Iraq’s Jewish history remembered at NYC event

‘People are uninformed regarding Jewish indigeneity to the Middle East,’ say organizers Carole Basri and Aurora Cassirer. Here, Ohad Merlin writes about a recent event in New York City, to mark the anniversary of the NAZI inspired Farhoud in Iraq. 

A first-of-its-kind event was hosted by the New York City Bar Association revolving around the issue of the expulsion of Jews from Middle Eastern countries, coinciding with the 83rd commemoration of the Farhoud, a deadly pogrom carried out against the Jews of Baghdad by local mobs, which left hundreds killed and over 1,000 wounded, with hundreds of homes looted and burnt. 

Sponsored by the MENA Affairs Committee and the Council on International Affairs of the Bar, speakers included organizing Bar members Carole Basri, who presented excerpts from the documentary The Last Jews of Baghdad, and Aurora Cassirer, who gave a presentation revolving around the laws of discrimination and expulsion against Jews under different Islamic rules and up until modern times. 

Additional honorary speakers were retired judge Abraham Sofaer, of Iraqi Jewish descent, who served on a mission to Iraq during the Reagan-Bush period; and judge Elizabeth Stong, who gave the introductory remarks. The Jerusalem Post reached out to organizers Basri and Cassirer to hear more about the event. 

‘Farhoud was Iraqi Jewry’s Kristallnacht’ 

In addition to serving on the NYC Bar Association, Basri, who has roots in Iraqi Jewry, is also a renowned scholar on the issue of the Jews of Iraq. “This subject is such an important one, as there are so many that don’t know about the Jewish disappearance from the Middle East,” she said during a joint interview with her co-organizer Cassirer. 

Cassirer added: “The audience was very special; there were about 200 people in the audience, which was made up largely of lawyers from diverse backgrounds, all part of one of the most respected bar associations in NYC, which boasts the first ever Muslim president. We were happy to see how crowded it was. People were genuinely interested and wanted to know more.” 

“There’s just so much miscommunication about the image of Jews as if they’re not indigenous to that part of the world,” said Basri. “Jews lived in Iraq since about 500 BCE, much before Arab and Islamic rule of the area.” 

Regarding feedback from the audience, “Everyone stayed from beginning to end, which is not very common in these types of meetings,” Basri added with a smile. “Many asked to see the full movie, from which we had only brought short excerpts. During the event nobody was talking and everyone was engaged.” 

The MENA committee of the NYC Bar Association holds similar programs on local issues, including discussions and lectures on topics stretching from water resources in the region to Iran and the Houthis. “These discussions usually draw around 15-20 participants. This event brought around 200, and that was the day after Memorial Day, when it’s really hard to get people to engage,” said Basri. 

Cassirer agreed. “There is a large education gap in this area and it’s important to educate people on the subject. We must know each other’s history. More than 50% of Jews in Israel hail from Arab countries. 

Speaking about the Farhoud, with its almost 1,000 Jews killed, gives crucial context to what’s happening in the world now,” she added, stressing that this too is part of the region’s history, emphasizing Jewish indigeneity to the region. 

Basri added that in many instances, the history of the Jews in Arab countries is considered a taboo. “Some just don’t want their children to know what they’ve been through,” she added. “Yet there were an estimated 1 million Jews scattered around Arab countries, with merely a handful of thousands remaining there today. 

“Farhoud was like Kristallnacht,” continued Basri. “It didn’t happen in a vacuum or by a spontaneous mob – the government was behind it. The government passed laws which incited the mobs and made it impossible for Jews to stay. 

Every law has legislators voting on it, which sends a message to the people that it’s to harm the Jews. This was anti-Jewish education, which created a climate where the Farhoud was legitimized. 

Have you ever visited Iraq? 

Basri said she had indeed visited her family’s old homeland in the past. “Our family has a long story back to the Babylonian exile. I also have a family in Israel which had to go through the ma’abarot [temporary poor-conditioned housing provided by the government to immigrants mainly from Arab and Muslim countries during the first years of the state]. I even have an uncle that was [in Baghdad] [for the] hangings in 1969 [for those caught allegedly spying for Israel].” 

Cassirer, renowned for her work on the Holocaust, pointed to interesting parallels between the Holocaust and the worsening of the situation of Jews of Iraq under the pro-Nazi regime of Rashid Gaylani. 

“Nazi propaganda penetrated the Iraqi state through the institution of the German ambassador. Then, in 1932-1933 the first anti-Jewish laws were legislated, and in 1934 pro-Nazi propaganda also took over the radio station and newspapers,” she elaborated, adding that this atmosphere facilitated the anti-Jewish sentiment that would lead the way to the Farhoud and the eventual expulsion of Jews from Iraq. 

“A single article from 1948 in The New York Times also drew parallels between discriminatory laws in Iraq and the Nuremberg laws. But other than that, nothing of the sort was discussed here in the US. This event can be seen as an attempt at fixing that,” she said.

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