Farhud: decisive turning point for the Jews of Iraq

‘Satan at the door’ – a scene from the Farhud by artist Nissim Zalayette
Nothing convinced the ancient Jewish community of Iraq to emigrate en masse to Israel more than the terrible events of 1 – 2 June 1941 known as The Farhud. Philip Mendes wrote this review of Al-Farhud: The 1941 Pogrom in Iraq* edited by Shmuel Moreh and Zvi Yehuda for the Australian Journal of Jewish Studies ( Vol.24, 2010, pp.176-179):

To date, international concern with Middle East refugees has focused primarily on the approximately 700,000 Palestinian Arabs who left Israel during the 1947-48 war. Far less attention has been paid to the nearly one million Jews – known as Mizrahim – who left Arab countries in the decade or so following that war. Most moved to the newly-created Jewish State of Israel where today they constitute the majority of the Jewish population, and often lean towards the hawkish side of the political spectrum.

The mass exodus of the previously large and prosperous Jewish community of Iraq seems to have been a particularly sad example of Arab intolerance. A newly edited book by the Israeli academics Shmuel Moreh and Zvi Yehuda, Al-Farhud: the 1941 pogrom in Iraq, sheds new light on the causes of the Farhud which seems to have been a key factor in provoking the later exodus. This volume contains both new papers on the pogrom and reproductions of earlier published articles.

The Iraqi Jews were a well-integrated community who could date their heritage back to the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. However, the security and confidence of Iraqi Jews was shattered by the pro-German military coup of April 1941 headed by Rashid Ali al-Kaylani. The coup leaders were quickly defeated and exiled by a British army occupation, but their departure was followed by a large-scale Farhud or pogrom against the Jews of Baghdad.

Shmuel Moreh describes Farhud as an Arabized Kurdish word which means unrestrained massacre, burning, looting and rape by hooligans. Over 170 Jews were murdered, several hundred injured, and numerous Jewish properties, businesses and religious institutions damaged and looted. The Farhud was perpetrated by Iraqi officers, police, and gangs of young people including women (which was unusual for Arab society) influenced by religious and nationalist fanaticism, and the popular perception of a Jewish alignment with Britain. These groups rejected the presence of national or religious minorities in the Arab world, and regarded the Jews as a fifth column sympathetic to the Western powers.

Moreh and other contributors note that the anti-Jewish rioters were influenced by a number of factors. One was ongoing incitement by a group of approximately 400 Palestinian émigrés residing in Iraq. These Palestinians were mainly doctors, teachers and politicians who had fled to Iraq after the failed 1936-39 uprising against the British. They were led by the extremist Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini, who would later collaborate with Hitler’s Final Solution. One of these Palestinians, the poet Burhan al-Din al-Abbushi, wrote incendiary verses accusing the Jews of killing and violating Arab women and children in Palestine. These verses were read publicly in mosques and schools, at demonstrations and on the radio, and appear to have provoked much anti-Jewish hatred.

Another factor was the anti-Jewish propaganda distributed by the German Nazi envoy Fritz Grobba in Baghdad, although Zvi Yehuda argues in this volume that the impact of the German propaganda may have been exaggerated. Also important was the anti-Jewish campaign by local Iraqi nationalists including a number of leading officials in the Ministry of Education, and the anti-Jewish speeches by local clerics at specific mosques in Baghdad on the day of the Farhud.

In addition, there was the cynical political decision by the British Army to delay the timing of their intervention to restore order lest they be labelled as friends of the Jews. The late Elie Kedourie in his republished paper quotes a letter by the British Ambassador to Iraq, Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, cautioning the Foreign Office from displaying any open sympathy for the Jews. According to the book’s foreword by Robert Wistrich, the British had acted with similar malevolence in failing to act to prevent anti-Jewish riots in Libya in November 1945 and Aden in December 1947.

A fascinating chapter by Nissim Kazzaz notes that the Communist Party of Iraq, which had a number of Jews in its leadership, surprisingly welcomed the pro-Nazi military regime headed by Rashid Ali on the grounds that it supported liberating Iraq from British imperialism. However, the Party strongly criticized anti-Jewish manifestations associated with the regime, although acknowledging that some Jews were alleged traitors to the military regime. This criticism intensified following the Farhud, and the Party later repudiated its endorsement of Rashid Ali.

Esther Meir-Glitzenstein notes in her chapter that the Farhud produced a new interest by the Zionist movement in Iraqi Jewry. Until that time the European-dominated Zionist establishment had been influenced by western colonialist ideas which regarded Arab Jews as alien and unproductive, and hence not suitable for immigration to Palestine.

However, reports on the Farhud by Iraqi Jews who visited Palestine provoked concern and shock among leading Zionist officials including Moshe Shertok (Sharrett), head of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department. Shortly after the Farhud, Shertok met with the prominent Iraqi leader Nuri al-Said, who rejected suggestions of widespread anti-Jewish feeling in Iraq, and argued that the traditionally good relations between Muslims and Jews throughout the Middle East had solely been damaged by Zionist actions in Palestine. In contrast, the Zionist movement viewed the Farhud as confirming their belief that Jews could only live securely in Palestine. As a result, the Jewish Agency began to allocate a proportion of immigration certificates to the Jews of Iraq.

The most significant finding from the many Jewish memoirs cited in this text was their terrible sense of betrayal. As noted by Moreh, a number of Jews had served as doctors and officers in Rashid Ali’s army during the battles against the British, and Jewish merchants had donated generously to the armed forces. They expected a more positive outcome from their service than this horrific massacre.

Even worse, many of those killed and injured in the Farhud were attacked by local Muslims whom they personally knew. Government hospitals often refused to treat the injured Jews, and some were later told by Jewish nurses that the injured were deliberately poisoned by doctors in the hospitals on the orders of the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine. Others gave jewellery and money to their neighbours in trust who then refused to return the property. But conversely, many recalled with gratitude the bravery of their Muslim neighbours who respected the tradition of Arab hospitality to save their lives. For example, the book includes a specific letter written by the President of the Jewish community of Basrah thanking Shaikh Ahmad Bashasyan – the former Lord Mayor of Basrah – and his family for protecting Jews during the Farhud.

According to Moreh, the Farhud constituted a “decisive and tragic turning point” for the Jews of Iraq, and destroyed what he calls the “Jewish delusion that they could live in Iraq as citizens of equal rights with the Muslims” (p.208). The Jews were particularly shocked by the silence of the Iraqi Arab intelligentsia, many of whom defended the Rashid Ali regime, and condemned the execution of some of its key leaders. No literary works by Arab writers even mentioned the Farhud. Conversely, a number of popular songs were compiled before and during the Farhud expressing hatred for the Jews, and celebrating the theft of valuable property from the supposedly wealthy Jewish merchants. Moreh argues that the Farhud convinced most Iraqi Jews that Zionism was the solution, and led directly to the mass immigration of 1950-51 to Israel.

*Al Farhud: the 1941 pogrom in Iraq, ed by Shmuel Moreh and Zvi Yehuda (Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism. Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2010)

Associate Professor Philip Mendes teaches social policy and community development at Monash University, and is the co-editor of Jews and Australian Politics, Sussex Academic Press 2004)

One Comment

  • And it's happening again with the Christians, while the world stands by in silence.


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