Skip to comments.The terror behind Iraq's Jewish exodus
Posted on 04/15/2003 4:55:23 PM PDT by MadIvan
"In Baghdad, there are only 30 Jews left. Thirty. You can count them."
The woman speaking is an Iraqi Jew. She and her husband saw their friends being hanged in the main square of Baghdad; in the early Seventies, they had all their property confiscated and were forced to flee the country.
Her father-in-law was wrongly imprisoned for "one year, seven months and three days. And he suffered, he suffered a lot," her husband says.
He is anxious not to single himself out as a special case, but his voice thickens and he begins to cry. I am sitting with this middle-aged man and his wife in a terrace house in Edgware, where they finally rebuilt their lives.
But, even after all this time, they are still too scared to give me their names - what I write, says his wife, could "start a hatred against the Iraqi Jews in London, and they can find and attack you anywhere".
As he weeps, his wife gestures at the television set in the corner of the sitting-room, where they are constantly flicking between al-Jazeera, Sky and Fox.
"It's because we are watching this all the time," she says. "It came back." Their old life has invaded their clean London sitting-room, and all the memories of persecution in Baghdad are flooding back - "like a dream".
It wasn't always a hard life. In the 1920s, Baghdad was 40 per cent Jewish: Jews made up the largest single community in the city and controlled up to 95 per cent of business.
The first finance minister of the country - established after the First World War, when the British drew up new borders - was a Jew, as was the justice minister. And when the British imported King Faisal I to Iraq, in 1921, one of his first visits was to the leaders of the Jewish community.
As late as 1948, after Israel's war of independence, there were still about 150,000 to 180,000 Jews in Iraq. Now there are between 30 and 40 left in the entire country. In 50 years, one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world has all but vanished.
Within the borders of Iraq, of course, is the city of Babylon, where the Jews came after their first exile from Jerusalem in 587bc. Iraq is also the birthplace of Abraham. Islam arrived only when the Arabs invaded in ad641 - more than 1,000 years after the Jews had first settled.
In the past week, I have spoken to a dozen Iraqi Jews about their memories. I was expecting to hear only about suffering and persecution, but they wanted to talk about the vibrant society in which they grew up.
They recalled a privileged life: elite schools, close communities, two-storey houses with indoor courtyards and evening promenades along the Tigris. Some of the best neighbourhoods were almost entirely Jewish, because only Jews could afford the houses. "It was a good life," I was told again and again.
Dr Sami Zubaida, a distinguished 65-year-old humanities lecturer, came to study in England in 1954. "In the first half of the 20th century," he says, "there was a sense in which Baghdad was a Jewish city: we were the educated, the middle classes."
Moshe Kahtan, a 65-year-old business consultant, concurs: "My father was a legal adviser to the ministry of finance, and he was also a member of parliament. You have to appreciate that, at the time of King Faisal I, the Jews enjoyed a very high standard of education and health - in fact, they ran the country."
Kahtan, who came to London in 1955 to further his studies, had attended the Alliance Israeli, a private Jewish school so sought after that wealthy gentiles sent their children there, too.
In addition to providing lessons in Arabic and Hebrew, he says, the school had French and British teachers. There was also a large girls' school, at a time when traditional Muslim Iraq did not educate its girls.
Although most of the people I met were in their sixties, their self-appointed leader in exile - the Exilarch - is an 88-year-old called Naim Dangoor. From 1949 until 1965, he ran the Coca-Cola franchise in Iraq, with his beloved Muslim business partner. Soon it will be time, he believes, to restart that business and bring Coca-Cola back to a newly liberated Iraq.
Like the others, he refuses to be seen as a victim. Dr Zubaida puts it this way: "There is a kind of devaluing of Iraqi Jews' cultural background, by saying that they were oppressed minorities, that they had no culture and the Muslims colonised and oppressed them. And so the tales of victimhood then override everything else, and all the great achievements of Iraqi Jewry are hidden, forgotten."
"Before the Six-Day War," the couple in Edgware point out, "before 1960, the Jews led a nice life - they were free to do whatever they wanted. But the brainy ones thought that, one day, this would turn upside down and they decided to leave the country."
