How Iraqi Jewry—the World’s Oldest Jewish Community—Escaped Destruction
The glorious history of Iraqi Jewry stretches back several millennia to the period of Nebuchadnezzar, the powerful king of Bavel (modern-day Iraq), who conquered Eretz Yisroel and sent a great portion of the Jews into exile more than 2,600 years ago.
The Babylonian kingdom was conquered not long afterward by the Persians. A few years before the opening scene of Megillas Esther, the Persian monarch, Koresh (Cyrus), whose reign lasted only two years, had issued an order allowing the Jews to return to Eretz Yisroel and rebuild the Bais Hamikdosh.
Only 42,000 Jews returned to their homeland. Torah study was experiencing a renaissance in Bavel and the Jewish community had built a vibrant, flourishing kehilla. Hundreds of thousands of Jews chose to remain there.
From the Babylonian period in the 3rd Century, encompassing the golden age of the yeshivos of Sura and Pumpadeisa and subsequent centuries of Islamic rule, the region that would become modern-day Iraq went on to thrive as a key center of Jewish learning. The community survived the Mongol invasions of the Middle Ages and fared well overall under the Ottoman Empire (1533–1918).
In the second half of the 19th century, with funding from French philanthropists, the Alliance Israelite Universelle, an offshoot of the European Enlightenment, began making inroads in the religious and traditional Sephardic communities of the Middle East and North African lands.
During this period of ferment, the Ben Ish Chai, Chacham Yosef Chaim ben Eliyahu, the legendary Torah sage and revered mekubal, led the Iraqi Jewish community for almost half a century. Under his illustrious leadership, the city of Baghdad boasted ten yeshivos and more than two dozen shuls. With his passing in 1909, the sun began to slowly set on Iraqi Torah scholarship, although the community remained staunchly religious.
After the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was divided up and the “British Mandate of Mesopotamia” was established by the League of Nations, later to be officially named Iraq. In 1932, with hostility growing towards the British due to their grip on Iraqi oil and their support for the creation of a Jewish state, British leaders decided to officially end the Mandate, making Iraq the only independent Middle Eastern country at the time.
Nazi Influence Pervades Iraq
The decline of Jewish life in Iraq began about this time, a process fueled by Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and the proliferation of anti-Jewish propaganda.
“From the moment Hitler took power in 1933, Iraq distinguished itself throughout the Arab world as a top Nazi ally,” writes author/historian Edwin Black. The German Nazi party, looking for strategic allies, began to court anti-Semitic elements in the country and found fertile ground in Iraq.
Mein Kampf was translated into Arabic, and radio propaganda from Berlin blared its toxic message in market places, broadcasting vicious libels about so-called Jewish crimes in Palestine.
Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, notorious for inciting violent protests in Palestine against Jewish immigration, came to Baghdad during this period to inspire followers to join his ranks. His hate-mongering against Jews succeeded in whipping up the populace.
When World War II broke out in 1939, Nazism became a fervent cause among many Iraqis.
Following a coup in 1941, Iraqi fascists tried to overthrow the pro-Western monarchy and seize British-controlled oil fields in Iraq, but failed. A British counteroffensive succeeded in taking back the country and re-instating the former Hashemite king.
The Iraqi coup conspirators in Baghdad, who saw the Jews as supportive of the enemy British and the Hashemites, decided to retaliate by exterminating the entire Jewish community in a single blow.
Jews were ordered to stay in their homes, and their doors were marked with a red hamsa (a Middle Eastern symbol in the shape of a hand). “At the last minute, the extermination plot fell apart and the coup leaders were forced to flee, leaving a momentary power vacuum,” writes Black.
Chaos ensued after the coup attempt failed. On June 1-2, 1941, which coincided with Shavuos that year, swarms of soldiers, police, common criminals and riffraff rampaged through Baghdad targeting Jews. In the two-day massacre, hundreds of Jews were murdered. Babies were thrown into the Tigris River. Hundreds of Jewish homes and businesses were looted, then burned. Thousands were injured.
The Israeli-based Babylonian Heritage Museum says that in addition to 180 Jews found murdered in their homes and in the streets, another 600 unidentified victims were buried in a mass grave.
The pogrom, known as the “Farhud” (Violent Dispossession) marked a radical turning point for the Jewish community.
Historians say the British Army could have intervened to halt the violence. On June 1, British cavalry were just eight miles from the city, having raced 600 miles from Palestine and Egypt under orders to prevent Iraqi oil falling into Nazi hands.
“To Britain’s shame, the army was stood down,” says historian Tony Rocca, co-author with survivor Violette Samash of the book, Memories of Eden.
“Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, Britain’s ambassador in Baghdad, for reasons of his own, held our forces at bay in direct violation of orders from Winston Churchill that they should take the city and secure its safety. Instead, Sir Kinahan went back to his residence had a candlelight dinner and played a game of bridge,” writes Rocca.
