Sasson Somekh: how Jewish life in Baghdad ended

In this important Nextbook interview by Lee Smith with the emeritus professor of Arabic Studies at Tel Aviv university, Sasson Somekh, a picture emerges of a modus vivendi between Muslims and non-Muslims in the Baghdad of Somekh’s youth. The Jews and Shi’a were especially close. All this changed when the Muslims began to call the Jews ‘Zionists’.

What do you remember about the Baghdad of your youth and the Jewish community there?

It wasn’t a big city, maybe half a million, but it was a bustling city with the Jews very much in evidence, active in banking, export and import, and railroad station masters—most station masters were Jewish. The Jews learned French and English and this made them useful to the British. English was regarded by the middle class as more important than Arabic, and I was so fascinated by the beauty of British books, the windows of the English bookstores, like Mackenzie’s. So, the British looked for people to work with and they found the Jews, which I don’t think ever really caused problems with Muslims. I never heard this—that we were considered lackeys of the British.

As for the Muslims, the Jews were closer to the Shia in many ways. The Shia have a thing about all non-Muslims, they will touch nothing that has been touched by a non-Muslim, but the Jews used to work with the Shia and employed them. So some of the Shia wouldn’t go to the mosque on Fridays, which is the customary day for Muslims to go to prayer, because the Jews needed them. For instance, the Shia would light fires for Jews on Friday nights—so the Shia went to the mosque Saturday instead.

What I’m trying to say is that there was a modus vivendi between Muslims and non-Muslim minorities. We knew things had changed when you would walk through the streets and they started to say “Zionist” instead of “Jew.”

There was really no strong Zionist movement in Iraq. Some young Jews drifted towards communism, and a few others to Zionism, but these slogans about building a new life on a kibbutz didn’t impress me. If anyone ever thought of leaving, it was to the U.S. or England.

Then what made you move to Israel in 1951?

I went to Israel because I was afraid the police were going to take me away. I wasn’t a communist but I had leanings that way and my friends were, and the police had taken some of them away. I was only seventeen, so I went to court to say I was eighteen and was allowed to go to Israel and my parents arrived three months later. Iraq was very much changing at the time.

This was a decade after the farhoud?

Yes, 1941 was a real massacre, it was horrible. The Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, had come to Baghdad that year and lived not far from us; I used to see him and his men. He incited everyone against the Jews of Baghdad, who were not Zionists. He would appear on radio—“you Jews are snakes,” etcetera—and the simple people believed him. There were lots of Palestinians who had come to teach in Iraq, we needed so many teachers, and these were often under the guidance of the Mufti and his men, and this poisoned the atmosphere further. So, in 1941 there were 100,000 Jews in Baghdad and possibly 20,000 whose houses were attacked. But during the war, the British brought prosperity and the Jewish community forgot about that pogrom. That started to change in 1948 because of tensions over the war in Palestine when soldiers came back angry at Jews. With these new tensions in the air, the Jews remembered those days of the farhoud. The pro-Nazi party, al-Istiqlal (Independence) hinted at another farhoud, saying the Jews should get out before it happened to them again. It was not their official policy, but we heard it.

The real turning point was in 1948 with the hanging of Shafiq Adas, a rich Jew who was a friend of the Prince Regent. He was hanged in Basra, accused of buying scrap from the British and sending it to Israel. So Jews started to leave and the Muslims who were partners with Jews before were scared now, and a good life for the Jews was no more in the offing. Most of our neighbors were leaving and selling their property. My parents were not crazy about the idea of moving to Israel. My father was fifty and didn’t like the idea of such an adventure.

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The last of the Arabic Jews

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