Sadly, what this couple remember is only an interlude: the persecution of the Jews had started 20 years before. In June 1941, there was the Farhud - or pogrom - during which "the mob wreaked havoc", recalls Kahtan.
"For two days, they killed Jews in the streets, kidnapped girls, raped them, killed them and mutilated the bodies. They burned property, looted houses - it's estimated that about 600 Jews were killed in those two days."
For Jews born later, such as the Edgware couple, the public hangings of Jewish teenagers in 1969 and the omnipresence of the secret police are fresher memories. But their insistence on the "nice life" of the past echoes a pattern set long before.
"At the time of the Ottoman empire," Kahtan explains, "the Jews' fate depended on the governor's mood and whim and the amount of corruption that he exercised. So, when there was a lull in the persecution - bless them - they called it 'the golden age'. It was not a golden age. It was an age when the Jews were persecuted less."
Even so, this persecution was not out-and-out violence until shortly before the Farhud. So, what changed? In the Thirties, the rise of pan-Arab nationalism coincided with the second King Faisal's admiration of the Nazis.
By 1936, says Sylvia Kedourie, widow of the eminent Middle Eastern scholar Elie Kedourie, there were "episodes of Jews being killed in the streets that led to a growing sense of insecurity". Meanwhile, Zionism was on the rise, and though the Iraqi Jews were hardly Zionists, many Arabs began to see them as hostile, intent on conquering Arab territory.
The Nazi agenda crystallised Arab anti-semitism. On April 3, 1941, the rabidly pro-Nazi Rashid Ali, a former prime minister, with a group of similarly inclined politicians and army officers, staged a coup against Faisal II. Rashid Ali's aim was to root out British influence and ally Iraq with the Nazis.
His new "government" declared war on Britain, and was promptly defeated. On May 31, Rashid Ali fled. But his soldiers and policemen, inflamed by Nazi ideas, started the Farhud - aided by the Arab mob. Although the British Army was stationed outside Baghdad, it waited for two days before stopping the massacre: "They didn't want to wound Iraqi pride," says Kahtan.
"I was a very young child at the time, but certain things are imprinted on your mind. On the first day, the mob came to our door to do their business. The house was rented from a Muslim neighbour, of the old generation, and he came down with his rifle, shot in the air, and said: 'These people are under my protection; anyone who lifts a finger will be dead' - and he drove them off.
"But, as they were banging on our door, our parents took us to the roof and threw us across the wall to the neighbour's house just in case. I was very young, just three, and I still see myself flying."
Like him, Dr Zubaida says his own first memories are of the Farhud. "I recall distinctly that just as it was happening, there was an air raid - the British Air Force - and people were very happy to see them, though they dropped bombs. And I remember some bit of a bomb landed in our house."
Dangoor was older, a reserve officer in the Iraqi army. "I had a revolver in my hand, my brother had a shotgun and so on, and we were surrounded at one time by rioters," he says.
"My father said: 'Please don't shoot them because tomorrow everything will be all right - so why create enemies?' That was very wise advice.
"The rioters tried to open the windows to get into the house. And then they remembered that I was an officer, so after half an hour, they left."
Although the "good times" returned for a few years after this massacre, the old generation of friendly Muslims was gradually being replaced by its more hostile descendants. By 1947, Israel was an inevitability.
"When the whole question of the partition of Palestine came up," says Dr Zubaida, "all the Arab countries sent armies to Palestine, including Iraq. This generated a kind of hysteria, and then Jews who were prominent in public life started being sacked and students in higher education started being expelled."
Kahtan was 10 in 1948, when the state of Israel was declared. The son of his Muslim neighbour - the one who had saved his family - called him into his house.
"He was 19. He showed me a map and said: 'Today, seven armies are going to attack Israel, kill all the Jews and throw the survivors into the sea.' Now, that was the son - you see what a change of mentality had taken place. I'll leave it to your imagination to think what change of mentality has taken place between 1948 and now."
It doesn't take much. In 1949, a court of law falsely accused Safiq Adas, one of Iraq's most prominent Jewish businessmen, of selling arms to Israel. The charge was ridiculous: Adas sold scrap metal to Italy.