The pogrom was finally halted by the mayor of Baghdad and police loyal to the Iraqi monarchy, who imposed a curfew at 5pm on June 2.
After the Farhud, the city’s Jews would no longer place their trust in Iraqi authorities or in the humanity of rank and file citizens. Up to that point, Haddad said, he had considered many Muslim classmates and neighbors his friends.
“Suddenly I didn’t feel any more Iraqi. I felt I’m a Jew and I vowed to kill an Arab in revenge,” he said in the BBC interview. Then one day, swimming in the River Tigris, he encountered a drowning man, and instinctively helped him to the shore.
“When I came home I was shook up. Not because I saved the guy but because I didn’t follow my vow to kill an Arab. I went to see the rabbi about this incident, and he told me, ‘My son, you can’t make a vow to kill someone. You can only make a vow to help.’
We Learned to Live Like Mice
The anti-Semitism that Hitler had successfully exported to Iraq soon made life unbearable for the Jewish community. There were frequent arrests on false charges of spying and public hangings of prominent Jews.
Morris Zebaida, a survivor who now lives in London, says: “We learnt to live like mice, to never be noticed. If we didn’t, we would be spat upon or arrested.”
Matters escalated in February 1947, when the United Nations agreed to vote on the question of the partition of Palestine into two separate states; Arab and Jewish. The 1937 Peel Commission’s recommendation for partition had now evolved from a mere proposal into a binding international ballot to be decided by the world’s governments.
The prospect of an internationally recognized Jewish state in the midst of Arab lands in Palestine was unthinkable to many Arab leaders. Arab regimes, including the Baghdad government, issued threats to the effect that if the UN dared to accept the partition proposal, the Arabs would exact reprisals against the approximately hundreds of thousands of Jews living in other Arab countries.
In a historic move on November 29, 1947, the UN voted to create two states. The vote was 33 yes, 13 no, with 10 abstentions. Once the UN vote registered, a new anti-Jewish campaign exploded in Iraq. This time, it was not just pogroms but systematic confiscation of property with the aim of impoverishing the Jewish community, writes Edwin Black.
Jews were charged with trumped-up offenses and fined exorbitant amounts. All the while, mob chants of “death to the Jews” were being heard everywhere.
On May 15, 1948, the day after Israel declared its independence, the new nation was invaded from all sides by armies representing most of the Arab states. It was intended to be a war of annihilation. “This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre, which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres,” vowed Azzam Pasha, secretary-general of the Arab League.
The Arab armies, although more numerous, were poorly organized and militarily unprepared and unable to defeat Israel. The UN agreed to broker an armistice between Israel and Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Only Iraq refused to sign, continuing its state of war and blaming Iraq’s Jews and “Zionist gangs” for the military disaster the Arab regimes had suffered.
Every Jew a ‘Criminal’
On July 19, 1948, Iraq made “Zionism” a crime, punishable by up to seven years in prison. As every Jew was presumed to be a Zionist, all Jews were thereby criminalized. Only two Muslim witnesses were needed to denounce a Jew, with virtually no avenue of appeal.
In door-to-door raids, thousands of Jewish homes were searched for secret stashes of money thought destined for Israel. Walls were often torn down as part of the search. “One man was sentenced to five years’ hard labor for merely possessing a scrap of paper with a Biblical inscription in Hebrew; the paper was presumed to be a coded Zionist message,” historian Black documents.
Hundreds of Jews were now arrested, forced to confess under torture, heavily fined and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. None of this prepared the community for its greatest shock, however, when the wealthiest Jew in Iraq, automobile importer Shafiq Ades, was accused of sending cars to Israel.
Ades was tried by a kangaroo court, quickly found guilty, fined $20 million and issued a death sentence. His entire estate was liquidated. A few days later, on September 23, 1948, Ades was publicly hanged in Basra. His body was allowed to hang in the square for hours, to be abused by the celebrating crowds.
This atrocity was followed by a rash of further arrests, executions, and confiscations. In October, an estimated 1,500 Jews were fired from their government positions. This act crippled such key infrastructure agencies in Iraq such as the Irrigation Department, the Basra port, the Telephone and Telegraph Office, and the Railways Administration, all of which were heavily staffed by Jews.
But the regime didn’t seem to care and continued its persecution of the Jews. In an act akin to shooting themselves in the foot, authorities shut down the Kirkuk-Haifa oil pipeline, thereby slashing Iraq’s own income from oil royalties and crippling the national treasury.
The Jewish banks, key to foreign commerce, lost their licenses to import money. Jewish businesses were boycotted and their owners arrested. As the boycott continued, Jewish home values dropped by 80 percent and many Jewish firms went out of business, further draining the weakened economy.
