Iraqi Jewish MusiciansIraqi Jews have always played an integral role in the social and cultural identity of modern Iraq. Yet, since the creation of the state of Israel, the immigration of Jewish communities out of the Arab world, and the subsequent Palestinian Nakba, the discussion of an Arab Jewish identity has always ushered a combination of fascination, pain and mystery.

Even though I had been very aware of the contributions that Jewish communities have made to my Iraqi identity, I had in fact never met an Arab or Iraqi of the Jewish faith. It was ridiculous. My interaction with Iraqi Jews was limited to antique silver works by Iraqi Jewish artists at auction houses or through reading about the more famous Saatchi and Sassoon families.

I wanted to learn more about many of the misconceptions surrounding the history of Iraq’s Jews, knowing that Zionism and Anti-Jewish bigotry worked hand in hand to cloud the truth. It was at the latest Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, out of all places, that my learning journey into this part of our collective history began.

"Iraqi Jews: A History of Max Exodus" by Abbas ShiblakI spotted, “Iraqi Jews: A History of Mass Exodus,” by Abbas Shiblak, and I had to pick it up right away. I had already picked up a book called, “The Arrogant Years,” a memoir on an Egyptian Jewish family at the turn of the century and thought this one would complement a series of books to be read on Sephardic Jews. And my choice of a book was an absolute success.

Shiblak’s book really helped to explain the conditions that led to the exodus of Jews. After reading it, I now have a much better understanding of the plight and dismay of one group of people in Iraq, but also the angst and instability brought on by colonialism imposed on Iraqis that triggered the exodus.

More so, the book really shed light on how integrated the Jewish community was in to the social fabric of Iraq. Just like all other Iraqis, regardless of their sect or background, the consequences of the British-controlled government were felt by all. However, as Shiblak explains, the anxiety felt by Iraq’s Jewish community was heightened against the backdrop of the creation of the state of Israel, and the rise of nationalism juxtaposed with a competition by the British and the US for power and influence in the Middle East. Within this setting, Shiblak maps out how Zionist ambitions set out to make Iraqi Jews and Palestinian refugees as pawns in the process of building the State of Israel.

Throughout the book, the author continuously and objectively draws parallels between the plight of Palestinian refugees, expelled from their homeland by Zionists, and the subsequent departure of Iraq’s Jewish community between 1949 and 1951.

Iraqi Kurdish JewsUsing data, documents and cables retrieved from the British Foreign Office, the Iraqi National Archive and Iraqi press, as well as documents from Israel itself, Shiblak paints a picture of how from early on in the 1920s, Zionists spoke of the need to bring in Mizrahi Jews (term used to describe Jews that are from the Middle East) to create a workable labor force that would accept lower pay than their European counterparts, who were at the forefront of the project to build Israel.

However, the conditions that faced many of Iraq’s Jews in Israel would later prove to be a failed policy, triggering many of the same Iraqi Jews to leave Israel for European cities like London instead.

Iraq’s Jewish community was a diverse group, reflective of the country’s geographic and socio economical divisions. The Jewish community of Kurdistan was comprised of mostly rural farmers, while those that lived in urban centers like Baghdad and Basra were traders, involved in commerce, highly literate, and assumed public office positions in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1917.

There were also pockets of Iraq’s Jewish community in the Western Anbar region and elsewhere throughout Iraq. “Until the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the Jews of Iraq lived in their own quarters (the Mahallah) in the main cities, as urban life in Iraq was dominated by these communal cleavages.”

But economic and educational developments eroded the Mahallah, Shiblak argues, with the start of Jews living in Christian and Muslim quarters and vice versa. More importantly, despite their aloof political involvement, Iraq’s Jews were well integrated into Iraqi society and had strong ties to the economic heart of Iraq and the government.

Iraqi Jews at Ezekiel's Tomb

Shiblak quotes Sir Arnold Wilson on his impressions of Iraq’s Jews over the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which promised to establish Palestine as a home to the Jewish people, in a letter to the Colonial Office:

“The announcement aroused no interest in Mesopotamia, nor did it leave a ripple on the surface of local political thought in Baghdad, where there had been for many centuries a large Jewish population whose relations with Arabs had caused them far less concern than the attitude of their Turkish rulers. I discussed the declaration at the time with several members of the Jewish community, with whom we are on friendly terms. They remarked that Palestine was a poor country and Jerusalem a bad town to live in. Compared with Palestine, Mesepotamia was Paradise. This is the Garden of Eden said one, it is from this country that Adam was driven forth – give us a good government and we will make this country flourish. For us Mesopotamia is a home, a national home to which the Jews of Bombay and Persia and Turkey will be glad to come. Here shall be liberty and opportunity. In Palestine, there may be liberty but there will be no opportunity.”

Iraq’s subsequent independence from British colonial rule in 1920 brought with it a tumultuous period in which a state of emergency was imposed at least sixteen times between 1920 and 1958. During this period, Iraq became “a hot bed of nationalism,” Shiblak argues, with many looking to German help as an answer to foreign domination. “It is fair to assume that Nazi propaganda found some supporters in stirring up anti-Jewish feeling in Iraq,” he says.

The failure of the Al Gailani government, an Arab nationalist opposed to British dominance, deteriorating economic conditions and the power vacuum that followed made way for an anti government riots in Iraq, known as the Farhud (in Iraq, this means breakdown of law and order) in which houses and stores were looted and some 250-300 Jews were killed or injured.

But the government was quick to investigate and punish those responsible, as well as contributing 70,000 British Pounds to the Jewish Relief Committee.

Iraqi Jewish Girls“It is against this background of complex factors and exceptional events that the violence of 1941 took place,” Shiblak argues.

