The spy who was hanged twice over

Seventy years ago, Yosef Basri was hanged by the Iraqi state for his supposed involvement in three Baghdad bombings in May and June 1951 which caused no casualties. He was not charged with an earlier fatal bombing at the Masuda Shem Tov synagogue in January 1951 which allegedly caused a rush of Jews to emigrate to Israel. But his execution gave rise to the mistaken belief among Iraqi Jews in Israel that Basri was indeed punished for bombing the synagogue. Writing in Makor Rishon, Professor Esther Meir Glitzenstein describes how the legend of ‘cruel Zionism’ was born, and became a propaganda trope popular among leftist journalists and academics in Israel and abroad. It was later  picked up by Arab historians.

Yosef Basri, who was only 28 when he was executed

On April 8, 1950, a hand grenade was thrown near a cafe in Baghdad, many of whose residents were Jews, and several people were injured. It was a month after the Iraqi government enacted a law that allowed Jews to leave the country on the condition that they relinquish their citizenship and the right to return to Iraq. On the same day, the Zionist underground issued a call for all Iraqi Jews to immigrate to the State of Israel. A second, most significant and significant terrorist incident took place eight months later, on January 14, 1951, when a bomb exploded near the courtyard of the Masuda Shem Tov synagogue in Baghdad, where hundreds of Jews were waiting to be transferred to the airport and transferred to Israel. Four of them were killed and about twenty were injured.

Three more terrorist incidents later took place: on March 14, 1951, a bomb exploded at the building of the American Information Center in Baghdad, injuring several people; A fourth explosion occurred in the building that housed the offices of the Jewish merchant Lavi on May 10, 1951; And the last incident was a bombing on June 4, 1951 (two weeks after the capture of Ben-Porat and Tager) on a building that housed the company of the Jewish merchant Stanley Cohen . The last two attacks caused damage, but there were no casualties.

The investigations revealed the weapons depots of the underground defense organization that has been operating in Baghdad since 1942, and people who were involved in the possession of these weapons were seized. One of them was Shalom Saleh, who under severe torture admitted to planting  the bombs. At the end of June 1951, the Iraqi authorities declared that they had exposed the perpetrators of the terrorist incidents, which they claimed were intended to undermine Iraq’s internal security and tarnish its image.

The trial of members of the spy network took place in late 1951, and considerable parts of the court’s deliberations were published on Baghdad radio broadcasts and in newspaper articles, and were also reported by Kol Yisrael in Arabic. Iraqi Jews who had just arrived in Israel, and were shocked by the loss of everything they had and the difficult conditions in the transit camps, heard the reports and accepted the accusation made by the Iraqi authorities, seeing it as the explanation for their immigration to Israel. Thus, when Basri and Saleh were executed, Iraqi immigrants showed no interest. There were even reports from the transit camps of people who saw it as a punishment for the Zionists for bringing them to Israel. The man who led the aliyah operation in Baghdad, Mordechai Ben-Porat, was accused of giving the order to plant the bombs, and Ben-Gurion was seen as responsible for conspiring to bring them to Israel.

For twenty years, Iraqi immigrants looked enviously at their brothers who chose to stay in Iraq and enjoyed security and economic well-being in the face of the hard, torturous, arrogant and discriminatory absorption they experienced in Israel. Fifteen years after the hanging in Baghdad, when a monument was inaugurated in memory of Basri and Saleh in Or Yehuda in 1966, these voices were first heard in the Israeli media. Haolam Hazeh newspaper, whose deputy editor, Shalom Cohen, was born in Iraq, published a long article accompanied by the following headlines: “Three Bombs in Baghdad”; “Ben-Gurion’s First Bad Business”; “Did the Israeli government order to harm the Jews in Baghdad?” The opening sentence was: “Fifteen years ago there was a whisper of ‘cruel Zionism’ – only now can one find out what was the most secret affair in the history of the country” (Haolam Hazeh, Issue 1496, 4.5.1966).

The article hinted at the similarities between the Baghdad incidents and the Israeli terrorist incidents that took place in Cairo and Alexandria in 1954, in which the American Information Center was also damaged, in order to confront Egypt with the Western powers and prevent British forces from leaving Egypt. This claim was adopted by the Mizrahi movement of the “Black Panthers” in the early 1970s.

In 1977, the affair made headlines again. Journalist Baruch Nadel, who relied on these publications as well as the accusations leveled by some Iraqis, pointed an accusing finger at Mordechai Ben-Porat and portrayed him as behind the terrorist attacks in Baghdad. Ben-Porat filed a defamation lawsuit, and the lawsuit ended with Nadel’s apology.

