For the first time, the readership of the Irish Catholic, not known for their sympathy to Jews or Israel, have been given the opportunity to learn about the tragic story of the Iraqi Jews. Aida Phelops, who was two when her family escaped Iraq, gives voice to a history that has been silenced:
A boy plays outside one of the last remaining synagogues in Baghdad
Ms Phelops, who left Baghdad with her family at just two years old, has lived in the UK as well as Israel and has now been living in West Cork for over 11 years. In the last couple of years, she became an Irish Citizen and sees herself as an Irish Iraqi Jew.
“Growing up in the UK as an Iraqi Jew was very frustrating,” Ms Phelops said. “People would know I was Jewish and then, when they would hear where I was born, the question I always got was, ‘well, how can you be an Arab and a Jew?’”
“I wasn’t Aida anymore,” she explained. “I became a political subject. It became so annoying that I used to lie.”
However, nearly 80 years after the Farhudpogrom, she still feels justice has eluded her people. “The older I’ve gotten the more I’ve wanted justice, not just for the Iraqi Jews but for all the Arab Jews.”
Throughout history, the story of the Iraqi and Arab Jews has gone mainly untold, and while parts of the timeline align with the Holocaust, Ms Phelops feels there is rarely a balanced representation of the persecution of the Jews in Arab states and their unique, long-term struggles.
“Just because it happened that long ago doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be addressed. It does need to be addressed,” said Ms Phelops. “They need to honour both histories, equally and separately.”
One of the biggest divides between the two histories is the inability of Iraqi and Arab Jews to return to their birthplaces. Around 856,000 Arab Jews had to leave their homes, escaping to Israel, Canada, the UK, France and the Netherlands. Many had their citizenship and their passports revoked. Others were given new citizenships when moving to other countries.
“They were absorbed into those countries and had to recreate their lives,” she explained. “And when you’re actually the surviving generation, you have no room to visit the pain and trauma you’ve been through. You’ve got to get on with it, which is why it takes the next generation or even the next generation like myself…to tell the story.
“Survivors and descendants of Holocaust survivors are all able to go back to their birthplace, to their ancestral birthplace. Arab Jews are not. And it was a history that has been silenced and nobody knew about, and only lately has it been spoken about.”
On Sunday, March 10, 2019, the Supreme Court of Israel found that Iraqi victims of the two-day 1941 Farhud pogromwould no longer be eligible for the same compensation or recognition as Nazi survivors. It was only in May of 2016 that Israel’s Arab Jews were originally granted recognition as Holocaust survivors.
However, some members of the Iraqi Jewish community have their sights set on returning to their birthplace. In 2018, Vice President of the European Jewish Congress Edwin Shuker and others said they would be petitioning the Federal Supreme Court in Baghdad to request the reinstatement of thousands of Iraqi Jews’ citizenship. 2018 also marked the 70th anniversary of the start of the transplanting of the Iraqi Jews to Israel and beyond.
I suppose personally if I were to go back [to Iraq] it would be to see how I would feel…I do feel I have a hole that is my birthplace…”
“Not only has he gone back [to Baghdad], but he’s also actually bought property there,” said Ms Phelops. “In his head, he believes that one day he can actually go back there.:
“I suppose, for me, I’m scared,” she continued. “I think Shuker is fascinating and he goes back all the time. When I heard him speak I just sat there, and I wanted to say, ‘Take me with you. Keep me safe and bring me back safely.’”
“I am not brave, but if I was told I had a limited amount of time to live, I’d do it,” said Ms Phelops when asked if she herself has thought about returning. “Because if I’ve got a limited amount of time to live, I’m going to die anyhow so I would.”