Seventy-five years ago this week, a military trial opened in Iraq. It lasted just three days. The defendant was given no opportunity to plead his case. Iraq’s most prominent lawyers were appointed, but all resigned when the presiding judge, a known pro-Nazi nationalist, refused to allow them to bring witnesses. Shafiq Ades, Iraq’s wealthiest and best-connected Jew, remained alone to face trumped-up charges that he had sold surplus military equipment to the Zionists.
Iraq was then among seven Arab League member states fighting the fledgling State of Israel. But Ades had never shown any interest or support for the Jewish state, and was not even involved in Jewish community affairs. He had donated large sums to the Palestinian cause. Ades numbered among his close friends the regent, the emir Abdul Ila. He even had Muslim business partners.
On the third day, the unanimous verdict was read out: the defendant, who was accused of an improbable cocktail of misdeeds – from Zionism to Communism to sowing anarchy – was sentenced to death by hanging for treason and ordered to pay five million dinars in compensation.
Ades’s wife Aliza went to prostrate herself at the feet of the regent, who alone had the power to commute the death sentence. To no avail. Abdul Ila’s advisers told him that public feeling was so hostile to Ades that if he were not executed, the regent’s own head would be on the block.
The world Jewish press and Jewish organizations mobilized in Ades’s favor. According to the journalist Adi Schwartz, who is writing a book on the case, they presented Ades as a kind of Iraqi Dreyfus. Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen Wise, leaders of US Jewry, sent telegrams to US secretary of state George Marshall, warning that Ades’s execution would lead to looting of Jewish property and pogroms in Iraq.
Ades was hanged on September 23, 1948, in the square outside his house in Basra. He took 20 minutes to die. Some 15,000 spectators celebrated as Ades’s body swung from the gallows for several hours.
The execution stunned Iraq’s Jewish community, which had been settled in the country for 2,500 years. Any hope that the 150,000 Jews might be integrated as equal citizens into newly independent Iraq was dashed. If Iraq’s most powerful and richest Jew, who had hosted the regent in his home and had no links to Israel or Zionism, could be indicted in a show trial and hanged, what future would there be for them?
Executing a prominent Jew as an example and deterrent to the rest of the community is not an unusual tactic. In 1979, Iran’s wealthiest Jew, Habib Elghanian, was executed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, prompting most of the country’s 100,000 Jews to flee for their lives.
An extensive anti-Jewish campaign in Iraq
BUT THE arrest of Ades was not an isolated incident, it was part of an extensive anti-Jewish campaign. During the summer of 1948, Zionism was made a capital offense. Hundreds of Jews in Iraq were put on trial. Most were fined and others were sentenced to long prison terms. A day before Ades’s execution, two businessmen and a banker were arrested; the day after, two wealthy merchants were detained. The objective was not only to extort money to pay for Iraq’s war in Palestine, but to incriminate the Jewish community as a fifth column.
For many Jews, the execution of Ades was a turning point. Already scarred by the memory of the 1941 Farhud, in which 180 Jews were massacred, the community would from now on seek to leave at all costs. In 1950, that opportunity presented itself briefly when the Iraqi government legalized emigration, on condition that the emigrants forfeited their Iraq citizenship and eventually their property.
The Ades case is important because the Jewish exodus from Iraq is being misrepresented and the facts distorted. In his new book, Three Worlds, a memoir of an Arab-Jew, Oxford University Prof. Avi Shlaim lends misplaced authority to the theory that “the Zionists” planted bombs to cause the Jews to flee Iraq. Lately, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has alleged that David Ben-Gurion “sent his people to Iraq, to kill, destroy, and plant explosives in synagogues, in order to force the Iraqi Jews to emigrate.”
Any honest student of history must count the execution of Shafiq Ades as a decisive factor causing the Jewish exodus. For too long, Arab states have evaded responsibility for persecuting their Jews, blaming the Zionists for ruining the “idyllic” relationship between Arabs and Jews before the State of Israel was established. It is time to put the record straight.
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.