Iraqi Jews remember persecution, 80 years after pogrom

This week, Iraqi Jews commemorated 80 years since the Farhud, a violent pogrom marking the beginning of the end of one of the country’s oldest and often forgotten communities. 

In 1941, while Jews in Europe faced the horrors of the Holocaust, antisemitism reared its head in Iraq. Jewish people had lived in the country for millennia and could be found living up and down the country, from Zakho, where the community were said to descend from one of the lost tribes of Israel, to the port city of Basra. Most lived in Baghdad, where they made up more than a third of the city's population. 

But safety was not found in numbers. On June 1 and 2, 1941, antisemitic violence, known as the Farhud or "violent dispossession," spilled into the streets after a short-lived pro-Nazi government collapsed and before the British retook the capital. Edwin Shuker, who was born in Baghdad in 1950, told Rudaw English on Wednesday that the pogrom was a turning point, "which left an indelible mark on the collective consciousness of Iraqi Jewry." 

"My mother, who was nine years old at the time, still shudders as she recalls the sound of the mob approaching and the attempts to break the doors,” he said. In an online commemoration hosted by the United Synagogue on Tuesday night, footage from the Sephardi Voices archive was played, showing survivors speaking of "seeds of violence" planted days before the Farhud and the horrors they experienced during the first days of June, which coincided with the Jewish holiday Shavuot. 

"‘Don't go out,’ he said. ‘Don't go out, they've started killing Jews’," Julian Sofaer recalled a friend who was murdered in the Farhud as saying. Estimated death tolls vary, but at least 180 are known to have died as mobs roamed the streets, looting, and pulling Jews off buses to be killed. Families of Farhud survivors spoke to Rudaw English last year, describing the vibrant Jewish community that once lived in Baghdad and the violence that marked a turning point in their history. 

A decade after the Farhud, more than 100,000 Jews fled the country. The vast majority were airlifted to Israel and forced to give up their Iraqi citizenship. Several thousand Jews remained in Iraq, but faced increased persecution. Janet Dallal was born and raised in Baghdad. Her mother was five years old during the Farhud, and has only recently begun speaking about the events of June 1941, Dallal told Rudaw English on Thursday. 

"Only lately in Israel my mom began to reply because we asked her questions. It was hard for her to recall and tell what she experienced and heard in the Farhud,” she said. Dallal’s own childhood was fraught with worry and fear, particularly after the Six Day War in Israel, which was another turning point – for the worse – for Iraq's Jewish community. After the Israeli victory, Jews in Iraq were barred from government jobs, attending university, and were no longer allowed to use telephones. In January 1969, nine Jews accused of espionage were hanged in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. 

In 1972, Dallal's father Salim, who had served as an officer in the Iraqi army, was arrested with two other men after prayers in the synagogue. "He was arrested… only because they were Jews," she said. They were released, "weak and slim," two months later because one of the men was the last three people able to slaughter animals in accordance with Jewish law. The same year, her Jewish classmate Joyce Qaqoush and her family were murdered in their home by Iraqi members of a Palestinian liberation group. By 1975, Dallal and her family had left Iraq for good. 

Iraq's Jewish population has now dwindled to just four people following the recent death of a well-loved doctor who, despite the high risks, remained in Baghdad throughout decades of violence to serve the sick and needy, earning the title "the doctor of the poor." Most evidence of Iraq's Jewish past is now either destroyed, ignored, or, like, the community itself, no longer in the country. The Iraqi Jewish archives, thousands of books and documents found by American soldiers in the Baathist-era intelligence headquarters, are now in the US. Synagogues have been left empty. In Baghdad, there are not enough Jews remaining to hold formal services. 

Some, like Shuker who returned to see his family home in a 2017 documentary, work to raise awareness of Iraq’s Jewish history, including among Iraqis, and even want to reclaim Iraqi citizenship. But any sizeable return of Jews to Iraq is a "distant dream,” he said. 

by Holly Johnston

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