending Jewish lives in the anti-Jewish Farhoud of 1941 * – a claim rubbished by the documentary film maker Salim Fattal below. Somekh does not consider the massacre, which according to him claimed 150 Jewish lives, a ‘pogrom’ (others put the figure at 179, or even 600). He disputes the idea that the Farhoud marked the beginning of the end of the Jewish community – they never had it as good as in the years following, he claims.

It is true that Jews made money after the Farhoud. It’s also true that many had their confidence in Iraq shaken: families left for India or Iran. After 1941 the community were much more receptive to Zionism, especially young people.

Photo by Daniel Dubois/ Vanderbilt university


The dead Muslims were rioters, not saviours ‘

*Salim Fattal, who interviewed over 100 eye-witnesses while making a film on the Farhoud, comments:

“The new theory that 250 Iraqi Muslims sacrificed their own lives only to save or defend their Jewish neighbors is absolute nonsense. This is a new, pathetic attempt to add to the bloody massacre some rosy color and to twist the very simple truth that Arab society was hostile or, in the best case, indifferent to the Jewish tragedy.

“At the time, the Arab public opinion in Iraq, as well as in other Arab countries, including North Africa, was openly admiring of Nazi Germany and was fanatically against the British and the Jews as well. My uncle Meir Kalif and his partner Nahom Qazzaz were assassinated in the pogrom. Their bodies were never found. Our two families were very much involved in searching and tracing their disappearance but in our entire search we never heard such a legendary story.

“When I started working on my documentary series I interviewed over one hundred Jews who were exposed, this way or another, to the traumatic massacre. None of them claimed that Muslims were killed while defending their Jewish neighbors, or simply killed. On the contrary, I heard that some Muslims joined the rioters in killing or looting their neighboring Jews.

“In his special research about the 1941 uprising in Iraq, A’bdul Razzaq al-Hasani, a well-known Iraqi historian, wrote a special chapter about the pogrom titled “the tragedy”. Neither he nor other researchers, Muslims, Jews or Christians, have ever mentioned that such event (ie. the killing of Muslims – ed) had really occurred.

“Did professor Somekh mention any name or names of such righteous Muslim citizens? I doubt if he really meant what he said.

“Moreover, if 250 Muslims were killed while defending Jews and only 150 Jews were killed, if out of total 400 victims, nearly 65% were Muslims and nearly 35% were Jews, then we can definitely say that the pogrom initiated and carried out by Muslims was not directed against Jews but against Muslims. Can anybody conceive such absurdity?

“Yes! There were some Muslims who gave shelter to their Jewish neighbors. I mentioned that three times in the first chapter of my documentary series. Some Muslims challenged the rioters by telling them that “if you want to kill my neighboring Jews you have first to kill me”. For their part they were noble citizens but none of them were killed. Rioters didn’t kill Muslims.

“And yes, again! There were probably hundreds of Muslims who were killed in the second day of the pogrom. Who were they? Who killed them and why? Were they killed because they were defending Jews or because they were rioters who endangered the political and social order in Iraq?

“On the first day and partly on the second day of the pogrom, the rioters were acting freely. Neither the Iraqi police nor the British army interfered to stop the massacre because it coincided with the British and the Iraqi interests. They deliberately let the pogrom go on.

“An official investigation committee completely ignored the role of the British in failing to prevent the pogrom.

“The British army encamped near Baghdad, but did not lift a finger to stop the rioters. The British purposely stayed outside Baghdad for three days, to let the Arabs vent their hatred towards the British and Jews. The British are to blame for the pogrom. They knew and were informed it would happen.

“A’bdul Ilah, the crown prince, averted his eyes too, but when the rioters endangered the well-established Muslim quarters and total anarchy was about to emerge, only then did he show up as his people’s rescuer, a savior in his own right, no longer servile to Britain. He immediately formed a new government and ordered rioters to be shot.Then the storm quickly died down. It is in this context that Muslims rioters were shot to death. Muslim rioters were shot in order to save Baghdad from wide anarchy.

“The Iraqi authorities killed them not because they were saving the Jewish population – the Iraqi authorities and the British could have saved Jews earlier if only they wanted to do so. But they refused to do so deliberately and stayed outside Baghdad.

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