He protested his innocence and refused to pay the bribes that might have saved his life. Although he had some of the best lawyers in Iraq, his defence was not allowed to call witnesses. He was hanged in front of his house as his wife and children watched. His Muslim partner was never charged and continued the business.
This, Elie Kedourie has written, was the moment when the Jews realised the full extent of their vulnerability: they were no longer under the protection of the law and there was now little difference between the mob and Iraqi court justice. Everyone I spoke to mentioned Safiq Adas's "trial".
"After that," Kahtan says, tripping over his words, "a lot of people started to run away - illegally, because Jews were not allowed to travel. By then, they were not even allowed to buy or sell property."
What was to be done? In 1950, the British government brokered a secret deal between Israel and Iraq: the Jews of Iraq could obtain a passport to go to Israel if they renounced their Iraqi citizenship. Some 120,000 to 130,000 registered to leave. Only then did the Iraqi government pass a retroactive law: all those who renounced their citizenship would have their property and all their assets confiscated.
So came "the biggest exodus of the Iraqi Jews" - the airlifts of 1950-51. Those who left were allowed to take only a suitcase and 100 dinars.
This was, however, just half of the deal: the Jews were to go to Israel, and the Palestinians were to be resettled in Iraq. Kahtan put it succinctly: "Fifty per cent of the deal was done, and the other 50 per cent was reneged. So the Jews went to Israel, and the Arabs stayed in Israel as refugees."
Only Kahtan has been back to Iraq. In 1965, he returned to see his dying father and to try to save his family's property. His passport was confiscated on arrival and he was trapped in Iraq for "two years of hell", becoming the last Jew to escape before the Six-Day War. His father died in Iraq.
His escape on a smuggler's boat, like all those in the 1960s and 70s, was organised by Israeli agents who mapped out the routes, paid the necessary bribes and met the refugees in Iran. "Israel was paying to save the Jews," Kahtan said. "I owe my life to the state of Israel."
After the Six-Day War, the Iraqi government took its revenge on the few thousand Jews left in Baghdad. The woman in Edgware recalls: "They started putting young people - youngsters of 16 years old - on trial, just because they were Jews.
"They would just catch them in the streets - whomever they could find - and take them to prison. Then they would torture them and put them on trial as spies.
"And they hanged them in the main square of Baghdad. People were dancing around the gallows there, dancing and celebrating, distributing sweets. 'What a big day, what a happy day', catching the Jews and hanging them."
Did she see this? "Of course," she says, pointing to pictures in a book. "I lived on that square." For a few moments, she studied the faces of the childhood friends whom she saw hanged in 1969.
She left with her mother in 1971, and her husband escaped through the north two years later, driving with his parents "as far north as you could go" towards Iran, where they were met by Kurds.
"When we got to that crossing point over the border," he says, "the Kurds said: 'Look, we are helping you now - when you get to Israel, you must help us.' And now they have a problem, and I can't"
Like the Holocaust survivors, some of the Iraqi Jews will perhaps now claim compensation for their confiscated property. Kahtan, however, is sceptical.
"Look, it took Europe 50 years. How long do you give the British and Americans to do that? Probably, they will say it's against the interests of the state to raise that point. They have their excuses, and we have to try and convince ourselves to believe them."
Dangoor is more bullish: "I am not sorry that I lost everything in Iraq, but that does not mean I have no right to ask for compensation." In any case, he says, he needs the capital to restart the Coca-Cola franchise in Iraq.
"Would you go back?" I asked them all. No, they said - Britain was their home now. But Kahtan also laughed at the question. "Why? Are they doing special air rates?"
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August 14, 2000, Vol. 156 No. 7
The Other Side of the Refugee Coin
Jews driven from their homes in Arab countries gain hope of compensation
By MATTHEW REES Jerusalem
The last time Munira Mussafe saw her elegant house on the banks of the Tigris, it was through her tears. She and her family had to flee Iraq in 1951, leaving a spice warehouse burned out in anti-Jewish riots, a safe full of banknotes and jewels, and dozens of expensive, handmade Persian carpets. From prosperity in Baghdad, Mussafe and husband Salim brought their six children to a life of miserable poverty in the new state of Israel. Every day, Mussafe lamented the riches she left behind, even as Salim struggled to run a small dairy farm in the coastal town of Herzliya. Her daughter Judith, who fought decades of depression over the decline in her parents' status, hanged herself in 1988. Mussafe, 78, knows she can never recover the house or her daughter, but she believes new moves in the peace process with the Palestinians may help her win back the $2 million in cash and assets she left behind. "It's coming to me, just like it's coming to the Palestinians," she says. "Every refugee should be compensated."