Flight Across the Border
As the once prosperous and gracious life of Iraqi Jews began to unravel, they began to flee to Israel, first in small numbers of a few dozen at a time. The first 26 Jews to flee Iraq smuggled across the border to Islamic Iran in November 1948, even though Iran had not recognized Israel. This transit operation was now expanded to accommodate thousands of people.
“A little bribery helped immensely,” writes Black. $450,000 was raised and given to the Iranian prime minister, as well as other government officials. Iran’s prime minister announced that his country would open its doors as a humanitarian gesture in keeping with its ancient tradition of tolerance.
Iraqi Jews in large numbers were now permitted to transit via Iran. Eventually the number of such travelers rose to 1,000 per month.
“The disappearance of Jews from Iraq’s financial, administrative, retail, and export sectors, was devastating to the country,” writes Black. “Over the centuries, Jews had become essential to the economy. One day, they were just gone. In many cases, there was no one to replace the Jews — certainly not overnight.”
Jews were forced to sacrifice their assets at just 5 or 10 percent of their worth — anything to salvage some value before fleeing. As the numbers of Jews seeking to leave Iraq multiplied exponentially, it became clear that the land route through Iran was inadequate. An airlift was needed to rescue as many Jews as possible before Iraq changed its mind.
The Mossad Le-aliyah partnered with Alaska Airlines whose president, James Wooten, had been instrumental in rescuing the Jews of Yemen just after the Jewish state was declared. El Al, Wooten, and Alaska formed a new airline with a new identity called Near East Air Transport (NEAT).
Israeli ownership was hidden, so NEAT appeared to be strictly an Alaska Airlines venture, writes Black.
‘Operation Ezra and Nechemia’ Gets Off the Ground
On May 19, 1950, the first 175 Jews were airlifted out of Iraq in two C-54 Skymasters. The rescue operation became known by the original code name, Operation Ezra and Nechemiah, for the prophets who had led the Jews of Bavel out of exile back to Eretz Yisroel, thousands of years earlier.
Within days of the airlift’s inauguration, some 30,000 Jews had registered at their shuls and were immediately stripped of citizenship by a newly formulated law, and required to leave within 15 days.
The problem was that Israel’s resources were stretched so thin, it could barely accept any more Iraqi refugees. Scores of thousands of Holocaust refugees were also streaming in from war-ravaged Europe as well as other Arab nations.
As Israel tried to negotiate for fewer refugees per month, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Said realized that 120,000 Jewish emigres could be turned into a demographic weapon against Israel, draining the resources of the tiny country. He demanded that Israel absorb 10,000 refugees every single month, until all the Jews who had registered for the airlift had left Iraq.
In addition, he ruled that as of May 31, 1951, no more exit visas would be issued. If Israel would not accept these stateless “enemies” now, they would be sent to concentration camps as per a government plan then being discussed in the Iraqi Parliament.
Jewish Assets Permanently Frozen
As a final blow, Nuri Said permanently froze all the assets of the Jews who, by announcing their intention to go to Israel, had been “denaturalized.” This law was orchestrated in secret. As the measure was being ratified by the government, Baghdad’s telephones went dead so the Jews would not learn of the new law and try to transfer their property.
To make sure Jews could not access their funds, the government ordered the banks closed for three days. The Jews would arrive in Israel penniless with the single bag permitted to them, and no hope of retrieving their assets.
Day and night, using any craft available, the airlifts continued. In some months, as many as 15,000 people were flown from Iraq to Israel. The daily spectacle in Baghdad of forlorn Jews being hustled into trucks, clutching nothing but a bag and their clothes, sparked ridicule and scorn on the part of onlookers.
The crowds gleefully stoned the trucks that delivered the refugees to the airport, mocking the Jews as they departed the country in a mixture of relief, sadness, anxiety and apprehension.
Between January 1950 and December 1951, Israel airlifted, bused, or smuggled out 119,788 Iraqi Jews — all but a few thousand who preferred to take their chances and remain in Iraq. The immigrants arrived in Israel with nothing but their memories, and were placed in absorption camps outside of Tel Aviv that often lacked running water and sanitary facilities.
In a society predominantly of Ashkenazic background, the Sefardic newcomers, an educated, vibrant, productive community, were looked down upon and often faced prejudice. The absorption camps sought to wean them of their religious traditions and mainstream them into secular Israeli society, and to varying degrees succeeded.
The Iraqi olim were soon joined by almost a million Sephardic refugees from across the Muslim world, all of whom had been similarly expelled from their native countries after 1948, drastically altering Israel’s demographics.
Ahron Ben Hur, now 84 and a long-time resident of Tel Aviv, shared with a Reuters correspondent his bitter memories of the 1941 Farhud pogrom that took the lives of his father and younger brother.
