“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept...” – Psalm 137
The people of Jacob have dwelt by the rivers of Babylon ever since the destruction of the First Temple, a continuous period exceeding 2,500 years. The Jewish community of Babylon starting along the same path the other peoples of the region had trodden, that of captivity, assimilation and absorption into the ancient Babylonian culture, and finally disappearance.
But unlike the others, Jews remained steadfast in their faith and firm in upholding the traditions of their ancestors. The light of Judaism remained lit and their faith produced prophets and sages.
A substantial change and marked deterioration, however, occurred in the situation of Jews during the period between the two world wars. The achievement of independence by the Arab countries was accompanied by a blind hatred directed toward all minorities, including the Armenians, the Assyrian Christians and the Kurds in Northern Iraq. The Jews had secured a special place in the economic, administrative and cultural life of Iraq.
They were superior to their neighbors in education and knowledge, they were outstanding in commerce and many were employed in government administration and in private clerical practice, which fact made the Arabs jealous. What made matters worse was that the Jews found an honored position among the British administration that needed senior officials and local agents proficient in English and Arabic.
When Hitler came to power in Germany, Goebbel’s agent arrived in Iraq and began to disseminate propaganda against the Jewish domination of government institutions and the economy. He incited the Muslims against the Jews, and in l935 Arab hatred found expression in crowded meetings which terminated in murderous pogroms.
The Golden Age was over.
Arab hatred of the English was transferred to the Jews, and the brunt of the war declared on Britain was diverted to a campaign against the unfortunate, defenseless Jews of Iraq. Many were imprisoned and tortured, and an enormous amount of money was extorted.
ONE SUNDAY, June 1, 1941, the first day of Shavuot, at 10:00 a.m. youths who had gathered to greet the crown prince Abd al-Ilah came to the airport. Meanwhile, Jews dressed in festive attire went out into the streets in a markedly happy atmosphere. All of them were pleased at the return of the crown prince and at the restoration of order to the capital, Baghdad.
Suddenly, however, hooligans began to stone the Jews. A panic-stricken fight began. Large numbers of Jews fled into the side streets.
There were sounds of shooting, cries, the flash of knives. That was the beginning of an unforgettable pogrom called the “farhud.” They began dragging Jews out of buses and murdering them in the road.
Wild crowds and defeated soldiers who had returned with their weapons to the city saw the pogrom as a celebration and a sort of amusement. The Jewish Quarter in the city center became a battlefield, with looting, robbery and rape. Babies were killed in the arms of their mothers. Young children were forced to murder their parents and parents were made to slaughter their own offspring.
The pogrom inflicted mortal wounds on the Jewish community.
Arab voices could be heard everywhere in Baghdad: “The small feast is over, now you [the Jews] prepare for the great feast !” The Jews began to organize themselves and to whisper about self defense. The future of the community lay in the hands of youths and younger men and girls. With a sort of unexpected enthusiasm a movement arose clandestinely.
Many Jews were put to death. After the second round of the pogrom many of those who had escaped death wished to leave Iraq, but were not allowed to. The Jews remained silent and organized themselves clandestinely. The Underground Movement was organized, turning all Jewish eyes to Zion.
The news of the establishment of a new state, the State of Israel, in 1947 aroused great joy that was celebrated in silence behind closed doors. In police circles it was whispered that if the mobs burst into the Jewish quarters of the capital in a pogrom like that which occurred in June 1941, this time it would not be so easy to control the situation , since a change had occurred in the spirit of the Jews.
The police knew that many Jews had armed themselves and decided to fight for their lives at all costs.
The “chalutz,” or pioneer, movement, and all the clandestine underground movements, mobilized and set up barricades to defend the Jewish quarters at strategic points.
Radio communication was established between these points. Secret broadcasting stations were also set up, and Molotov cocktails were prepared in each Jewish house under the guidance of the young chalutzim.
After the establishment of the State of Israel , the Jews of Iraq became hostages in the land of their birth. Children 14 years of age joined the young Underground Zionist Movement, and wanted to flee the country through the desert or by any other route. About 20,000 young people, boys and girls, left Iraq by impossible and dangerous routes. There was no Jewish home without some member of the family missing. The graves of those who couldn’t make it are to be found on the mountains, in the desert or by the sea.
Three years after the establishment of the State of Israel, Iraqi Jews were given an opportunity to leave Iraq en masse provided that they gave up their citizenship and all their property. So began Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, when an airlift – the most daring ever organized in peacetime – transferred over 120,000 Jews from Iraq to Israel.
The Jews of Iraq left behind them not only a continuous history of 2,500 years, but all that was holy and precious to them, both spiritually and materially.
Tombstones of prophets stood on the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, and in the Kurdish areas.
But in Israel there was no apartment with a key ready to welcome them. All they were given was an iron bedstead, and a leaky tent in a transition camp they called a “ma’abara.” Immediately the Six Day War began, the Iraqi authorities began to persecute the remaining small Jewish community.
The glory that was, and the fall that followed.