Iraqi Jews - Modern Iraq

Modern Iraq

Sociologist Philip Mendes asserts that before the anti-Jewish actions of the 1930s and 1940s, overall Iraqi Jews "viewed themselves as Arabs of the Jewish faith, rather than as a separate race or nationality". Additionally, early Labor Zionism mostly concentrated on the Jews of Europe, skipping Iraqi Jews because of their lack of interest in agriculture. The result was that "Until World War II, Zionism made little headway because few Iraqi Jews were interested in the socialist ideal of manual labor in Palestine." (Simon, Reguer, and Laskier, p 364)

During the British Mandate from 1918, and in the early days after independence in 1932, well-educated Jews played an important role in civic life. Iraq's first minister of finance, Sir Sassoon Eskell, was a Jew, and Jews were important in developing the judicial and postal systems. Records from the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce show that 10 out of its 19 members in 1947 were Jews and the first musical band formed for Baghdad's nascent radio in the 1930s consisted mainly of Jews. Jews were represented in the Iraqi parliament, and many Jews held significant positions in the bureaucracy which in many cases led to resentment by the Iraqi population.

In the 1930s, the situation of the Jews in Iraq deteriorated. Previously, the growing Iraqi Arab nationalist sentiment included Iraqi Jews as fellow Arabs, but these views changed with the introduction of Nazi propaganda and the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian Mandate. Despite protestations of their loyalty to Iraq, Iraqi Jews were increasingly subject to discrimination and harsh laws. On August 27, 1934 many Jews were dismissed from public service, and quotas were set up in colleges and universities. Zionist activities were banned, as was the teaching of Jewish history and Hebrew in Jewish schools. Following the collapse of Rashid Ali's pro-Axis coup, the Farhud ("violent dispossession") pogrom of June 1 and 2, 1941, broke out in Baghdad in which approximately 200 Jews were murdered (some sources put the number higher), and up to 2,000 injured—damages to property were estimated at $3 million. There was also looting in many other cities at around the same time. Afterwards, Zionist emissaries from Palestine were sent to teach Iraqi Jews self-defense, which they were eager to learn. (Simon, Reguer, and Laskier, p 364)

According to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Sa'id,”The Jews have always been a source of evil and harm to Iraq. They are spies. They have sold their property in Iraq, they have no land among us that they can cultivate. How therefore can they live? What will they do if they stay in Iraq? No, no my friend, it is better for us to be rid of them as long as we are able to do so.”. (A. al-Arif, p. 893) In 1948, the country was placed under martial law, and the penalties for Zionism were increased. Courts martial were used to intimidate wealthy Jews, Jews were again dismissed from civil service, quotas were placed on university positions, Jewish businesses were boycotted (E. Black, p. 347) and Shafiq Ades (one of the most important anti-Zionist Jewish businessmen in the country) was arrested and executed for allegedly selling goods to Israel, shocking the community (Tripp, 123). Additionally, like most Arab League states, Iraq forbade any legal emigration of its Jews on the grounds that they might go to Israel and could strengthen that state. At the same time, increasing government oppression of the Jews fueled by anti-Israeli sentiment together with public expressions of anti-semitism created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. 1948, the year of Israel's independence was a rough year for the Jews of Iraq:

  • In July 1948, the government passed a law making all Zionist activity punishable by execution, with a minimum sentence of seven years imprisonment,
  • By the summer, most of the wealthy Jews of Iraq were arrested as Zionists and their property confiscated,
  • On August 28, 1948, Jews were forbidden to engage in banking or foreign currency transactions,
  • In September 1948, Jews were dismissed from the railways, the post office, the telegraph department and the Finance Ministry on the ground that they were suspected of "sabotage and treason,"
  • On October 8, 1948, the issuance of export and import licenses to Jewish merchants was forbidden,
  • On October 19, 1948, the discharge of all Jewish officials and workers from all governmental departments was ordered,
  • In October, the Egyptian paper, El-Ahram, estimated that as a result of arrests, trials and sequestation of property, the Iraqi treasury collected some 20 million dinars or the equivalent of 80 million U.S. dollars,
  • On December 2, 1948, the Iraq government suggested to oil companies operating in Iraq, that no Jewish employees be accepted.

"With very few exceptions, only Jews wore watches. On spotting one that looked expensive, a policeman had approached the owner as if to ask the hour. Once assured the man was Jewish, he relieved him of the timepiece and took him into custody. The watch, he told the judge, contained a tiny wireless; he'd caught the Jew, he claimed, sending military secrets to the Zionists in Palestine. Without examining the "evidence" or asking any questions, the judge pronounced his sentence. The "traitor" went to prison, the watch to the policeman as reward." (Haddad, p. 176).

