The Farhud – the riots against the Jews of Iraq

What happened in the Arab countries was in effect ethnic cleansing. While the Nakba is marked every year with demonstrations and wide media coverage, the Jewish disaster does not merit any public or media notice.

May 15, 2013 22:13
3 minute read.
IBRAHIM YOUSSEF SHALEH, the leader of Iraq’s Jewish community

IBRAHIM YOUSSEF SHALEH, the leader of Iraq’s Jewish cmty 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

During Shavuot, Iraqi Jews will commemorate the 72nd anniversary of the “Farhud” – the riots that took place on Shavuot, June 1-2, 1941. In the riots reminiscent of Kristallnacht in Germany, 179 Jews were murdered, hundreds more wounded and much Jewish property looted.

The memory of the riots remains fresh in the minds of Iraqi Jews.

Similar attacks occurred against almost all Jewish communities in Arab countries, for thousands of years. The Jews did not declare war on their hosts.

They never fought against them, as the Arabs in mandatory Palestine fought against the Jewish settlements and afterwards against the nascent Jewish State of Israel. The world has heard a great deal about the injustice that happened to the Palestinians, under the code-name “Nakba,” or catastrophe, but knows almost nothing about the wrongs committed against Jews in Arab countries. What happened in the Arab countries was in effect ethnic cleansing.

While the Nakba is marked every year with demonstrations and wide media coverage, the Jewish disaster does not merit any public or media notice. This despite the fact that its human and physical dimensions were larger than the Nakba (the number of Jewish refugees forced out of their homes was about 856,000, while the Arabs who left Mandatory Palestine numbered about 650,000 according to UNRWA statistics).

Only as late as February 22, 2010, was the issue was placed on the Israeli agenda with the enactment of the “The Law of Preservation of the Rights to Compensation of Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries and Iran,” which states that any negotiations for the achievement of peace in the Middle East must include the subject of compensation for said Jews.

THE ATTACKS against the Jews in Arab lands occurred even before the establishment of the State of Israel. In Iraq they began with discrimination in the areas of the economy, education and public life. Afterwards, Arab nationalism ignited the fires of rioting against the Jews, which came to a peak in the farhud of 1941. Similar tragedies befell the Jews of Libya, Aden and other Arab countries. In Egypt, a mass expulsion took place in the dead of night. The Jews were forced to leave behind their property, including schools, hospitals, ancient synagogues, cemeteries and prophets’ graves. The Arab governments confiscated it all.

The combination of xenophobic Sunni nationalism and anti-Semitism produced a powerful hatred of the Jews. This hatred, according to the American historian Edwin Black, was abetted by Nazis such as German envoy to Baghdad Dr. Fritz Grobba, and pseudo-religious leaders such as Haj Amin al-Husseini, who fled from Mandatory Palestine and found in Iraq a convenient venue for his anti-Jewish activities. The Jews were left with no choice but to flee from the Arab countries that they had helped to found and bring into the modern era with their contributions to government, economy, medicine, education, literature, poetry and music.

The threatening anti-Jewish climate that prevailed in every Arab land was accompanied by inflamed anti-Jewish declarations broadcasted on radio, and even from the podium of the United Nations. Government harassment and popular attacks drove the Jews of the Arab world to migrate en masse to Israel.

There were certainly Muslims in the Arab countries who did not support the attacks on the Jews, but their voices were not heard. The Jews were the scapegoats in internecine power struggles between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites, just as today Israel is at the center of the struggle between the Shi’ite Iran and the Sunni states.

In recent years, a process of awakening can be discerned in the Arab world, especially among intellectuals, who recognize that it was not only the Palestinians Arabs who suffered a nakba, but that the Jews of the Arab world had their own catastrophe.

For sake of history and educating future generations, a proper commemoration of the plight and the heritage of Jews from Arab countries should take place in Israel. Arab leaders – Palestinians and others – would do well to stop parroting the slogan “the right of return” and deluding their people, because there is no turning back the wheel of history .

The author is a former ambassador and deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry.

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