At a commemoration in London, Iraqi Jews tell of their flight to freedom

The legacy of the millenia-old Jewish communities of the Arab world must be preserved.

 A PANEL discussion takes place at the November 30 commemoration in London, chaired by the writer (center), and featuring Jack Hikmet and Sharon Theodore, who both lived in Baghdad at the time of the 1969 hangings.  (photo credit: Michelle Huberman)
A PANEL discussion takes place at the November 30 commemoration in London, chaired by the writer (center), and featuring Jack Hikmet and Sharon Theodore, who both lived in Baghdad at the time of the 1969 hangings.
(photo credit: Michelle Huberman)

It was a dark and stormy night when the five members of Sabah Zubaida’s family emerged from a taxi in a Kurdish village. “What are you doing here?” asked a Peshmerga (Kurdish fighter) with a flashlight.

“We are Jews trying to escape,” came the answer “Nothing scheduled for tonight,” said the fighter. “Nobody has come this way since September.”

Later, the fighter reappeared with three mules for five Jews. The ladies were afforded the privilege of a jerky ride, while the men squelched through the mud on foot. Then the group was caught in a hail of bullets and had to turn back. 

Three nights passed until the Peshmergas could drive their unexpected visitors out of the Kurdish enclave into Iran. At last, the escapees spied a simple barrier marking the border crossing – they had made it to freedom.

The last Jews leave Iraq

The year was 1970. A ceasefire had been signed between the Iraqi government and the Kurdish fighters. Israel, the Kurds and Iran struck a deal to allow desperate Jews to be smuggled out of Iraq. Under the Shah’s rule, Iran was then friendly to Israel.

A JEW in Iraqi Kurdistan, 1930s. Demsky notes that Jews from such places as Kurdistan, Yemen and India did not have hereditary family names at all until they immigrated to Israel. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)A JEW in Iraqi Kurdistan, 1930s. Demsky notes that Jews from such places as Kurdistan, Yemen and India did not have hereditary family names at all until they immigrated to Israel. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Zubaida resettled in London. He was one of almost 2,000 Jews to make the hazardous journey through mountainous Kurdistan between 1970 and 1971. They left with one suitcase in the middle of the night, as if they were going on holiday, stepping out of their Baghdad homes for the last time.

Edwin Shuker, now a vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, was in a party of 22 Jews crammed into a Kurdish pick-up truck. Then aged 16, he seethed with frustration as he peered down into the valley of death at the odd lorry that had driven over the edge.

A group of 136 Jews escaping illegally was rounded up and imprisoned for 17 days until they were freed. The Jewish lawyer who arranged bail for them was abducted a year later. Other Jews were arrested and released for no reason. Saeed Herdoon was confined with two others to a cell six feet by six feet. The bathroom was carpeted with human excrement. Herdoon was one of the lucky ones: more than 40 Jews died by torture or otherwise disappeared without a trace.

Conditions worsen after 1967

Conditions for the remnant Jewish community of 3,000 (over 90% of the 150,000-member community had fled to Israel in 1950) took a dramatic turn for the worse after Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War. The Ba’athist regime took its revenge, banning Jews from leaving, expelling them from jobs, clubs and universities, and freezing bank accounts. Telephones were cut off. Today only three live in Iraq. The last Jews had chosen to remain rather than move to Israel. Yet they were scapegoated as a Zionist “fifth column.”

The community sank to rock bottom on January 27, 1969, when nine Jews were among 15 people executed on fabricated charges of spying for Israel. Half-a-million Iraqis came to sing, dance and picnic under the corpses, strung up in Baghdad’s Liberation Square. Nadia Nathan’s classmates ululated their joy at the grisly sight. “I couldn’t believe people could behave in such a savage way,” she says.

Zubaida, Shuker, Nathan and Herdoon told their stories in a short film commissioned by Harif, the UK Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, based on interviews by Sephardi Voices UK. The film was shown on November 30 at the JW3 Jewish Community Centre in the presence of communal leaders and diplomats. Dozens of commemorations are being held in Israel and worldwide, and a special exhibit was unveiled on the “Jewish nakba” at the UN in New York.

In London, the theme “The last Jews of Iraq” was chosen to mark 55 years since Jews suffered repercussions from the Six-Day War – the last chapter in a millennial Jewish story. Riots broke out in Tunisia, Jews were murdered in Libya and Aden, and hundreds of Jewish men were imprisoned in Egypt as “Israeli POWs.”

Decades of silence

THE REMAINS of a synagogue are seen in the center of Baghdad, Iraq in April 2018 (credit: REUTERS)THE REMAINS of a synagogue are seen in the center of Baghdad, Iraq in April 2018 (credit: REUTERS)

AFTER DECADES of silence, the last Jews of the Arab world are speaking up.

They were not Zionists, yet they were persecuted by Arab regimes for being Jews. They were driven out by antisemitism, yet too often this simple fact is ignored, “understood,” or downplayed – or the plight of the Jews was blamed on Israel for ruining the mythical “peaceful coexistence” between Arabs and Jews.

November 30 was designated by a 2014 Knesset law symbolically to recall the day after the UN Palestine Partition plan of 1947 was passed, when anti-Jewish riots in several Arab countries broke out, triggering the exodus of 850,000 Jews.

The commemoration highlights the need to achieve international recognition of their suffering. But it is not enough. A poll conducted earlier this year in Israel found that only 14% of Israelis – where refugees from Arab countries and their descendants form a majority – had learned anything about Mizrahi history or heritage at school; 89% had never heard of the annual commemoration of November 30.

If Israelis are so ignorant, how much more so is the majority Ashkenazi Diaspora. The key has to be education. The history of Jews from Arab countries must be woven into the history of the Jewish people and included in every Jewish school curriculum.

The memory of communities that had pre-dated Islam by 1,000 years must be preserved, injustices and human rights abuses must be recognized without distortion or obfuscation, and reparations for lost property made.

The writer is the co-founder of Harif, the UK Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. She is the author of Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight.