Remember the Farhud, 78 years on

On  the 78th anniversary of the Farhud on 1 and 2 June 1941,  we recall the most traumatic event in the collective memory
of Iraqi Jewry. It  took place  on the Jewish holiday of Shavuoth: 180 people were
brutally murdered, thousands were wounded and raped, and shops and
synagogues were plundered and destroyed. Here is an account prepared by the Museum of the Jewish People (Bet Hatfutsot) and reproduced in Haaretz:

attack on the city’s flourishing, peaceful Jewish community is usually
referred to as the trigger for the Iraqi aliyah to Israel. But seldom is
the question asked: How could such a pogrom have occurred in the first
place in Iraq – a place where Jews had lived in peace for centuries, a
country that did not seem to suffer anti-Semitic norms? 

An examination of the historical
background reveals the Farhud’s causes: the opposing interests of the
Iraqi government and the British Empire, Nazi Germany’s influence,
internal Arab movements, and a struggle between groups of Iraqi
intellectuals. The unfortunate Jews were caught in the middle. 

Nissim Kazzaz has researched Iraqi Jewry and managed to put the Farhud
in its historical context. Until the 1920s there was no significant
evidence of anti-Semitism in Iraq. Old restrictions from the Ottoman era
were abolished during the 20th century and the establishment of the
British Mandate after World War I soon changed the Jews situation for
the better. 

Yet World War I had other outcomes as well. The Iraqi elite were introduced to “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,
a forged text that was partly translated from the original Russian into
Arabic. New movements were rising in that period in Iraq, some of which
argued that as long as the Jews did not hold national inspirations,
they were part of the Iraqi nation without obstacles.

Jews at a synagogue waiting to waive their Iraqi citizenship in order to emigrate to Israel, Baghdad, March 1950.

(Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy David Petel)

But other movements, such as Al Istiklal,
had a different opinion. Perceiving the Iraqi nationality as Arabic and
Muslim, they would not include religious minorities such as the Jews.
Formally, after Iraq received independence from Britain in 1932, the
Jews were considered Iraqi citizens, but some voices always argued
against their integration.

At the same time, the world was going
through profound changes. Fascist leaders rising in Europe such as
Hitler and Mussolini had supporters among the Iraqi elite who resented
the British. Even after independence, the British still expected certain
privileges, especially in the transfer of goods through Iraq, which the
Iraqi nationalists would not yield. They insisted that Iraq should
establish a close relationship with Germany instead of being exploited
by Britain. 

Meanwhile, Hitler’s Mein Kampf and
speeches were translated into Arabic, and German educators came to Iraq
to spread radical anti-Semitic propaganda. Iraqi newspapers went all the
more pro-German, especially after 1939. They asserted, for example,
that Iraqi Jews and the Zionists were one and the same, that world Jewry
was scheming to ruin the glorious nation of Iraq, and that Jews must be
banished from public life. 

help from the Germans, the Al-Fatwa religious movement was founded; it
espoused the keeping to strict Islamic rules and practices by all
citizens, and it was inspired by the Hitler Youth. At a certain point,
all students and teachers were forced to join the movement – including
the Jews. In 1939 the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini,
settled in Iraq, lobbied for the Germans and spread hatred against the

The tension boiled over on April 1, 1941.
Until that day Iraq did not assist the British, but it also did not
assist Germany directly. Eventually, Prime Minister Rashid Ali decided
it was time to switch allies. He launched a coup against the pro-British
officials; he then announced that Iraq would no longer assist Britain
with airplane fuel, and even sent military forces to British bases in
Iraq. By the end of April, the British had attacked the Iraqi army,
which was now backed up by Luftwaffe pilots. 

In May, the British fought the
German-Iraqi force and had help from groups like the the Irgun Jewish
militia based in British Mandatory Palestine. In one operation in Iraq,
Irgun chief David Raziel was killed by the Germans and his body was kept
by the Iraqis until the early 1960s. Finally, with support from Indian
forces, the British forced the Iraqis to surrender, and on May 30 the
pro-German Iraqi officials escaped to Iran. Their successors signed the
surrender documents.

From that point the Jews were in
immediate danger. The surrender agreement stated that the British would
enter Baghdad within two days. The Al-Fatwa religious movement saw a
window of opportunity to incite the masses and blame the Jews for the
military failure against the British. They marked the houses of the Jews
in red and the next day, June 1, the mobs started rioting against the
Jews – the first such riots ever in Iraq.The rioters destroyed synagogues and
murdered, raped and wounded people – the elderly and infants were not
spared. The mob used all manner of weapons and also ran people over with
vehicles. But some Jews were hid by their Muslim neighbors, who put
themselves at great risk.

A platoon of soldiers in compulsory military service that was imposed on high school students by the Iraqi Army, Baghdad, 1940. A quarter of these conscripts were Jewish.

(Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy the Sehayek family)

The massacre only ended when the British
entered the city. The British actually knew about the pogrom a day
earlier but did not try to prevent it; just like the local authorities,
they preferred to let the masses vent their rage. 

After the Farhud, the Iraqi authorities
held an investigation, blamed nationalists, and even executed a few army
officers involved in the incitement. Husseini, the mufti, was also
mentioned in the investigation, and the German involvement was
recognized over the years. 

A monument in memory of the victims was
put up in Baghdad, but even so, the Farhud triggered the mass emigration
of Iraq’s Jews. Between 1950 and 1952, Israels Operation Ezra and
Nehemiah (1950-1952) brought some 120,000 people – 90 percent of Iraqs
Jews – to the young state. 


For Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People website go to:

Read article in full 

More about the Farhud 

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