Memories of the 1958 Iraqi revolution

Not many Jews have recorded their memories of the 14 July 1958 revolution in Iraq, when a bloody army coup d’état led by Abdul Karim Qasim overthrew the Hashemite monarchy. Tamara Ruben interviewed her aunt Amy, a young woman at the time, to record her memories of this period as part of Tamara’s efforts to raise awareness of the plight of Jews from Arab countries.  The events she lived through were so traumatic that  her aunt Amy, who now lives in England, resolved to depart from Iraq, even if it meant leaving her parents behind – an act that demanded much courage. These are her aunt’s words (With thanks: Nancy):

The young King Faisal II, murdered in the 1958 revolution aged 18

The revolution in Iraq of 1958 took me back to one of the scariest and most agonizing times of my life. This is because the Iraqi masses believed that killing and abusing Jews would be a safe bet at a time when the new military government was busy consolidating its power and grip on the country.

The Jews had their telephones cut off, Jewish government officials were fired (if there were any left after the establishment of Israel), and several Jewish homes, including ours, were raided.  We waited in fear for them to take us and throw us in jail. Some prominent Jews were left to rot in prison. Six soldiers armed with rifles raided our house. It was three storeys high. They searched every corner. One soldier asked my father to sit at the table and sign a document. My father, horrified and grey-faced, was ready to sign. When I mustered enough courage to ask the soldier what document he was signing, the soldier replied, “We couldn’t find any spy equipment.” After they left, I told my father that I was leaving Iraq and that he had to leave too. He refused because of his age and my mother’s various illnesses.

I was told that the Chief Rabbi of Baghdad was so concerned that he complained to the leader of the revolution, Abdul Karim Qasim, who had pledged to protect the Jews. Qasim tried to keep his promise until he was assassinated in his office in the Ministry of Defence.* This was the counter-revolution of  February 1963. Power was passed to his assistant and revolutionary collaborator,ʿAbd al-Salam ʿArif, who died three years later in what they believed to be a ‘planned’ helicopter accident….

In the 1958 revolution, the entire royal family was put to death.

The body of the young King Faisal II was secretly exhumed and buried when the junta realised that there would be a rebellion if it was known that the body of the beloved young king had been dragged through the streets. I don’t think  that the British dared to intervene because Iraq had remained under their influence while it was supposedly independent!

The hated crown prince, Abdel Il-llah, whom the mob thought was the agent of the British colonialists, was tied up, murdered and his body dragged through the streets of Baghdad.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Said escaped, but was caught the next day, disguised in a woman’s abaya, and was shot immediately.

The next day, I got up to go to work as usual when I discovered that our front gate was blocked by a tank. Martial music blared on all radio stations. I left on July 14, 1959:  it took me one year to get a passport.

My parents stayed another year and left in 1960 via Turkey to join the rest of the family already in Israel”.

*In fact he was given a short trial and was executed by shooting.

American Jewish Committee launches ‘Forgotten Exodus’ podcasts

The world has overlooked an important episode in modern history: the 800,000 Jews who left or were driven from their homes in Arab nations and Iran in the mid-20th century to forge new lives for themselves and future generations. The Forgotten Exodus is a new limited podcast series  by American Jewish Committee (AJC). Manya Brachear Pashman tells the story of this pivotal moment in history by interviewing personalities who have made contributions to the countries where they resettled. eJP reports: (With thanks: Imre, Boruch, Monica, Avi)

A Jewish family in Yemen in 1985

Soon after the establishment of the State of Israel, author André Aciman’s family made a desperate flight from Egypt, where they lived under the threat of growing antisemitism worsened by the Nasser regime. For the family of memoirist Carol Isaacs, it was antisemitism demonstrated in the 1941 Farhud, or pogrom, that eventually uprooted them from their Iraqi homeland. And two generations after his family was spirited out of Yemen in Operation Magic Carpet in 1949, Israeli windsurfer Shahar Tzubari took home a bronze medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Stories like these, which document the little-known plight of some of the 800,000 Jews who were forced out of their long-thriving communities in Middle Eastern capitals such as Cairo, Baghdad and Sana’a shortly before and after Israel’s creation, are part of a new limited podcast series by American Jewish Committee titled “The Forgotten Exodus,” which premieres today.