Contrary to sensational Zionist narratives, “it is simplistic to see Farhud as a fundamentally anti-Jewish act, it was rather the result of deep and suppressed anti-British feeling, which found its outlet against the Jews.”

In the wake of this sense of insecurity, young Iraqi Jews questioned the passive attitude of the elder generations and found themselves politically involved in one of two camps. Some joined the communist camp and others followed the Zionist camp.

Abroad, Israel’s decision to freeze assets of Palestinian refugees made its repercussions in Iraq. Iraq’s government, under pressure, was seen to accommodate anti-Jewish demands to distract from its failures with regards to Palestine and social and political reforms. Slowly, the distinction between Judaism and Zionism began to blur.

Although no laws were passed that were anti-Semitic, the privileged role of Iraq’s Jews slowly began to erode and they began to feel they no longer had the economic opportunity they had in the past. Against this backdrop, the government cracked down on Communists, along with the Jews.

Shafiq Adas, a prominent businessman and member of the Jewish community, was hanged publicly in 1948 for allegedly selling British army scrap to Israel. The event had a profound effect on the psyche of Iraqi Jews who considered Adas among the most integrated members of its community within Iraqi society.

“Some Iraqi Jews seem to have seen the government measures as unavoidable and temporary in the light of the hostilities in Palestine,” as the head of the community Chief Rabbi Sassoon Khedouri viewed them.

“An important consequence of the arrests of 1949 was the unprecedented international Zionist campaign which gave the episode a new dimension,” Shiblak writes. “Reports of a ‘reign of terror’ or of the torture and persecution of thousands of Iraqi Jews supposedly being sent to ‘concentration camps’ were widely circulated in Europe and the United States. Some of those involved in the campaign later admitted that accounts of alleged atrocities were sometimes fabricated.”

“The big propaganda guns were already going off in the United States. American dollars were going to save the Iraqi Jews – whether Iraqi Jews needed savings or not. There were daily pogroms in the New York Times under datelines which few noticed were from Tel Aviv. Why didn’t someone point out that the solid, responsible leadership of Iraqi Jews believed this to be their country in good and times and bad – and were convinced the trouble would pass?” Chief Rabbi Sassoon Khadouri recalls of Iraq’s period of turmoil with its oldest ethno-confessional group in the late 1940s.

Iraqi Jewish RefugeesIn 1950, Iraq passed a law that allowed Jews to leave the country freely provided they surrendered their nationality and citizenship. The justification for this move was to prevent a spike in smuggling and to ensure sovereignty of the state after Zionism and Zionist activities in the country became illegal.

The move stirred debate among US and British officials of a possible transfer of Iraqi Jews for Palestinian refugees. Though, Shiblak alleges there is no evidence that the Iraqi government invited debate with its Israeli counterparts over the subject.

With data, Shiblak proves that the law failed to encourage Iraq’s Jews to leave. The Zionists, who were in more need of bringing in Iraq’s Jews to build its Jewish state, were also struggling to encourage them to leave their homeland. Unlike, say, Yemen’s Jewish community, who were economically underprivileged, Iraq’s Jews were more content with remaining in Iraq for the most part and the government did not foresee a large scale exodus to occur.

But two events occurred that made way for their departure. First, Shlomo Hillel, an Iraqi Jew who settled in Palestine and became active with the Mossad secret service struck a deal with Iraq’s Prime Minister Al Suwaidi in the early Fifties on transportation agreements and the evacuation of Jews from Iraq to Israel. This deal was mired by corruption and accusations of four ministers profiteering from the deal. Furthermore, after the overthrow of Iraq’s monarchy, trials revealed allegations of personal benefit from the involvement of Al Said with the evacuation deal with Hillel.

Second, a series of bomb attacks targeting Jewish neighborhoods occurred from 1950 through to 1951. The event caused anxiety among Jews. In June 1951, the government issued a communiqué stating that it had uncovered a ‘spy ring in Baghdad run by two foreigners who had been arrested’ {the reference is to Yehuda Tajjar, an Israeli officer and a British subject called Rodney who was a Mossad agent,” Shiblak writes.

“The purpose of the attacks were threefold, he says. First, to terrorize the Jews and force them to emigrate to Israel, which they did in fact achieve. Second, to exploit these acts in order to spread adverse propaganda against Iraq. Third, to arouse the interest of the British and Americans in relations between the Jews and Arabs,” he argues.

Shiblak, of Palestinian origin, in conclusion draws on the complex dynamics that planted the seed in the exodus of Iraq’s Jews. Many of those who departed for Israel had no other option at the time. Those who were affluent settled in Europe and the US.

These dynamics are felt today in Israel, a state known for its racist caste system. Today a candidate has been explicitly appealing to Mizrahi Jews. Moshe Kahlon, of Libyan origin, gained popularity in the latest elections, forcing other parties to include a token Iraqi or Morrocan Jew to their list.

The favoring by foreign hegemonic powers and punishment of certain sects by the local populace is not unique to the experience of Iraq’s Jews. A brain drain and exodus of Iraqis, from Muslims, Yezidis and Christians continue depart Iraq for more secure pastures. The legacy of western hegemony continues to be felt today even more so since the most recent US led war.

In many ways, the consequences of the exodus of Iraq’s Jewish community are still being felt.

Hadeel Al Sayegh

Born in the UAE, and raised in Canada, Hadeel Al Sayegh is a writer and journalist of Iraqi origin. Through her work, Hadeel explores different interperations of Iraqi history, particularly by looking at the impact of the 2003 war on Iraq.
“Iraqi Jews: A History of Mass Exodus” is made available by Saqi Books in London.