From then on, the narrative made its way into academia. It was adopted by Palestinian historian Abbas Shiblak, who was the first to study the phenomenon of mass immigration from Iraq based on the British archives, and explained it in two ways: the agreement between Iraqi and Israeli governments to evacuate Iraqi Jews (“Hillel-Swede Agreement”) and the series of bombings to push the Jews to leave. The researcher of Israeli-American culture, Ella Shohat, adopted these claims in an article entitled: “Orientals in Israel: Zionism from the Perspective of Its Jewish Victims.” Subsequently, these perceptions were raised in Israel by the sociologist Yehuda Shenhav, who was one of the founders and leaders of the “Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow.”

This claim was recently raised again by Hanan Hever and Yehuda Shenhav in an article published in the journal Theory and Criticism. The article is based on the archive of journalist Baruch Nadel, in which he gathered the evidence he collected for the libel trial against Ben-Porat. “There is no doubt that the explosions led to an impressive increase in immigration registration rates between March 1950 and June 1951,” the two wrote. Among these explosions, they placed special emphasis on the attack on the synagogue.

These publications imply a serious accusation: Basri and Saleh are responsible for the deaths of four Jews and the injuries of several dozen Jews and some Muslims, while manipulating that caused panic and led to the hasty decision of tens of thousands of Jews to leave Iraq and immigrate to Israel.

But an in-depth examination of the events in Baghdad reveals some surprising data. First, in the Iraqi court, Basri and Saleh were charged with only three of the five terrorist incidents that took place in Baghdad. These three incidents occurred between March and June 1951, in which several people were injured. Iraq itself has never accused Basri and Saleh of the terrorist incident at the Masuda Shem-Tov synagogue, and hence has never accused them of murdering Jews. Presumably Iraq would not have hesitated to do so had it succeeded in linking them to the first two terrorist incidents. But in the State of Israel, it turns out, there is no problem in blaming Basri and Saleh, in journalistic articles and academic articles, for what even the Iraqi court did not accuse them of.

If the Iraqi government did not accuse Basri  and Saleh of dropping a bomb near the Masuda Shem Tov synagogue and killing four Jews, how is it possible that in Israel they are accused of doing so? Do journalists and academics in Israel know anything that was not known to the Iraqi police?

Moreover, these three terrorist incidents took place after March 9, 1951, a date when the Citizenship Waiver Law expired and it was no longer possible to register for aliyah. Hence, these terrorist incidents could not have affected the extent of the exodus of Iraqi Jews. If the two did commit the three acts of terrorism, the motives for this were not related to aliyah.

From the reports of the British Embassy in Baghdad, we know that in early January 1951, a week before the bombing near the synagogue, 86,000 Jews out of the 105,000 Jews who left Iraq on flights to Israel had already registered for immigration. These Jews relinquished their citizenship and the right to return to Iraq, and waited for the Israeli planes that were in no hurry to arrive. Hence regardless of the question of who dropped the bomb near the synagogue, it was not this incident that caused the mass aliyah. Data on enrolment numbers are based on reports from the British Embassy in Baghdad to the London Foreign Office. In their latest article,  Hever and Shenhav claim that there is no data on the scope of registration, but it turns out that the data exists and is also very easy to locate in the British National Archives.

A few years ago it was revealed that the fifth bomb was indeed a “Jewish” bomb. It was planted by Yosef Habaza (Beit Halachmi), a member of one of the spy networks, in order to convince the Iraqi police that it was not the Jewish detainees who planted  the bombs – since they were in prison and the terrorist incidents continued – thus saving his friends. He himself fled to Israel, and the bomb he planted not only did not help his friends, but Basri and Saleh were actually accused of the bombing.

Back to Yosef Basri. When he was caught he was 28, young, at the beginning of his life. He enlisted in the spy mission because he was an idealist and sought to serve the new homeland, in which he did not get to live. He was severely tortured by Iraqi police investigators, and even described them in his testimony before the court. He was beaten, hung by his legs for long hours, his nails dislocated and his interrogators even tried to break his spirit on the day of his execution by firing squad. Despite everything he did not break down and was not willing to sign an admission of planting the bombs. He turned out to be a brave and daring man, considerate and of a particularly strong character. A real hero.

Basri was not broken even on the eve of his hanging. The rabbi who was present at the time of his execution reported that he announced, “Long live the State of Israel.” Before their deaths, Basri and Saleh requested that their bodies be buried in the State of Israel, but no attempt was made to fulfill their last request. On Mount Herzl there are gravestones in memory of the two, whose burial place is unknown.

Now, on the seventieth anniversary of the execution of Israeli spy Yosef Basri and operative Shalom Saleh, it is time to clear their name of the harsh and baseless accusations leveled at them in the Israeli discourse, and restore to them the respect they deserve.

Prof. Esther Meir-Glitzenstein is a researcher of Jewish immigration from Islamic countries and a faculty member at the Ben-Gurion Institute for Israel Studies, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Read article in full  (Hebrew)

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