“We often view the Jewish world through an Ashkenazi lens; we talk about the Holocaust but not the Farhud in Iraq,” Manya Brachear Pashman, a religion writer and the host of AJC’s podcasts, told eJewishPhilanthorpy. “When we talk about Jews in the Middle East, we often talk about Israel. But for thousands of years Jews lived all over the Middle East with rich vibrant cultures.”

The six-part series, which opens with a segment on Isaacs, deliberately focuses on the stories of acclaimed writers, athletes and others whose stories, organizers believe, will resonate with the wider Jewish community. “I wanted to illustrate that these people are making contributions to art, culture, diplomacy and athletics, among many fields,” Brachear Pashman said. “They yielded these wonderful contributions to society.”

Aciman detailed his family’s perilous escape from the growing antisemitism during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s presidency in his 1995 book Out of Egypt: A Memoir. “In Egypt you had a group of Jews who were native and were made stateless when Nasser came to power,” said Brachear Pashman, describing the situation for some Jewish communities in Egypt at the time. “They didn’t see the value of citizenship until it was too late. When they finally applied they were denied. Thankfully Israel existed by then; it was a haven for people who were stateless and had nowhere else to go.”

Isaacs pieced together her family’s ordeal fleeing Iraq in the graphic memoir, The Wolf of Baghdad: Memoir of a Lost Homeland, published in 2020. “It’s been interesting. A lot of people didn’t even know that there were Jews living in Arab lands,” she said. “Nobody knows about what happened to them, that they were ethnically cleansed, removed from their homes and dispersed across the world … It’s our truth and it’s our history.”

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More about Carol Isaacs

1948 newspaper warned of dire plight of Jews in Arab countries

On 12 November 1948, Avraham Elmaleh filed this report on the increasingly desperate situation of Jews in Arab countries for the weekly newspaper Had Hamizrah (The Echo of the Orient), warning of the dire consequences if nothing was done to save them. They were hostages to the war instigated by Arab countries against the new state of Israel, a war which the Arab League intended to finance with assets stolen from its Jewish citizens or extorted from them. These measures were contrary to resolutions passed by the recently-created UN. This extract is from page 12 and appears in the digital archives of the National Library of Israel and Tel Aviv University. (With thanks: Joel)

Shafiq Ades, Iraq’s wealthiest Jew, executed in September 1948 on trumped-up charges. Some 20 million dinars of his assets were seized by the Iraqi government.

 In my review of the situation of  Jewry in  the Middle East and North Africa, I used to refer to these countries as “rare islands of  tranquillity in a stormy sea”.  Compared to the situation of  Jews scattered  around Central Europe,  these Jews lived in security. They were not persecuted because of their Jewishness and race, and enjoyed equal rights with the rest of the country’s citizens. However, it was enough for a slight change to take place between Israel and the Arab countries, for the situation of their Jews to change for the worst from one end  of the region to the other, and become worse than the situation of their brothers in pre-peace Poland, in Hitler’s Germany, in fascist France and in Nazi Central Europe during World War II. Approximately one million Jews in the Islamic countries spanning Asia and Africa – from Morocco to Persia – are now targeted by Arab nationalism, which has taken on a threatening and aggressive form and turned the Jewish minorities in Arab countries not only into second-class citizens, but into dispensable elements that can be permitted to be abused and persecuted to the point that they are  boycotted, rioted against, hunted down  and hanged for no reason, just to rob them of their wealth and property.

An iron curtain separates us from these brothers, and the little news that filters up to us is sparse. However, even from the little information that has reached us, we have learned that the Jews of the Islamic countries are now living in a huge prison, under a tyrannical, oppressive and insulting regime of terror, headed by dark and fanatical feudal lords who oppress unique, ancient communities.  The captives live in disgraceful conditions, in great distress and in danger of being killed. About a million Jews in Arab countries moan and groan under the yoke of the oppressor, at the mercy of incendiary mobs, and of bloodthirsty outlaws who seek robbery and plunder, who steal their property under the pretext of donations  to Arab jihad: hundreds of thousands of them are expected to be exterminated and massacred,  condemned to slow  physical and spiritual degeneration if  measures are not taken to save them, because the stranglehold around their necks is getting tighter and tighter day by day, and they live in terror while others are put in concentration camps.  Others still live in destitution and are deprived of  their livelihoods; part of their property was stolen, and the other part was seized. According to the UN partition plan of  November 29,1947 it was clear to all who knew about the affairs of the Arab countries that there was a danger to their Jews, their property and rights.

