We need to raise awareness about Iraqi Jews - opinion

The history of Jews in Iraq is rich and ancient, dating back to the Talmud, but the Jews of Iraq were not spared from the extreme anti-Jewish fervor of WWII.

This Monument, ‘Prayer,’ in Ramat Gan, is in memory of the Jews who were killed in Iraq during the Farhud pogrom (1941) and in the 1960s.  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This Monument, ‘Prayer,’ in Ramat Gan, is in memory of the Jews who were killed in Iraq during the Farhud pogrom (1941) and in the 1960s.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

My name is Dan Bar Moshe, nee Haled Mussah, and I am an Iraqi Jew. The story of the Iraqi Jews is not well known and I would like to raise awareness surrounding our story. I was born in Iraq in 1936 and I have experienced there as a child during the Farhud, as a student during the rise of Saddam Hussein and as a Jew during the many antisemitic periods of Jewish history in Iraq.

The history of Jews in Iraq is rich and ancient, dating back to the Talmud. The Jewish community flourished in almost all areas of society since its establishment. Jews lived very comfortably, held high positions, received comprehensive education in both secular and religious studies, and thrived as a community.

I was born in Diwaniyah, Iraq, and lived there for quite some time. We had a nice house on the river. I lived with my mother, father, four brothers and two sisters. My father worked with machinery in the fields and my mom stayed home with us. When I was seven years old, we moved to the capital, Baghdad, for schooling. There, I attended a private school, where I learned Arabic, arithmetic and history.

Despite the well-established community’s success, the Jews of Iraq were not spared from the extreme anti-Jewish fervor of World War II. The government of Iraq worked alongside Hitler and admired his work. In June 1941, before Shavuot, a two day pogrom ensued against the Jews of Iraq, during which over 200 Jews were slaughtered, women and girls were raped, stores were looted and there were unwarranted arrests, resulting in complete chaos. The pogrom in Iraq became known as the Farhud and much of the Jewish community of Iraq left within ten years. However, 15,000 Jews remained, including our family. I was just five years old.

During that period, my father and two uncles were detained. I vividly remember my father’s arrest. One day he was there and one day he wasn’t. At five years old, I didn’t understand the events that were unfolding. All I knew was that my father was gone. I just wanted to see him and so I asked to go to the jail where he was being held. I would go to the jail and stand in the courtyard and we would wave to each other. My father eventually was released, and I was thrilled.

 Rashid Ali al-Gaylani and Haj Amin al-Husseini speaking at the anniversary of the 1941 coup in Iraq in front of black-white-green banners in Berlin. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Rashid Ali al-Gaylani and Haj Amin al-Husseini speaking at the anniversary of the 1941 coup in Iraq in front of black-white-green banners in Berlin. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Jews who remained after the Farhud

FOR THE 15,000 Jews who remained, including our family, life was relatively good. The Farhud was viewed as an isolated incident. As a result, the Jews rebuilt their broken community and reestablished themselves within Iraqi society. Jews once again held high positions in government, owned private businesses, and became licensed doctors and lawyers. Children attended schools and were expected to continue their education onto university.

As such, I began my studies at the College of Languages at the University of Baghdad. Soon thereafter, the conditions of the Jews living in Iraq changed for the worse following Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. In 1968-1969, the cruel dictator Saddam Hussein rose to power and the situation for the Jews became unbearable.

In 1969, the Iraqi government hanged nine Jews and killed another 179, whose whereabouts are still mostly unknown (but surely they were killed). Jews were also fired from their jobs and then all the private companies fired the Jews working for them. The government disconnected any telephones owned by Jews and forbade Jews from participating in all business transactions. Furthermore, the government ordered all Jews from the various regions of Iraq to report to Baghdad within two weeks. Terror ensued. The secret police patrolled the streets looking for Jews. On one particular occasion, I had left the house and was immediately interrogated about my identity.

