This article, written about Iraqi Jews in London by Julia Magnet in April 2003 for the Daily Telegraph, coincided with the American invasion of Iraq. It was to prove the inspiration for a whole book. (With thanks: Jerusalem Posts)
“In Baghdad, there are only 30 Jews left. Thirty. You can count them.”
The woman speaking is an Iraqi Jew. She and her husband saw their friends being hanged in the main square of Baghdad; in the early Seventies, they had all their property confiscated and were forced to flee the country.
Her father-in-law was wrongly imprisoned for “one year, seven months and three days. And he suffered, he suffered a lot,” her husband says.
He is anxious not to single himself out as a special case, but his voice thickens and he begins to cry. I am sitting with this middle-aged man and his wife in a terrace house in Edgware, where they finally rebuilt their lives.
But, even after all this time, they are still too scared to give me their names – what I write, says his wife, could “start a hatred against the Iraqi Jews in London, and they can find and attack you anywhere”.
As he weeps, his wife gestures at the television set in the corner of the sitting-room, where they are constantly flicking between al-Jazeera, Sky and Fox.
“It’s because we are watching this all the time,” she says. “It came back.” Their old life has invaded their clean London sitting-room, and all the memories of persecution in Baghdad are flooding back – “like a dream”.
It wasn’t always a hard life. In the 1920s, Baghdad was 40 per cent Jewish: Jews made up the largest single community in the city and controlled up to 95 per cent of business.
The first finance minister of the country – established after the First World War, when the British drew up new borders – was a Jew, as was the justice minister. And when the British imported King Faisal I to Iraq, in 1921, one of his first visits was to the leaders of the Jewish community.
As late as 1948, after Israel’s war of independence, there were still about 150,000 to 180,000 Jews in Iraq. Now there are between 30 and 40 left in the entire country. In 50 years, one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world has all but vanished.
Within the borders of Iraq, of course, is the city of Babylon, where the Jews came after their first exile from Jerusalem in 587bc. Iraq is also the birthplace of Abraham. Islam arrived only when the Arabs invaded in ad641 – more than 1,000 years after the Jews had first settled.
In the past week, I have spoken to a dozen Iraqi Jews about their memories. I was expecting to hear only about suffering and persecution, but they wanted to talk about the vibrant society in which they grew up.
They recalled a privileged life: elite schools, close communities, two-storey houses with indoor courtyards and evening promenades along the Tigris. Some of the best neighbourhoods were almost entirely Jewish, because only Jews could afford the houses. “It was a good life,” I was told again and again.
Dr Sami Zubaida, a distinguished 65-year-old humanities lecturer, came to study in England in 1954. “In the first half of the 20th century,” he says, “there was a sense in which Baghdad was a Jewish city: we were the educated, the middle classes.”
Moshe Kahtan, a 65-year-old business consultant, concurs: “My father was a legal adviser to the ministry of finance, and he was also a member of parliament. You have to appreciate that, at the time of King Faisal I, the Jews enjoyed a very high standard of education and health – in fact, they ran the country.”
Kahtan, who came to London in 1955 to further his studies, had attended the Alliance Israelite, a private Jewish school so sought after that wealthy gentiles sent their children there, too.
In addition to providing lessons in Arabic and Hebrew, he says, the school had French and British teachers. There was also a large girls’ school, at a time when traditional Muslim Iraq did not educate its girls.
Although most of the people I met were in their sixties, their self-appointed leader in exile – the Exilarch – is an 88-year-old called Naim Dangoor. From 1949 until 1965, he ran the Coca-Cola franchise in Iraq, with his beloved Muslim business partner. Soon it will be time, he believes, to restart that business and bring Coca-Cola back to a newly liberated Iraq.
Like the others, he refuses to be seen as a victim. Dr Zubaida puts it this way: “There is a kind of devaluing of Iraqi Jews’ cultural background, by saying that they were oppressed minorities, that they had no culture and the Muslims colonised and oppressed them. And so the tales of victimhood then override everything else, and all the great achievements of Iraqi Jewry are hidden, forgotten.”