By 1949, the Iraqi Zionist underground had become well-established (despite many arrests), and they were smuggling Iraqi Jews out of the country illegally at a rate of 1,000 a month (Simon, Reguer, and Laskier, p 365). Hoping to stem the flow of assets from the country, in March 1950 Iraq passed a law of one year duration allowing Jews to emigrate on condition of relinquishing their Iraqi citizenship. They were motivated, according to Ian Black, by "economic considerations, chief of which was that almost all the property of departing Jews reverted to the state treasury" and also that "Jews were seen as a restive and potentially troublesome minority that the country was best rid of." (p. 91) Israel was initially reluctant to absorb so many immigrants, (Hillel, 1987) but eventually mounted an airlift in March 1951 called "Operation Ezra and Nehemiah" to bring as many of the Iraqi Jews as possible to Israel, and sent agents to Iraq to urge the Jews to register for immigration as soon as possible. Between 1948 and 1951 121,633 Jews left the country, leaving 15,000 behind.

From the start of the emigration law in March 1950 until the end of the year, 60,000 Jews registered to leave Iraq. In addition to continuing arrests and the dismissal of Jews from their jobs, this exodus was encouraged by a series of bombings starting in April 1950 that resulted in a number of injuries and a few deaths. Two months before the expiration of the law, by which time about 85,000 Jews had registered, another bomb at the Masuda Shemtov synagogue killed 3 or 5 Jews and injured many others. The law expired in March 1951 but was later extended after the Iraqi government froze the assets of departing Jews, including those who had already left. During the next few months, all but a few thousand of the remaining Jews registered for emigration, spurred on by a sequence of further bombings that caused few casualties but had great psychological impact. In Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, some 120,000 Jews were airlifted to Israel via Iran and Cyprus.

The true identity and objective of the masterminds behind the bombings has been the subject of controversy. A secret Israeli inquiry in 1960 found no evidence that they were ordered by Israel or any motive that would have explained the attack, though it did find out that most of the witnesses believed that Jews had been responsible for the bombings. The issue remains unresolved: Iraqi activists still regularly charge that Israel used violence to engineer the exodus, while Israeli officials of the time vehemently deny it. Historian Moshe Gat reports that "the belief that the bombs had been thrown by Zionist agents was shared by those Iraqi Jews who had just reached Israel". Sociologist Phillip Mendes backs Gat's claims, and further attributes the allegations to have been influenced and distorted by feelings of discrimination.

Journalist Naeim Giladi's position that the bombings were "perpetrated by Zionist agents in order to cause fear amongst the Jews, and so promote their exodus to Israel" is shared by a number of anti-Zionist authors, including the Israeli Black Panthers (1975), David Hirst (1977), Wilbur Crane Eveland (1980), Uri Avnery (1988), Ella Shohat (1986), Abbas Shiblak (1986), Marion Wolfsohn (1980), and Rafael Shapiro (1984). In his article, Giladi notes that this was also the conclusion of Wilbur Crane Eveland, a former senior officer in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who outlined that allegation in his book "Ropes of Sand".

The affair has also been the subject of a libel lawsuit by Mordechai Ben Porat, which was settled in an out-of-court compromise with an apology of the journalist who described the charges as true.

Iraqi authorities eventually charged three members of the Zionist underground with perpetrating some of the explosions. Two of those charged, Shalom Salah Shalom and Yosef Ibrahim Basri, were subsequently found guilty and executed, whilst the third was sentenced to a lengthy jail term. Salah Shalom claimed in his trial that he was tortured into confessing, and Yosef Basri maintained his innocence throughout.

Gat reports that much of the previous literature "reflects the universal conviction that the bombings had a tremendous impact on the large-scale exodus of the Jews... To be more precise it is suggested that the Zionist emissaries committed these brutal acts in order to uproot the properous Iraqi Jewish community and bring it to Israel". However, Gat argues that both claims are contrary to the evidence. As summarized by Mendes:

Historian Moshe Gat argues that there was little direct connection between the bombings and exodus. He demonstrates that the frantic and massive Jewish registration for denaturalisation and departure was driven by knowledge that the denaturalisation law was due to expire in March 1951. He also notes the influence of further pressures including the property-freezing law, and continued anti-Jewish disturbances which raised the fear of large-scale pogroms. In addition, it is highly unlikely the Israelis would have taken such measures to accelerate the Jewish evacuation given that they were already struggling to cope with the existing level of Jewish immigration. Gat also raises serious doubts about the guilt of the alleged Jewish bombthrowers. Firstly, a Christian officer in the Iraqi army known for his anti-Jewish views, was arrested, but apparently not charged, with the offences. A number of explosive devices similar to those used in the attack on the Jewish synagogue were found in his home. In addition, there was a long history of anti-Jewish bomb-throwing incidents in Iraq. Secondly, the prosecution was not able to produce even one eyewitness who had seen the bombs thrown. Thirdly, the Jewish defendant Shalom Salah indicated in court that he had been severely tortured in order to procure a confession. It therefore remains an open question as to who was responsible for the bombings, although Gat argues that the attacks, which he presumes were the work of Iraqis of extreme Arab nationalist persuasion, did not spur the exodus. Certainly memories and interpretations of the events have further been influenced and distorted by the unfortunate discrimination which many Iraqi Jews experienced on their arrival in Israel.

Many years later, the Zionist emissary Yehuda Tager stated that while the main bombings were carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood, later smaller attacks were staged by Yosef Beit-Halahmi, on his own initiative, in an attempt to make it seem as if the activists on trial were not the perpetrators.

In 1952, emigration to Israel was again banned, and the Iraqi government publicly hanged two Jews who had been falsely charged with throwing a bomb at the Baghdad office of the U.S. Information Agency.

Iraqi Jews left behind them extensive property, often located in the heart of Iraq's major cities. A relatively high number found themselves in refugee camps in Israel known as Ma'abarot before being given permanent housing. Most of the 10,000 Jews remaining after Operation Ezra and Nehemiah stayed through the Abdul Karim Qassim era when conditions improved, but Anti-Semitism increased during the rule of the Aref brothers.

With the rise of the Ba'ath Party to power in 1963, restrictions were placed on the remaining Iraqi Jews. Sale of property was banned, and Jews had to carry yellow identity cards. After the 1967 Six-Day War, Jewish property was expropriated, bank accounts were frozen, Jews were dismissed from public posts, their businesses were closed, trading permits owned by Jews were cancelled, they were not allowed to use telephones, were placed under house arrest for extended periods of time, and were under constant surveillance and restricted to the cities. In late 1968, scores of Jews were jailed on charges of spying for Israel, culminating in the 1969 public hanging of 14 men, 9 of them Jews, who were falsely accused of spying for Israel. Other suspected spies for Israel died under torture. After Baghdad Radio invited Iraqi citizens to "come and enjoy the feast", half a million people paraded and danced past the scaffolds where the men were hung, which resulted in international criticism. An Iraqi Jew who later left wrote that the stress of persecution caused ulcers, heart attacks, and breakdowns to become increasingly prevalent in the Jewish community. In the early 1970s, bowing to international pressure, the Iraqi government allowed most of the remaining Jews to emigrate.

Immediately prior to the Gulf War, the U.S. State Department noted that while there was no recent evidence of overt persecution of Jews, but travel, particularly to Israel, was restricted, as was contact with Jewish groups abroad. In 1997, the Jerusalem Post reported that in the past five years, some 75 Jews had fled Iraq, of whom about 20 moved to Israel and the rest mostly went to the United Kingdom and Netherlands. In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Jewish Agency launched an effort to track down all of the remaining Iraqi Jews to present them with an opportunity to emigrate to Israel, and found a total of 34 Jews. Six chose to emigrate, among them Ezra Levy, the father of Emad Levy, Baghdad's last rabbi.

After the defeat of the Ba'ath regime, the process of establishing a new democratic government began. Among the subjects for debate over the Iraqi constitution was whether Jews should be considered a minority group, or left out of the constitution altogether.

In October 2006, Rabbi Emad Levy announced that he was leaving for Israel and compared his life to "living in a prison". He reported that most Iraqi Jews stay in their homes "out of fear of kidnapping or execution" due to sectarian violence.

Present estimates of the Jewish population in Baghdad are seven or eight. Among the American forces stationed in Iraq, there were only three Jewish chaplains.

Read more about this topic:  Iraqi Jews

Other articles related to "modern iraq, iraq":

History Of The Jews In Iraq - Modern Iraq
... Iraq's first minister of finance, Sir Sassoon Eskell, was a Jew, and Jews were important in developing the judicial and postal systems ... In the 1930s, the situation of the Jews in Iraq deteriorated ... Despite protestations of their loyalty to Iraq, Iraqi Jews were increasingly subject to discrimination and harsh laws ...

Famous quotes containing the word modern:

    It is obvious that all sense has gone out of modern marriage: which is, however, no objection to marriage but to modernity.
    Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)