Iraqi Jews in Israel record their stories

 The oral history project Sephardi Voices is about to launch its Iraqi Voices project, funded by the Iraqi-Jewish businessmen Dennis and Robert Shasha. Article by Eeta Prince Gibson in Haaretz (with thanks to all those who told me about this):

Sitting in her airy, light-filled home outside of Jerusalem,
surrounded by a garden and wide views of the Judean Hills,
Linda Menuhin says thoughtfully, “I left Iraq more than 40
years ago. But Iraq never left me.”

Menuhin, 67, (above) was recently interviewed for Sephardi Voices, an
ongoing project designed to create an audiovisual documentary
archive of life stories, photographs and artifacts of Sephardi
and Iranian Jews.

Menuhin reveals that throughout her career she had been a
radio and television reporter, an intelligence analyst with
the Israeli police and a consultant to various ministries.
“Since I was born and raised in Iraq, my Arabic was fluent and
much of my career was based on that,” she says. “But because
of my experiences there, I was so hurt I had shut down and
couldn’t really think about life there. I had to heal. It took
me years to open up.”

It’s that opening up that Henry Green, professor of religious
studies and executive director of the Sephardi Voices project,
seeks to capture. “Jews lived in North Africa, the Middle East
and Iran for millennia,” says Green, who was recently in
Israel to interview and film for the project.

“Most referred to themselves as Arab Jews ( a contentious assertion – ed) and most were well
integrated into their societies. But beginning in the 1940s,
Jews began to experience discrimination and violence, much of
it stirred up by the Zionist enterprise (The Farhud predated the ‘Zionist enterprise’ – ed). In the years
following the establishment of the State of Israel, more than
95 percent of Sephardi Jews were victimized, traumatized and
scattered throughout the world. And no one was telling their
story.”

Founded in 2009, Sephardi Voices is modeled after Steven
Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation Institute at the University of
Southern California, which has recorded the oral histories of
tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors. “My research shows
that it takes three generations for a traumatized community to
find its voice, gain perspective and really begin to tell
their story,” Green says. “The Sephardi model has been even
more delayed, especially in Israel, because they are a
minority within a minority.”

The project builds on “Iraq’s Last Jews,” a collection of
stories of “daily life, upheaval and escape from modern
Babylon” co-edited by journalist Tamar Morad and Robert and
Dennis Shasha, Iraqi Jewish businessmen in the United States.
Published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2008, the book was recently
released in Iraq in Arabic.

In Israel with Green, the project’s media director David
Langer told Haaretz that he has designed a particular look for
the project, which included filming and photographing the
subjects in black and white. “The project enables individuals
to tell their stories and their parents’ and grandparents’
stories,”  Green says. “On a macro level, the goal of the
project is, in a way, to retell the story of Jewish
civilization so that it will include the richness of Sephardi
Jews, too.”

The project is currently focusing on Iraqi Jews. “After a long
and illustrious history in Iraq, including the formulation of
the Talmud, most of the Iraqi Jewish community left Iraq in
the early 1950s, with a few staying until the 1980s and
beyond,” Dennis Shasha said in an email. “The good and the bad
stories of that last generation need to be told. That’s what
we’re doing.” Shasha, with his brother Robert Shasha, is
funding the project.

The 1941 “Farhud” marked the beginning of the end of the
millennia-old Jewish community in Iraq. This massive two-day
pogrom in Baghdad, which started during the holiday of
Shavuot, killed over 180 Jews and injured 1,000. Nine hundred
Jewish homes were destroyed.

After the start of Israel’s War of Independence in 1947, the
Iraqi government dismissed Jews from the civil service,
imposed Jewish quotas at universities and other institutions
and arrested increasing numbers of Jews. Bombings targeted
synagogues, but Jews were allowed to emigrate only if they
first relinquished all of their assets. In 1948, a respected
Jewish businessman was publicly hanged on charges of selling
weapons to Israel – even though he was an outspoken
anti-Zionist. By 1951, a majority of Iraqi Jews – some 105,000
– had been airlifted out of Iraq and brought to Israel.

Some, like Menuhin’s family, stayed put. She was born in 1950
into the atmosphere of increasing tension and terror. She
tells her story vivaciously, with ready laughter and
self-mockery, but hers is a story of loss.

“After the Six-Day War, I really began to feel afraid,” she
recalls. “The authorities called in the father of a friend of
mine ‘for questioning’ – and brought his body back in a sack.
We were living in terror. In 1969, nine innocent Jews, accused
of spying for Israel, were publicly hanged in Baghdad. I
remember seeing their bodies.”

“I loved Baghdad, my community, the cosmopolitan atmosphere,
the foods, the sounds, the sights. But I knew I couldn’t stay
anymore,” she says.

By then, Jews could not legally leave Iraq. Against her
parents’ wishes, Menuhin secretly escaped with her brother,
guided by smugglers who first took them to Iran and eventually
to Israel. Her mother left soon afterward and joined them
there. But her father, a well-known Baghdad attorney, did not
want a clandestine departure.

“As an attorney, my father believed in the law and would not
leave illegally,” she says. On the eve of Yom Kippur in 1972,
on his way to the synagogue, Menuhin’s father was taken into
custody by the Iraqi authorities. He was never seen again.

Menuhin made her own documentary film, “Shadow in Baghdad,”
about her search for her father. “We know nothing of what
happened to him. We have never even said Kaddish,” she says,
referring to the mourner’s prayer.

In contrast to Menuhin, identical twins Herzl and Balfour
Hakak were only 2 years old when they were brought to Israel
with their families, and their stories focus on the
difficulties of immigration.

They are interviewed for Sephardi Voices in Herzl’s small
Jerusalem apartment filled with heavy furniture and damask
curtains, and located in an increasingly ultra-Orthodox
neighborhood. Despite the heat, the brothers are dressed in an
old-world style, in open-collar suits.

“When we came, we were told to shed our Iraqiness. The
schoolbooks that we learned from mainly described the towns in
Europe, the halutzim,” Herzl says, referring to the pioneers.
“There was no description of the Jews from the East. But we
couldn’t shed our identity, even though we were so young when
we arrived. Identity isn’t something you can just cut and
paste.”

Both brothers grew up to be civil servants and both are
published poets, writing mostly about life in Iraq and the
challenges faced by their parents and grandparents, the first
generation of immigrants. “Our grandfather’s and father’s
generation couldn’t express themselves,” Herzl says. “But the
generation of the grandchildren and children – that is, us –
can, and we can write their pain.”

He chooses to read a poem he wrote about integration into
Israeli society. He clearly knows the poem by heart, yet holds
the volume in front of him, as if reading to the camera.

(…)

Green had hoped to interview Salim Fattal, known among members
of the community as “the custodian of the memory of the
Farhud.”

“Even though he was the director of Israel’s Arabic
broadcasting service and created popular Israeli TV programs,
the Farhud was the defining event of his life,” says Morad,
the journalist, who is coordinating the project in Israel as a
volunteer.

But Fattal, 87, died in late May.

“The elderly Iraqi Jews are dying out, and their memories are
fading. This is why this is project is so urgent,” Green
concludes.

Iraqi Jewish Voices, a part of the Sephardi Voices project,
will officially launch in New York City in September.

Read article in full

3 Comments

  • "Most referred to themselves as Arab Jews"

    Except for a handful of radical leftists/communists no one referred to themselves as Arab Jews. I challenge anyone to find one single occurrence of this identity in any community records and pinkassim from the Indian ocean to the Atlantic.

    As far as I am concerned this discredits the entire story and I stop reading right at this point.

    Reply

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