We demand an immediate investigation into the difficult situation of the Jews living in the Islamic countries, who are expected to be in great danger, and also into the law which the Political Council of the Arab League tried to pass. According to  this,  the Jews in these countries will be vulnerable and remain deprived of the right to legal protection. In its memorandum, the World Jewish Congress stood against  anti-Jewish outbreaks in Syria, Pakistan, Persia, Bahrain and Aden, which due to strict censorship and poor communication, the outside world knew nothing of. These were open persecutions, and discrimination against a racial and religious group, which is contrary to the principles contained in the Constitution of the United Nations and violates the decision made at the General Assembly session of November 14, 1946, calling on all governments to put an immediate end to persecution based on religion and race. The same memorandum also proposed the resolution that was unanimously accepted in the general session in which  genocide was declared to be an international crime that calls for international unity,  politically and individually. In the face of the opposition and anger of Arab members of the council, the problem of  Jews in Arab countries was brought up on the agenda, but the representative of Lebanon, who was the chairman of the Economic and Social Council  at the beginning of the year, removed the question from the agenda. The Arabs won in the first round and the World Jewish Congress was successful in the second round – but the results of this success were shocking, because the situation of the Jews in the Arab countries, not only did not improve a whole lot, but worsened sevenfold.

Sympathetic  European and American news media also highlighted the situation of the Jews in the Arab countries and emphasized that the actions of the Arab League are definitely directed against the implementation of  UN jurisdiction by creating an atmosphere hostile to this decision, and rejected taking urgent measures to protect the Jewish population in the Arab countries. Mr. Eliyahu Elisher, the president of the Sephardic community in Jerusalem, went on a comprehensive tour of Europe and North and South America to arouse public opinion and influential figures in the world to the terrible fate of these martyred Jews. The World Sephardi Federation appealed to the World Jewish Congress with a demand to pressure the governments of Arab countries to save the Jews. But it seems that if vigorous measures are not taken against these malicious governments, who knows what awaits our unfortunate brothers in the Arab countries in the nearest future. According to reliable information received from various sources, the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq agreed, at the beginning of 1948, to the wording of a law proposed by the “Arab League”, according to which all Jews settled in their countries will be considered  citizens of the Jewish minority state in Israel, and use their property to finance the war against the Jewish state. According to this law, the “Zionists” will be imprisoned  and the Jews of countries outside the Arab League will be forced to join the Arab armies.

Read article in full (Hebrew)

After May 1948, Iraq turned against its Jews



The Jewish architect who rebuilt Damascus

This is the amazing story of how an architect from Tel Aviv was sent to Damascus to  improve the city in 1916,  at the behest of the Ottoman military governor, Jamal Pasha.  The memoirs of Gedalyahu Wilbushevitz, who had been responsible for a number of public works in Palestine, were unearthed by his grand-daughter last year, reports Ofer Aderet in Haaretz. But Aderet fails to give the context to this extraordinary story:  while Wilbushevitz had a cordial relationship with Jamal Pasha, the First World War was raging and  10,000 Ashkenazi Jews like him, suspected of disloyalty to the Turks, would be deported from Palestine in the following year. (With thanks: Boruch)

Gedalyahu Wilbushevitz: from Tel Aviv to Damascus

Djemal Pasha would often visit the workplace, take an interest in its progress, and would urge us to complete the work as soon as possible. He asked me to come to him whenever I encountered difficulties and allowed me to come to his residence even in work clothes, as long as I wouldn’t lose time,” Wilbushevitz wrote. “The group of government officials treated my demands and orders with all seriousness,” he added.

Pasha, he noted, “would take every opportunity he had to enhance my reputation in the eyes of the officials.” For instance, he would invite the engineer to festive parties, “and when I entered the party, he would greet me with a handshake in front of everyone. Under such conditions, I was able to overcome many difficulties I encountered in executing the work,” he wrote.

Along with the soldiers, he enlisted about 300 craftsmen – including quarriers, stonemasons, builders, plasterers, carpenters and blacksmiths. “With these experts I myself created all the materials I lacked,” he wrote. Among other things, he built quarries and workshops, where they worked limestone, chiseled stones and more. When he needed means of transportation, he commandeered empty carts and mules from Damascenes, with the aid of soldiers on the main streets.

