Saul Silas Fathi’s account of his early life in Baghdad, related in his book, Full Circle, seems to bear out that life was both wonderful and terrible for Jews in Arab lands. It was very good until it was very bad. Saul’s father was director of the Iraqi railway system. His family lived well, but by the 1930s, the storm was gathering. Below is Fathi’s account of the prelude to the Farhoud , the 1941 Iraqi pogrom against the Jews. [Via Zionation (Iraqi Jews before the fall), with thanks: Ami].
The treatment of Jews in Iraq during the early part of the twentieth century had been relatively positive. The British under the 1917 mandate saw the value of having Jews work with them and later with the newly formed monarchy. They realized that the Jews, who were already holding prominent positions in government and commerce, understood the Iraqi culture and knew both English and the local dialects.
In Iraq, Zionism, or the encouragement of Jewish identity and culture, was permitted from World War I to the early 1930s. However, with the rise of pro- German and pro-Nazi sympathizers in Iraq, restrictions began to be leveled on Jews. In 1933, the Iraqi government forbade the teaching of Hebrew and restricted its use to the Holy Scriptures and in prayers. Extra permits and licensing fees were levied on Jews; and sometimes an extra bribe had to be made in order for Jews to ship or receive goods, without their merchandise sitting in a customs dock indefinitely. Many Jews also were fired from their government jobs.
By the mid 1930s, Nazi-inspired policies became more widespread. Arab boys in Baghdad were often sent to Germany to attend Hitler Youth events. Public high schools stopped teaching French, the language of diplomacy, and began to teach German. Junior high school boys were encouraged to join the Futtuwa, paramilitary programs based on the Hitler Youth groups. Finally, in 1938, no Jews were permitted to attend the public high schools, nor were Jews permitted to leave the country. The Jewish community restricted its own movements to known safe places: work, school, and the marketplace. Though the Balfour Declaration after World War I favored British support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the British in Iraq could do nothing about the growing Arab support of Arab Palestinians and anti-Zionist hate. Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda found its way into Iraq and was actively distributed. German-backed anti-Jewish radio broadcasts filled the Iraqi airwaves, and short-wave radio receivers could pick up anti-Jewish broadcasts from Germany. Hajj Amin al Hussayni, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (1920-1937) under the British mandate, had fled to Iraq after authorizing terrorist attacks on the British and the Jews in Palestine, and was welcomed by the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri Al Sa’id. In response, Hussayni and his old friend, Fawzi Kawakchi [Kaukji, Kawkji], spent a year agitating the Iraqi populace against the monarchy, the Regent Abd Al-Ilah, the British, and, of course, the Jews. They used Iraqi radio as their primary propaganda tool.
It was in 1938 that Iraq and the rest of the world heard the awful news of Krystallnacht in Germany. Called “Crystal Night” or the “Night of Broken Glass,” two-days of violence swept through a large Jewish community. German soldiers systematically marched from city block to city block, burning, looting, and killing. One hundred Jews were murdered. Thirty thousand were rounded up and moved to concentration camps. Seven thousand Jewish owned businesses were destroyed and two hundred synagogues were burned.
“With growing pro-Nazism in Iraq and the rise of hatred of the Jews there, the Jewish community feared open violence would reach their people as well. When World War II began in late 1939, Iraq’s treaty with the British stipulated that Iraq would officially and politically side with the Allies. This served only to fan the flames of Arab nationalism that found sympathy with Nazism and anti-Jewish sentiment within the country.
Part 2 to follow