“Before the Six-Day War,” the couple in Edgware point out, “before 1960, the Jews led a nice life – they were free to do whatever they wanted. But the brainy ones thought that, one day, this would turn upside down and they decided to leave the country.”
Sadly, what this couple remember is only an interlude: the persecution of the Jews had started 20 years before. In June 1941, there was the Farhud – or pogrom – during which “the mob wreaked havoc”, recalls Kahtan.
“For two days, they killed Jews in the streets, kidnapped girls, raped them, killed them and mutilated the bodies. They burned property, looted houses – it’s estimated that about 600 Jews were killed in those two days.”
For Jews born later, such as the Edgware couple, the public hangings of Jewish teenagers in 1969 and the omnipresence of the secret police are fresher memories. But their insistence on the “nice life” of the past echoes a pattern set long before.
“At the time of the Ottoman empire,” Kahtan explains, “the Jews’ fate depended on the governor’s mood and whim and the amount of corruption that he exercised. So, when there was a lull in the persecution – bless them – they called it ‘the golden age’. It was not a golden age. It was an age when the Jews were persecuted less.”
Even so, this persecution was not out-and-out violence until shortly before the Farhud. So, what changed? In the Thirties, the rise of pan-Arab nationalism coincided with the second King Faisal’s admiration of the Nazis.
By 1936, says Sylvia Kedourie, widow of the eminent Middle Eastern scholar Elie Kedourie, there were “episodes of Jews being killed in the streets that led to a growing sense of insecurity”. Meanwhile, Zionism was on the rise, and though the Iraqi Jews were hardly Zionists, many Arabs began to see them as hostile, intent on conquering Arab territory.
The Nazi agenda crystallised Arab anti-semitism. On April 3, 1941, the rabidly pro-Nazi Rashid Ali, a former prime minister, with a group of similarly inclined politicians and army officers, staged a coup against Faisal II. Rashid Ali’s aim was to root out British influence and ally Iraq with the Nazis.
His new “government” declared war on Britain, and was promptly defeated. On May 31, Rashid Ali fled. But his soldiers and policemen, inflamed by Nazi ideas, started the Farhud – aided by the Arab mob. Although the British Army was stationed outside Baghdad, it waited for two days before stopping the massacre: “They didn’t want to wound Iraqi pride,” says Kahtan.
“I was a very young child at the time, but certain things are imprinted on your mind. On the first day, the mob came to our door to do their business. The house was rented from a Muslim neighbour, of the old generation, and he came down with his rifle, shot in the air, and said: ‘These people are under my protection; anyone who lifts a finger will be dead’ – and he drove them off.
“But, as they were banging on our door, our parents took us to the roof and threw us across the wall to the neighbour’s house just in case. I was very young, just three, and I still see myself flying.”
Like him, Dr Zubaida says his own first memories are of the Farhud. “I recall distinctly that just as it was happening, there was an air raid – the British Air Force – and people were very happy to see them, though they dropped bombs. And I remember some bit of a bomb landed in our house.”
Dangoor was older, a reserve officer in the Iraqi army. “I had a revolver in my hand, my brother had a shotgun and so on, and we were surrounded at one time by rioters,” he says.
“My father said: ‘Please don’t shoot them because tomorrow everything will be all right – so why create enemies?’ That was very wise advice.
“The rioters tried to open the windows to get into the house. And then they remembered that I was an officer, so after half an hour, they left.”
Although the “good times” returned for a few years after this massacre, the old generation of friendly Muslims was gradually being replaced by its more hostile descendants. By 1947, Israel was an inevitability.
“When the whole question of the partition of Palestine came up,” says Dr Zubaida, “all the Arab countries sent armies to Palestine, including Iraq. This generated a kind of hysteria, and then Jews who were prominent in public life started being sacked and students in higher education started being expelled.”
Kahtan was 10 in 1948, when the state of Israel was declared. The son of his Muslim neighbour – the one who had saved his family – called him into his house.
