How the Law allowing Jews to leave backfired on Iraq

It is  seventy-two years and one month since the Iraqi Parliament passed a  Law permitting the legal emigration of Jews – on condition they forfeited their citizenship. The law became a trap: all those who had registered to leave – 105,000 –  could not return, and the only country which would accept them was Israel. Paradoxically, Iraq sent its army to defeat the Jewish state in 1948, then in 1950 made sure that all the Jews leaving it came to Israel. The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Israel explains the background and consequences:

The Citizenship Waiver Law was published in the official government newspaper,  al-Qara, in 1950

In late 1949 no one expected that in two years Iraq would be emptied of Jews and only less than ten thousand Jews would remain there. But during this period a number of events began that played an important role in driving the exit process. In December 1949, the emergency laws that had been in place in Iraq since mid-May 1948, when the Iraqi army joined the armies of Arab countries that went to war against Israel, were repealed.

Civil law was restored and an illegal exit from Iraq, which in the period of emergency involved heavy prison sentences, returned to being a violation of the Passport Act with a maximum sentence of six months imprisonment and a fine of 100 dinars. A mass exodus of Jews who have been politically and economically harmed in the previous year and a half had now begun.

Thousands of Jews made their way to the Iraq-Iran border, most of them crossing the border into the Basra area and others passing through Amara and Hanakin. Within five months, from January to May 1950, about 4,000 Jews arrived in Tehran and from there were flown to Israel. Among the fugitives were Zionists and communists persecuted by the government and unemployed young people who were badly affected by the economic crisis in Iraq and the anti-Jewish discrimination policy introduced since May 15, 1948, which included mass dismissals of Jews from government jobs, restrictions on import licenses and travel restrictions on Jewish merchants.  Jews  were not admitted to institutions of higher learning.

This escape was accompanied by a considerable transfer of funds. Impoverished Jews began selling property to survive and others began smuggling money into Iran. The departure of these groups and the smuggling of funds undermined the existing order and increased the unrest in Iraq. Authorities tried to end the escape but failed: the large bribes paid by the fugitives bought the assistance of military and police forces, and Iran, which worked in coordination with Israel, refused repeated requests to extradite the refugees to Iraq, encouraging continued escape. The Iraqi government also did not dare to toughen the punishments against the fleeing Jews for fear of being criticized in Western countries.

The solution proposed by the Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Tawfiq al-Suwaidi, was a “citizenship waiver law,” a law that allowed Jews to leave Iraq legally. The law was approved by the Iraqi parliament and senate and published on March 9, 1950. Nuri al-Said, the most powerful man in Iraq, was not involved in enacting the law but it is hard to believe he did not know about it and did not support it. And these are the main points of the law:

The Council of Ministers may decide to revoke Iraqi citizenship from any Iraqi Jew who voluntarily prefers to leave Iraq once and for all, after signing a special form before an official appointed by the Minister of the Interior. […] The force of this law shall be valid for one year from the date of its entry into force. It may be revoked at any time during this period by royal decree published in the Official Gazette.

The law had two purposes:

  1. To put an end to the illegal exodus of Jews from Iraq to Iran and from there to Israel, to monitor the departure and departure arrangements, to monitor capital expenditure and to prevent foreign currency smuggling, and to get rid of a particularly active agitating element in the Communist Party and eliminate the Zionist underground.

  2. To restore a sense of security to the Jews who would remain in Iraq. The government expected that most Jews would prefer to stay and thus express a declaration of allegiance to Iraq and reservations about Zionism. As a result, attitudes toward Jews would be improved, security and stability would be restored, and these would lead to economic recovery. The image of Iraq in the eyes of Western countries would also be improved.

The Citizenship Waiver Law stipulated that Jews who chose to leave would relinquish their Iraqi citizenship and the right to return to Iraq, receive “travel documents” and leave Iraq within a limited period of time not exceeding 20 days. The Iraqi government estimated that the number of departures would be 6,000-7,000; Ibrahim al-Kabir, one of the community’s leaders, predicted that the number of people leaving would not exceed 25,000, while Israeli estimates were higher, referring to an increase of 30-70,000 Jews.

On the face of it, the law seemed to be a proper arrangement for the emigration of several thousand Jews from Iraq. However, this law had some problematic elements.

  1. The law was restricted to Jews only and thus exposed them to vulnerability, as indeed happened a year later, with the freezing of the immigrants’ property.

  2. The law focused on revoking the citizenship of Jews registered with the Ministry of the Interior and also included waiving the right of return to Iraq. In doing so, the Iraqi government sought to ensure that Jews did not return to Iraq. This conduct is an unprecedented event in the history of world immigration.

  3. The Jews left Iraq without citizenship and therefore did not receive passports but laissez-passers In this situation it was clear that no country, except Israel, would accept them.

  4. Citizenship revocation was final and anyone who registered had to leave. In the following months, news arrived in Iraq about the difficult situation in Israel and quite a few Jews asked to stay in Iraq – but this was not granted to them. Everyone who signed up was forced to leave Iraq.

  5. The validity of the law was limited to one year only , and this constituted a means of pressure on the undecided.

  6. The law did not mention at all what would happen to the property of the Jews and did not even involve departure with  loss of property. But on March 10, 1951, immediately after the registration ended and the “Citizenship Waiver Law” expired, the Iraqi government enacted a law that boycotted Jewish property.

All of these problematic issues posed difficult dilemmas for Iraqi Jews, further undermining their security and thus, in the end, the law became a trap. At the end of the year, it became clear that more than 105,000 Jews, most of them Iraqi Jews, had given up their citizenship, joined the airlift between Baghdad and Lod and all arrived in the State of Israel.

There was an incomprehensible paradox here: if in 1948 the Iraqi government sent its army to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state, then in 1950 it made sure that all the Jews leaving it all came to the State of Israel!

And another paradox: the informal agreement between the Israeli government and the Iraqi government (“Shlomo Hillel-Tawfiq al-Suwaidi Agreement”) stipulates that Iraqi Jews would pay for the flight, and the money would be transferred not in Iraqi dinars but in pounds sterling. Another gift given by the Iraqi government to the State of Israel!

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Scores of discriminatory laws passed against Iraqi Jews

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