“They were thrown from the second floor. My father died ten days later and the boy almost immediately. My father held my brother in his arms and they threw them down 100 stairs. I escaped to Israel in 1951,” Ben Hur said.
Cheskel Haddad, an 11-year-old boy was preparing to celebrate the festival of Shavuos when his family’s attention was drawn to the angry mob that was roving about the city, he told BBC in an article about the pogrom. Thousands of armed Iraqi Muslims were on the rampage, with swords, knives and guns, he recalled.
“On the first night of Shavuot we usually go to synagogue and stay up all night studying Torah,” says Haddad, now an elderly ophthalmologist in New York. Suddenly we heard shrieks of ‘Allah Allah!’ and gunshots rang out. We went out to the roof to see what’s happening. We saw fires, we saw people on the roofs in the ghetto screaming, begging for help.”
The violence continued through the night. Haddad remembers the marauders coming down his street at dawn, and watching them from the roof as they looted his neighbor’s house.
“My father had a dagger in his hand and a metal pipe to prevent people from attacking us on the roof where we took refuge. I broke off some bricks from the walls and started throwing them down. Other kids came with me and began throwing bricks and rocks on the killers. When we hit somebody and they began to bleed, they began screaming ‘Allah!’ and ran away.”
Some families bribed policemen to stand guard and defend them. Others owe their lives to Muslims who took great risks to protect them.
In a nearby street in a mixed Jewish and Muslim quarter, Steve Acre lived with his widowed mother and eight siblings in a house owned by a Muslim. Acre, now living in Montreal, told BBC he climbed a palm tree in the courtyard when the violence began. He still remembers the cry, “Cutal al Yehud,” “Slaughter the Jews!”
From the tree he could see the landlord sitting in front of the house.
“When the mob came, he talked to them,” Acre recalled. “He told them that we are orphans who took refuge in his house and they cannot touch us. If they want us, they have to kill him. This man saved my family. The mob moved away, moved on to other houses. There were so many victims that day. My mother’s best friend, Sabicha…. I can never forget.”
Reprisals After the Six-Day War
In 1967, Iraq joined the Arab forces fighting Israel in the Six Day War. When they lost, there were reprisals against the tiny Jewish community still in Iraq. The 2,000 Jews remaining in the country were unable to work, many living under house arrest. Their telephones were confiscated and Jews were beaten in the streets.
Conditions worsened with the Ba’athist coup that brought Saddam Hussein to power. Jews were rounded up as spies and sentenced to death. In January 1969, Saddam Hussein was put in charge of a horrific event for which hundreds of thousands of people were bused from all over the country – the hanging of 13 men falsely accused of spying for Israel. Iraqi citizens paraded and danced past the scaffolds.
Following are excerpts from an interview with Mrs Selima Gabbay, widow of Fuad Gabbay, one of the martyrs. The interview was published in the Maariv newspaper in March 1991.
“It was 1968 and I was pregnant,” Mrs. Gabbay recalled. “Without warning, my husband and I had our lives torn apart. Four Iraqi officers in a blue Volkswagen arrived at our home in Basra one day. They went straight to the air conditioners and pulled out the transformers. ‘These are transmitters,’ they shouted. ‘You are spying for Israel!’
“My husband, Fuad, was beaten when he protested. Our younger son, David, tried to kiss his father and was hurled against the railings, where he was badly cut. Fuad was taken away to a jail in Baghdad. Eventually, he was put on trial with other Jews, all accused of spying for Israel. The trial was broadcasted live on radio and television. Fuad pleaded not guilty.
“I travelled from Basra to Baghdad to see him in prison. When I got there they pushed me into a room and beat me. In the next room, separated only by a thin wall, I heard the guards telling Fuad, ‘Your wife is on the other side of the wall. If you don’t admit your guilt, we’re going to kill both her and the child she’s carrying.’
“The next day during the broadcast of the trial, I heard Fuad pleading guilty, admitting that on this or that day, he went here or there, sending secrets to Israel. My husband had been with me and the children all of those times. He had made up the story in order to save us.
“On the morning of January 27, 1969, the streets of Baghdad were even more noisy and crowded than usual. I could hear the neighbors shouting, ‘Hang the Israeli spies!’ There were free rides on the buses so people could come and celebrate under the gallows. The television was broadcasting their pictures of the victims, among them my dear husband, all innocent people. There are no words to describe the horror.”
Mrs. Gabbay managed to flee to Israel with her children in July 1971, where she tried to rebuild her life.
“Over 50 more Jews were executed or died through torture in jail after 1969,” she recalled in the Maariv interview. “But no matter how great the persecution, we go on. The Jewish people, because of its adherence to the eternal Torah, has acquired the quality of eternity. We see this in the existence of our beloved country of Israel and in our survival throughout thousands of years of galut. May we go meichayil lechayil.”