Mussafe has a powerful ally in President Bill Clinton. In an interview with Israeli television, Clinton said the failed Camp David summit, which ended two weeks ago, at least brought good news for the more than 580,000 Jews who immigrated to Israel from Arab countries. Palestinian negotiators agreed that these Jewish refugees should be compensated for the property they left behind or were forced to give up, he said. The President's comments reopened a little-noted but highly nettlesome area of dispute between Israel and the Palestinians which is sure to take on even greater urgency as the two sides move toward a final settlement. As the Palestinians negotiate for billions of dollars in compensation for their refugees, Israel will press for billions more to be paid to the Jews from Arab countries, probably by the kind of international fund suggested in Clinton's remarks. If the compensation is forthcoming, it could help the Israeli government sell an entire peace deal to voters of Middle Eastern and North African origin, who are a slight majority among Israelis. They're also largely right-wing and usually suspicious of prospective agreements with Arabs. "It will be very important," says Justice Minister Yossi Beilin. "It could help people accept the agreement. It would be something tangible."
Jews all over the Arab world faced persecution, fear and anti-Semitic attacks after the establishment of Israel in 1948. Communities that were 2,000 years old packed up en masse in the following few years and moved to Israel. Some of the expulsions were accompanied by government seizures of property, from the Iraqi regime in 1951 to Muammar Gaddafi's Libya in 1972. The Jews left behind them small goldsmiths stores on the Street Called Straight in Damascus and rich Italianate villas in Alexandria. According to Mordechai Ben-Porat, a former parliamentarian who, as a Mossad agent, helped bring refugees out of Iraq, the value today of the property abandoned or confiscated would be about $15 billion. That would dwarf the $1.25 billion compensation pledged by Swiss banks to Holocaust victims. Unlike the Palestinian refugees who were often kept in poverty by their Arab hosts and in some cases denied the right to find jobs outside their squalid camps, Jews from Arab countries were given citizenship in their new land. Still, these Jews, known as Mizrahis from the Hebrew word for east, faced discrimination from the European élite in Israel and lived in rough camps of tents and tin shacks. The towns that grew around those camps remain Israel's poorest neighborhoods. "We struggled to convince the world that there is another side to the refugee coin in this region," says Oved Ben-Ozair, chairman of the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, a group based in Tel Aviv. "With Clinton's statement, we succeeded."
The Palestinians argue it's the other side of a completely different coin and that most of the Jews came to Israel out of Zionist conviction, rather than as true refugees. Adel Dajani left his father's home in West Jerusalem's German Colony in 1948 when he was 17, fleeing the battle that raged then for the city. Now a retired banker who lives in Amman, Jordan, Dajani recently took his wife and daughter to the ornate sandstone house on a leafy street renamed Zvi Graetz, after a nineteenth century biblical scholar. The Israeli woman who lives there today had herself fled from Iraq. Briefly, she let Dajani inside. "I was taken by the shivers," he says. Despite the efforts of Yasser Arafat's negotiators, Dajani expects to receive little compensation for the 16 houses his family left in Jerusalem, and he believes the Jews who fled Arab lands should get nothing either. "A lot of them left of their own free will, not under the gun like us." Palestinian officials at the peace talks agreed to the idea of compensation for the Mizrahi Jews only on condition, they say, that the money comes out of an international fund. They fear Israel will try to cancel out at least some of what it owes the Palestinian refugees by netting it against payments due their Jewish counterparts. They are suspicious, too, that Israel will cite the estimated $11 billion it spent over four decades integrating the Jewish refugees to further cut the cash it will hand over to the Palestinians.
Many of the Mizrahi Jews harbor the same suspicion. They believe they may never see their compensation and that the Israeli government only floated the idea to trim its potential obligations to the Palestinians. "It's an elegant stunt by the Israeli government," says Yehouda Shenhav, a Tel Aviv University professor. They'd better hope Clinton isn't in on the trick.