“He was 19. He showed me a map and said: ‘Today, seven armies are going to attack Israel, kill all the Jews and throw the survivors into the sea.’ Now, that was the son – you see what a change of mentality had taken place. I’ll leave it to your imagination to think what change of mentality has taken place between 1948 and now.”
It doesn’t take much. In 1949, a court of law falsely accused Safiq Adas, one of Iraq’s most prominent Jewish businessmen, of selling arms to Israel. The charge was ridiculous: Adas sold scrap metal to Italy.
He protested his innocence and refused to pay the bribes that might have saved his life. Although he had some of the best lawyers in Iraq, his defence was not allowed to call witnesses. He was hanged in front of his house as his wife and children watched. His Muslim partner was never charged and continued the business.
This, Elie Kedourie has written, was the moment when the Jews realised the full extent of their vulnerability: they were no longer under the protection of the law and there was now little difference between the mob and Iraqi court justice. Everyone I spoke to mentioned Safiq Adas’s “trial”.
“After that,” Kahtan says, tripping over his words, “a lot of people started to run away – illegally, because Jews were not allowed to travel. By then, they were not even allowed to buy or sell property.”
What was to be done? In 1950, the British government brokered a secret deal between Israel and Iraq: the Jews of Iraq could obtain a passport to go to Israel if they renounced their Iraqi citizenship. Some 120,000 to 130,000 registered to leave. Only then did the Iraqi government pass a retroactive law: all those who renounced their citizenship would have their property and all their assets confiscated.
So came “the biggest exodus of the Iraqi Jews” – the airlifts of 1950-51. Those who left were allowed to take only a suitcase and 100 dinars.
This was, however, just half of the deal: the Jews were to go to Israel, and the Palestinians were to be resettled in Iraq. Kahtan put it succinctly: “Fifty per cent of the deal was done, and the other 50 per cent was reneged. So the Jews went to Israel, and the Arabs stayed in Israel as refugees.”
Only Kahtan has been back to Iraq. In 1965, he returned to see his dying father and to try to save his family’s property. His passport was confiscated on arrival and he was trapped in Iraq for “two years of hell”, becoming the last Jew to escape before the Six-Day War. His father died in Iraq.
His escape on a smuggler’s boat, like all those in the 1960s and 70s, was organised by Israeli agents who mapped out the routes, paid the necessary bribes and met the refugees in Iran. “Israel was paying to save the Jews,” Kahtan said. “I owe my life to the state of Israel.”
After the Six-Day War, the Iraqi government took its revenge on the few thousand Jews left in Baghdad. The woman in Edgware recalls: “They started putting young people – youngsters of 16 years old – on trial, just because they were Jews.
“They would just catch them in the streets – whomever they could find – and take them to prison. Then they would torture them and put them on trial as spies.
“And they hanged them in the main square of Baghdad. People were dancing around the gallows there, dancing and celebrating, distributing sweets. ‘What a big day, what a happy day’, catching the Jews and hanging them.”
Did she see this? “Of course,” she says, pointing to pictures in a book. “I lived on that square.” For a few moments, she studied the faces of the childhood friends whom she saw hanged in 1969.
She left with her mother in 1971, and her husband escaped through the north two years later, driving with his parents “as far north as you could go” towards Iran, where they were met by Kurds.
“When we got to that crossing point over the border,” he says, “the Kurds said: ‘Look, we are helping you now – when you get to Israel, you must help us.’ And now they have a problem, and I can’t”
Like the Holocaust survivors, some of the Iraqi Jews will perhaps now claim compensation for their confiscated property. Kahtan, however, is sceptical.
“Look, it took Europe 50 years. How long do you give the British and Americans to do that? Probably, they will say it’s against the interests of the state to raise that point. They have their excuses, and we have to try and convince ourselves to believe them.”
Dangoor is more bullish: “I am not sorry that I lost everything in Iraq, but that does not mean I have no right to ask for compensation.” In any case, he says, he needs the capital to restart the Coca-Cola franchise in Iraq.
“Would you go back?” I asked them all. No, they said – Britain was their home now. But Kahtan also laughed at the question. “Why? Are they doing special air rates?”