Iraqi anti-normalisation law: Jews have seen it all before

At the behest of pro-Iranian cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi Parliament has just passed a law making support of, of contact with, Israel a criminal offence punishable by death. Lyn Julius writes in the Times of Israel that, as Iraq’s persecuted Jews know, it’s nothing new. It’s one more in a long line of anti-Jewish laws that will have little practical result other than proving one cleric’s fealty to Iran. However, Ben Cohen (below) writing in JNS News, warns that it is a mistake to view the law as purely symbolic:

The new law will make flying of Israeli flags as in this pro-independence demonstration by Kurds punishable by death.

The world has reacted with shock to Iraq ratifying a ‘draconian’ law criminalizing normalization with Israel. The news has been splashed across the media, from Jewish News to Al-Jazeera. Violation of the law is punishable with execution or life imprisonment. Business relations or even contact with Israel through social media are punishable with the death sentence or life imprisonment.

The law was proposed by the pro-Iranian Shi’ite cleric and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who has the largest party in the Iraqi parliament, in a probable bid to show he is more Iranian than the Iranians, Israel’s mortal enemy.

Jews with roots in Iraq, however, have been rolling their eyes with a weary sense of déjà-vu. Anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist legislation is nothing new and has led to the vicious persecution of the 150,000 member-community. Iraq was one of five Arab-League states to declare war against Israel and is still officially at war. Iraq took its revenge for the 1948 Arab defeat on its own Jews. Law 51 of 1948 added Zionism to the criminal code. Jews wearing wristwatches (supposedly capable of sending secret signals to the Zionists) could be arrested, tried and even executed for ‘Zionism’. Law 1 of 1950, in force for a year, permitted Jews to leave Iraq legally on condition that their citizenship was revoked. Law 5, passed in urgent session in March 1951, froze the property of Iraqi Jews stripped of their citizenship. From 1951 to 1956, several decrees were passed, seizing, managing, disposing and liquidating Jewish property. In 1969, nine Jews were executed on trumped-up spying charges and dozens more disappeared.

But the community was already badly shaken before Israel was established. Those with a sense of history will note that the al-Sadr law was passed days before the 81st anniversary of the Farhud, the massacre of hundreds of Jews incited by pro-Nazi Iraqis on 1 and 2 June 1941. The pro-Nazi regime in Iraq had declared war on the Allies. Jews were scapegoated as a fifth column in league with the British. Had the Nazis won WWII, the Palestinian Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini, who fled from Baghdad to become Hitler’s guest in Berlin, would have managed the extermination of the Jews of the Middle East, starting with the Jews of Iraq.

The al-Sadr law is consistent with Iraq’s historic antisemitic policies — but is not aimed at Jews: there are only three still living in the country. The Jews have become merely the canary in the coalmine for the rest of society. A parliamentary statement said the legislation is “a true reflection of the will of the people.” Since the Arab Spring of 2011, however, a brave former parliamentarian, Mithal Al-Alusi, has called for normalization with Israel. Significant sections of the intellectual and middle class have looked back with nostalgia and sympathy to the colonial era, when Jews made a huge contribution to Iraq’s economy and culture. A news presenter called for a public apology for their treatment.

In September 2021, 300 Iraqis attended a conference demanding normalization in the wake of the signing of the Abraham Accords. Arrest warrants were served on the participants. But as far as is known, none were imprisoned, let alone executed.

It is one thing to criminalize the Jews, quite another to do it to Iraqi society at large. To enforce the new law, the Iraqi government would have to monitor every single communication and social media post and deploy spies at every international business conference. It would be impossible to swim against a swelling pro-normalization tide and punish all offenders. It is to be hoped that this law will turn out to be so much window-dressing, designed to pay lip service to Muqtada al-Sadr’s Iranian masters.

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Ben Cohen writes:

The Iraqi legislation purposefully goes against the trend in the broader region for peace agreements with Israel. Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority all signed agreements with Israel towards the end of the 20th century; the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan all signed up to peace treaties in the early part of the 21st, with the prospect that other Arab countries, among them Saudi Arabia, will still come into the fold. Iran and its allies in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq have been outliers in this regard in that not only do they shun relations with Israel, but they also seek to confront it in both official propaganda and through acts of terror and war.

On every such occasion, the message is the same: The destruction of Israel is the expression of the people’s will. But as one Middle East analyst pointed out to me, there is an absurdity about the Iraqi parliament invoking the “people’s will” on a subject like Israel—a subject utterly irrelevant to the daily grind of lives that will increasingly be governed by rising food prices and critical shortages—when it has failed to form a government a full nine months after elections were held.

It would be mistaken to view the Iraqi legislation as purely symbolic. As well as being directed at neighboring countries entertaining the idea of peace with Israel, it is aimed even more at those inside Iraq who have advocated for that same goal.

The law will apply to the whole of Iraq, including the autonomous Kurdish region in the north, which has long engaged with Israel. After the Kurdish bid for independence was crushed in 2017 by Iranian-backed paramilitaries, the Iraqi parliament passed legislation banning the display of “Zionist symbols” in a furious riposte to the many Kurds who brandished Israeli flags at pro-independence rallies. But the desire for contact with Israel remains; last September, a historic gathering was held in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, at which Sunni and Shia leaders urged peace with Israel.

The audience in Erbil heard a remarkable speech from Sheikh Wissam al-Hardan, a leader of the Sunni Sons of Iraq movement. “We see a glimmer of hope in the ability of some Iraqi Jews to rehabilitate their lives and to preserve their traditions through the generations,” he said. “Most of them are still close to us, and we see them, as neighbors, in Israel. … We demand to establish a federal system in Iraq; and on the global front, we demand to join the Abraham Accords, and, in the words of those accords, to establish full diplomatic relations between the signatories and Israel.”

Not surprisingly, Iraq’s Islamist parties were livid when they saw the conference in Erbil. Just as predictably, al-Hardan was quickly hounded out of the Sons of Iraq movement, despite having issued what read as a forced apology: “I read the statement that was written for me without knowing its content. I denounce the content of the final statement and what was stated in it.” Less than a year later, the intention of the bill criminalizing contact with Israel is to end reconciliation efforts on the pain of death.

The Jews of Iraq mentioned in al-Hardan’s speech knew better than anyone the reality behind the threat of execution. In January 1969, nine Jews were among 14 alleged Israeli spies who were hanged in a public execution in Baghdad’s Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square. Almost 500,000 people came to witness this grotesque spectacle, having been urged by Iraqi radio to “come and enjoy the feast.” In August of the same year, three more Jews were executed for the same fabricated offense.

Reflecting on how the remnant of the once-proud Iraqi Jewish community was hounded by the Ba’ath regime, the Iraqi writer Kanan Makiya observed that the significance of their plight lay in the fact that “the persecution of every Iraqi under the Ba’ath began with that of the most helpless among them.” The Ba’ath is no longer in power, but the tendency identified by Makiya is very much alive. And, as has always been the case, those who will pay the greatest price for these lurid calls for Israel’s elimination are exactly those in whose name this shameful war is being waged.

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