In an important and wide-ranging piece, Alyssa Dwek traces the tragic demise of Iraqi Jewry through the 20th century. (Via Honestreporting)
Zionism rose to prominence following the First World War. However, few Iraqi Jews were initially interested in making Aliyah, believing that Zionism too closely resembled socialism. In addition, Iraqi Jews were generally not interested in the agricultural work required of those moving to Mandatory Palestine. Therefore, despite their sympathies with the Zionist vision, many disregarded moving to Israel as a viable option.
Two years after the Great War, in 1920, the “Jam’iyya Adabiyya Isra’iliyya” (Jewish Literary Society) Zionist group was founded in Baghdad. The society was initially permitted by the Iraqi government, but after two years a new law passed by the Iraqi government required societies and associations to register with the Ministry of the Interior.
Despite existing for two years by then, the Minister delayed the Jewish Literary Society’s permit until 1924, and even then the society was allowed to operate in a limited area, thanks to much pressure from the Zionist Organisation in London.
Over the next five years, a number of Zionist societies and groups were established; some clandestinely, some openly.
Just as Zionism began to gather steam as a force among Iraqi Jews, things changed for the worse when the 1929 Palestine Riots broke out in Mandatory Palestine. Angered by rumors of a Jewish attempt to convert the Western Wall into a synagogue, Muslims launched numerous unprovoked attacks on Jews, resulting in the loss of hundreds of lives and Jewish property being looted.
Distorted reports of the clashes spread across the Arab world, claiming that thousands of Arabs were killed due to Jewish aggression, and soon reached the ears of Arabs in Iraq. Hearing this, the Arabs regarded the Jews as responsible for the alleged massacres of Muslims, and turned their anger on the local Jewish community, including against those Jews uninvolved in the Zionist movement. As a result of these events, Jews were met with hostility and Zionist movements in Iraq were banned later that year.
Iraqi Jews being airlifted to Israel in 1950
According to many historians, this point marked the beginning of the end for Iraqi Jewry.
Throughout the 1930s, as the status of Mandate Palestine continued to be debated, the position of the Jews in Iraq became increasingly uncomfortable, with Zionists in particular targeted. The head of the Zionist Movement was exiled and had to leave Iraq. Discrimination towards the Jews worsened throughout this period. The Iraqi authorities routinely turned a blind eye to Muslims harassing their Jewish neighbors, with antisemitism viewed as natural by many in society. Jews were the victims of various cruel acts, with one Jew, Yitzhak Bezalel, remembering a particularly nasty incident in Baghdad when a group of hooligans, aware that Jews refrain from wearing leather footwear on Yom Kippur and therefore walk barefoot, spread broken glass on the ground, resulting in many Jews cutting their feet.
In 1934, Jews were excluded from jobs in the public sector and the number of Jews accepted into institutions for higher education was limited through the use of quotas. Anti-Jewish sentiment was once again worsened by the arrival of a number of pro-Nazi activists. These activists from both Mandate Palestine and Syria incited hatred against the Jews.
Although they were spared the hell of the German death camps in Europe, Jews in Arab countries faced their own difficulties which have been largely overlooked. The eruption of the Second World War in the late thirties affected great swathes of the globe, and Iraq was no different. With the growing British presence in the country enraging Arab nationalists, support for the Germans rose.
Iraqi government officials publicly spoke out in favor of the Germans, and pro-German messages were spread in Iraqi newspapers and radio. A nationalist movement, called the Al-Fatwa movement, was created. Inspired by the Hitler Youth movement, Al-Fatwa membership eventually became compulsory for all children and teachers. With the Nazis finding support among Arabs resentful of British rule, Baghdad was the early base for Nazi Middle East intelligence operations during World War II.
Rashid Ali al-Gaylani attempted to carry out a coup against the British authorities, and announced that Iraq would no longer provide Britain with natural resources as required. The move infuriated the British, who were also concerned by the possibility of the Nazis gaining influence in the Middle East. By the end of the month, British forces struck back against the Iraqi army and regained control. The frustrations generated by these events led to a potent mixture of hatred and resentment stewing in an atmosphere of lawlessness, with disastrous consequences for the Jewish community of Baghdad.
The resulting massacre of Jews, known as the Farhud, is regarded by many as the death knell heralding the demise of Iraqi Jewry.