With reporting by Jamil Hamad and Aharon Klein/Jerusalem
Thanks. Few people are aware of the Jews driven from Arab nations because Israel and world wide Jewry took care of them. Meanwhile Arab nations have done nothing to resettle Palestinians. They want them to be festering sores in refugee camps. They want them to be stirred up and be their tool to use against the Jews of Israel.
It's never too late to correct your mistakes. The best thing the US could do for Israel (or Israel could do for themselves) is give each Palestinian a lot more money that Saddam gave them, let's say $100k (rather than the $25k Saddam gave them to kill themselves) to emigrate to Iraq, since they seem to love Saddam so much. The only problem is, the post-saddam Iraqi's probably aren't in the mood to provide that kind of hospitality to one of the few Arab people groups who supported Saddam 100%.
We could also give Iraq some kind of extra money for a fund to help the country absorb the immigrants into Iraqi society.
Iraqi Jew flees the war
Rachel Pomerance, Australian Jewish News
NEW YORK - Imagine Iraq on the verge of war, where Jews are seen as collaborators with the US-led invasion. Now imagine the plight of a Jew planning his escape.
Iraq places severe restrictions on citizens who want to leave the country - and the few remaining Jews are not permitted to leave, according to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
For "Jacob" - not his real name - a shy man in his mid-50s who has spent a lifetime in Baghdad keeping quiet about his Jewish identity, staying was riskier than leaving.
Jacob's recent retirement as a government engineer meant two things:
* He could now obtain a passport, a privilege previously forbidden because of the nature of his work.
* He may, however, have outlived his usefulness to the regime, he told the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS).
Given the history of antisemitism in Iraq, and the widely-held view in the Arab world that the war is being waged at Israel's behest, Jacob thought he might be in danger when war broke out, a HIAS source said.
With Iraq distracted by the build-up of US troops along its borders, Jacob crossed the frontier just days before America began raining bombs on the country.
His wish was to join his sister and her family, who fled Iraq two years ago for a Western European country.
Copying their escape route through a neighbouring country, Jacob posed as a non-Jewish Iraqi and lived with a Christian Arab family once outside Iraq.
He immediately informed his sister of his whereabouts, and she relayed the information to HIAS.
A week later, an undercover HIAS official met Jacob in his country of refuge and put him on a flight to Europe, where he now waits in an apartment secured by HIAS and JDC.
HIAS is seeking special refugee status for Jacob from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees so that he can reach his hoped-for destination.
Jacob could get the special refugee status within a week, but it might take him several months to actually move, as his country of destination has a lengthy procedure for processing refugees, according to HIAS.
Harry Levy was probably #31.
Escape from Baghdad
Henry Benjamin, Australian Jewish News
AS coalition forces take control over Baghdad, Rafi Levy remembers the callous cruelty of Iraq's Ba'ath Party as he experienced it in the city of his birth.
Levy was born in Baghdad in 1952 - the prosperous, peaceful capital city of Iraq which had been ruled by King Faisal since 1921.
In 1958 the monarchy was overthrown in a military coup, reflecting growing discontent with Faisal's strong ties to the West and the lack of domestic reform.
For five years, however, the country flourished under its new leadership and life was good for Iraq and its Jewish citizens. But in 1963, the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party overthrew the government and Abd-al-Salam Muhammad Arif took control of the country shortly thereafter. Life under the new leadership changed dramatically for Iraq's Jews. The cruelty meted out to Iraqi citizens started long before Saddam Hussein became president in 1979.
"It was a rough time for Jews in Baghdad," Levy told the AJN. "We were bashed in the street. They threw rocks at us and chanted anti-Jewish slogans.
"Going to and from school was a nightmare. The authorities had revoked our passports, so we had become prisoners in our own country.
"My father was forced to take a Muslim partner as they would not allow Jews to own businesses any longer. He had had a construction company in conjunction with an English firm which built huge food storage facilities in Iraq.
"He used to spend six months of the year in England, where he was known as Harry Levy. So he originally named the company Harry Levy and Associates.
"Then he had to change it to include the Muslim partner's name, but it was not long before my father's name was dropped and the firm bore only the name of the Muslim partner.