Jews were given yellow IDs that differed from the rest of the Iraqi population. Luckily, I only showed them my driver's license which had no trace of any Jewish identity on it. Additionally, my name Haled Mussah is particularly Arabic and therefore made it difficult to detect that I am a Jew. My name saved me then and it also allowed me to remain in university.

It became clear that it was no longer safe for Jews in Iraq. My family began searching for ways to escape. We knew that the only way to escape successfully was through Kurdish territory in northern Iraq. People would risk arrest to travel up north for days on end, hoping to stumble across one of the rumored Kurds willing to save Jews. I was only a student in university when, luckily, I happened upon a Kurd named Kaka Hamed, who was willing to take the risk of smuggling Jews.

He was willing to take my family and me across the border; however, my father was not ready to leave. He requested a few more months to close businesses properly and then he would be ready. Meanwhile, I had Kaka Hamed’s number, someone willing to save Jews desperately seeking refuge. It was quite rare and precious.

Consequently, I arranged the escape of a few people. Weeks passed and soon I was coordinating the escapes of dozens of people a week. Weeks became months and I regularly arranged the escape of several groups a week. Together, Kaka Hamed and I saved hundreds of Jews over the course of a few months.

Escaping Iraq

EVERYTHING WAS done secretly so as to not be caught by the authorities. I would generally request to meet alone with one of the girls seeking refuge, since girls would not be tortured like a Jewish male if they were caught. The escaping Jews would travel in disguises to Sulaymaniyah, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq. Women wore Abaya, the black cloth that Muslim women wore outside the house, and the men would dress up as Kurds and travel with a small bag for holiday.

After arriving in Sulaymaniyah, the Jews would go to the city square. There, I arranged for one of the Jewish women to hold a particular item, like a red flower, so the Kurdish smuggler could identify the group.

After finding the smugglers in the square, the Jews would be ushered into the Kurds’ house. They would remain there until it was safe to continue on the journey. There would be about ten Jews in close quarters, unable to move, for up to about thirteen days. On occasion, the situation became so dangerous that the smugglers would plead with the Jews to return to Baghdad. Once the danger passed, they would continue, but the journey was long and treacherous.

Jews were put in jeeps that drove on sickening snowy and rocky roads for about four hours. They were then loaded onto mules in the frigid cold for around six hours, usually ill-equipped for the weather, until reaching the Iranian border. There, Jews were met by Iranian border police who would put the Jews in contact with the Israeli Embassy.

In 1971, after helping so many people escape Iraq, I was one of the last aliyot from Iraq to Israel. My family and I began the journey knowing the immense danger we faced. The names of previous families that had left were published in the paper; they were wanted by the Iraqi police and would eventually lose their citizenship if they continued on their journey.

When my family left, we knew our names had been published and that the police were looking for us. The Kurds assisting in our escape wanted us to wait before crossing the border into Iran, but I recognized the urgency and insisted we leave Sulaymaniyah immediately.

When I eventually crossed the border from Iraq to Iran, I was greeted by Iranian soldiers. I was taken to the Israeli Embassy and given the utmost respect. One particular diplomat asked if there was anything I wanted in return for helping a tremendous number of Jews from Baghdad escape. I was just thrilled to have escaped and heading to Israel, so I simply replied “an Israeli flag.” The man immediately took the flag off his diplomatic car and gave it to me. I have the flag to this day.

After immigrating to Israel, I received a certificate of recognition from the State of Israel’s Ministry of Defense. I worked hard throughout my life. Currently, I live in a town in Israel called Yehud. I have two children and three grandchildren.

I am wholly committed to raising awareness surrounding the history of Iraqi Jews and their heritage, specifically what happened in June 1941, the month of the Farhud, and the hardships of the Iraqi Jews who fled Iraq to make aliyah to Israel. I would like to honor those who were killed during that period, and honor the community of Iraqi Jews for their bravery and steadfastness.