One of the chapters from that period is devoted to a confrontation with German officers and soldiers who were posted in Syria at that time as part of the wartime alliance between Turkey and Germany. “It was easy for me to arrange my business with Turkish officialdom and with the residents of Damascus. But it was not so easy for me to manage when I encountered Germans. Antisemitism typified the Germans even in those days, and the toxic hatred of Jews welled up in them already then.”

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1947 Aleppo riots forced out almost all Jews

It is 75 years since the outbreak of vicious riots in Aleppo, Syria,  forced the exodus of almost all its Jewish inhabitants within five years. Joel D Parker met a survivor of the riot. History books claim that 75 Jews were killed, but the witness seems to corroborate a contemporary report that there was extensive property damage, but no Jew died. 
The courtyard of the Aleppo Great Synagogue. The building was burnt in the 1947 riots (photo: Diarma)

Joel D Parker tweeted the following survivor’s account:

I got to speak to an 88-year-old Jewish man from Aleppo yesterday and it was so amazing. He was able to describe details of the November 29, 1947 riots like it was yesterday. He was about 13, and his school was burned down.
In his schoolyard which was adjacent to the main synagogue of the Jewish quarter he witnessed torn and burned Torah scrolls, and claims to have been one of the first people inside the synagogue to look for the Aleppo Codex (Keter Aram Tzova). 
He recalled that during the riots he and his family were hiding in their house, unarmed, and tried to block the front door with their furniture. He said they knew it wouldn’t hold. They could hear the mobs of people outside. 
He estimated that there were 100,000 people [likely an exaggeration] of all political streams, mainly Muslims but not exclusively, running around chanting “Filastine Biladna, wa’al-Yahud Kalabna” (Palestine is our land, and the Jews are our dogs). 
Although virtually every Jewish institution was damaged in the riots, including 13 synagogues, three modern high schools, and other Jewish clubs, etc.,  not one Jew was killed by the rioters [he believes]. Only one old man had a heart attack.
He said that the government at the highest levels [i.e., President Quwatli] personally ordered the protestors to avoid bloodshed. They wanted to send a message, but did not want to squander their newly-found independence. 

Unfortunately, this very clear message was translated by the Jewish community as a warning to leave, as the next time might not be non-violent. About 6,000 out of 10,000 Jews would leave in the coming months, and by 1954 there were virtually no Jews in Aleppo.

Abraham Elmaleh  reports  in Had HaMizrah, 12 November 1948:

 “In the month of Kislev 5578, some time after the beginning of the sad events in Israel, terrible riots broke out among the Jews of Aleppo. And this famous Biblical  Jewish settlement was completely destroyed. More than a hundred Jewish homes, five Jewish warehouses and shops, five Jewish schools, the Jewish youth club, the Jewish orphanage and more than ten synagogues were looted for their furniture and contents.  One hundred and five thousand Torah scrolls together with their crowns and the silver and gold crowns on them, about four thousand prayer books,  Talmud and commentaries, everything was burned and destroyed by Arab rioters.

A page from the ‘Keter’

“The greatest damage was caused to the ancient synagogue that was built about 1, 500 years ago, and it was set on fire. Thousands of researchers and scholars and famous Orientalists would turn to it  to examine its precious collection of books and Torah scrolls. Among the precious old treasures destroyed by the rioters in Aleppo in this synagogue, we should especially mention the ancient Torah book known as “Keter” which is attributed to Ezra the scribe, and which was written in gold  letters,  whose price was estimated at thousands of pounds. (The Keter was actually recovered, although some of its pages were missing, smuggled out to Israel and is now in Jerusalem – ed) . The same Keter that was sent to Professor Kasuto  from the Hebrew University so that he  could copy original verses from it. Hundreds of Jewish students wander the streets without Torah, without education, because the  governments of Syria and Lebanon confiscated the school buildings of the Alliance Israelite Universelle and other  institutions to house hundreds of  Arab refugees from Israel.

“Widows who responded to everything with charity have been turned into desolate poor, rolling on piles of leaves without covering for their skin and without a shred of  shade over their heads. Hundreds of other Jews are now naked, thirsty, and barefoot, waiting for the mercy of heaven. These are the  greatest blows inflicted on the heads of the Syrian Jews.”

The Aleppo riots made our family  want to flee Syria

Chabad’s ‘Thirteen facts about Syrian Jews ‘ (With thanks: Leon, Nigel)





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