"The final blow was when all the company's assets were placed in the partner's name and my father had no access to them."
Unwilling to identify the partner as one of the man's sons is still active as a major Iraqi arms dealer, Levy added: "I cannot forget the damage he did to our family. The partner had two daughters and two sons. One daughter died of cancer.
"The other daughter was married to a brilliant scientist who was working in the Iraqi nuclear reactor plant when it was bombed by the Israelis in 1981. He was killed. It is so ironic."
Levy's father tried to start a new business with a partner he thought would be more accommodating, but he and some thugs ambushed his father, assaulting him with iron bars. He was paralysed as a result and never worked again. The partners stole the business from him
Looking back on his early years in Baghdad, Levy said: "We lived in a Jewish area in the city. We had a villa and staff. Life was more than okay.
"I went to a Jewish dayschool in Baghdad, although we did have some Muslim teachers. When I was little, I knew nothing about any threats to Jews as we were bussed to school.
"But my eyes were opened when I started going by bike. I was under constant attack from street thugs. It was not even safe in school as no-one questioned when teachers beat students."
In 1966, Levy's father fled Iraq with Rafi's two older brothers and waited in Iran with an uncle for the rest of the family to join them.
"The Ba'ath knew my father had gone. They knew we had had money. In the three months when I was the only man , they would beat me at least three times a week, sometimes putting a gun in my mouth and demanding to know where the money was.
"I always promised I would try to get the money so they let me go. They showed me their ID. They were from the police and the army. It started the day after my father left. My sisters were only kids and they were left alone, as was my mother.
"The thugs threatened to take me to the police station for interrogation. As they were dragging me off, I clung to a steel fence and severely lacerated my arm. I believed this may have saved my life as so many who went for questioning never returned."
The assailants tormented the 15-year-old boy, placing their guns in his ears, eyes and mouth. They told him they knew that members of the family had emigrated and that the rest were planning to do so, and branded the family as criminal.
They demanded all the family's money, failing which the members faced certain death.
"Our gardener got me a gun, which I buried in the garden. I never used it, but I had to know it was there to protect the family.
"We were more than ready for our escape. We had paid the necessary money - £3000 per person to the people smugglers. It must have been about £34,000 in today's money.
"There was a knock at our door, and we were told it was time. We had to leave immediately. They made us destroy all our personal papers, including family photographs.
"All we could take were a few clothes. Anything else would have been incriminating if we were caught.
"They were dangerous times. I knew another family where the Ba'ath found out an escape was planned. They burst into the home and found them with their bags packed. The family was hacked to pieces and the Ba'ath packed them in their own suitcases."
The trip proved to be unforgettable. It was a two-hour drive from Baghdad to the border near the southern city of Basra, the scene of a fierce battle between British and Iraqi forces in the current war.
"We were about 20 minutes from the Persian border driving in a huge Chevrolet Impala," Levy continued.
"Our hearts sank when we saw an army jeep coming towards us. The road was very narrow, and the jeep, which had a machine gun mounted on its back, pulled off the road and stopped.
"A soldier got out with a gun and started walking towards us in the middle of the road. Our driver pulled out his gun and said he would rather die than surrender, as they would kill us all anyway.
"When the soldier got near to the car, the driver hit the accelerator, hitting the soldier and spinning him skywards. We did not stop. The guy in the jeep started firing, but miraculously, none of the bullets hit the car.
"We did not slow down until we got to the border. We crossed the river separating the countries near Basra. The shah was still in control of Persia and the Jews were made welcome.
"We stayed in Teheran with my uncle and moved to Israel shortly before the 1967 war. I lived there for five years before moving to London."
In 1975, Levy applied to work as a mercenary in South Africa, passing every interview except the final one, which was the first one that was face to face. When they saw his dark Sephardic looks, he was rejected.
At the time, the Australian Government was offering work to long-haul truck drivers, so Levy headed to Sydney... and a life of relative peace. He met and married his wife Tammy, and life was good, although the nightmares of his teenage days in Baghdad did not cease until after their first child was born.
And now, as pictures of Baghdad are beamed into Australian homes 24 hours a day, Levy recalls the time the family was together before a regime change split them, sending them across the world.