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Farhud, 1941: Iraqi Jews remember a massacre

On the holiday of Shavuot in 1941, Iraq’s Jews experienced a pogrom that claimed over 180 lives and ended in mass looting. But there’s another story from the Farhud that often goes undiscussed: the bravery of Muslims during the crisis.

“The Farhud” / Foreword By Orit Bashkin (translated by Asaf Shalev)

Silently but not without some noise, a blessed thing is happening in Israel right now. The general category of “Mizrahiness” is falling apart into the stories of specific communities, cities, places, languages and memories: Iraq and Morocco, Aleppo and Oran, Ladino and Aramaic. All of them are asking to tell the stories of their Jewish communities. As part of this beautiful centrifugal process – which is being led by novelists, poets, historians, folklorists, literary and musical artists – the history of the Jewish community of Iraq is also crystallizing. This magnificent community has sprouted an amazing literature written by Jews in Arabic. In Iraq, the European education of community members did not prevent them from falling in love with Arab literature and culture, which were taught in the Jewish schools (both public and private). The love was preserved here in Israel as well. In Iraq, they also used the term Arab Jews, at times politically (to express support for the Palestinians) and at times culturally to connote Jews that love Arabic and Arab culture.

This love and the desire to integrate into modern Iraqi society were challenged starting in 1939. Part of the nationalistic Arab elites – and I stress, only part – sought to cooperate with Germany, as an enemy of England (as did anti-British forces in the liberation movements of India, in the Irish liberation army, and even in the Lehi, or Stern Gang). In April and May of 1941, Iraq experienced a military coup, led by Rashid Ali al-Gaylani. When the British forces were about to enter Baghdad (on the first and second of June), with the defeat of Rashid Ali’s forces, a terrible slaughter against the Jews of Iraq took place. A mob of discharged soldiers, military youth groups, corrupt cops, city dwellers – and on the second day, poor robbers and looters – took the lives of at least 180 Jews. The British forces could have entered the city earlier and saved the Jews but they decided to not get involved. The Farhud is at the center of a number of studies, but more importantly, it is rooted in the memories of members of the community. But what do we know about the Farhud? Unfortunately, most Israelis that are not Iraqi have never heard of this tragedy (except from the popular satirical show that recently made an ugly mockery of the event) because Iraq – despite its Westernized Jewish elites with ties to the global economic system through trade, banking and oil – is not part of the “Europe” that Israelis conceived of. There are pogroms and then there are pogroms.

Mass grave of victims of the Farhud, 1941. (photo: Ministry of Education and the Ben - Zvi, Jerusalem)

Mass grave of victims of the Farhud, 1941. (photo: Ministry of Education and the Ben – Zvi, Jerusalem)

In the collective memory of the Iraqi Jewish community, the Farhud is seen as a failure of the Arab-Jewish idea and as a moment in the penetration of Nazis into the Middle East through the influence of Haj Amin al-Husseini who took refuge in Baghdad for a while. But even here, the story is not complete, since portraying the Farhud as a pogrom against helpless Jews ignores the fact that Jews in Iraq fought against the Nazis and their influence. They wrote articles – in Arabic – about the crimes of the Nazis in Germany and of the Fascists in Italy. They collaborated with anti-Nazi Arab liberals and socialists. They voiced their opposition against teachers who spread Nazi propaganda at school and demanded they be fired. Germany was not able to screen propaganda films in Baghdad because the movie theaters – which were owned by Jews – refused to screen them. Jews resisted during the days of the Farhud as well. They poured hot oil on the rioters, threw stones, and hopped from rooftop to rooftop to save their lives.

And there’s another story from the Farhud that deserves telling: the bravery of Muslims during the crisis. The wealthy Jewish neighborhoods were not targeted in the onslaught. Those who were hurt were the poor Jewish neighborhoods. Those who were saved lived in mixed neighborhoods – often because their Muslim neighbors risked their lives to save them. Recollections of Jews, letters by Zionist emissaries, and police reports praise those neighbors and friends. A 70-year-old woman who called on all her Jewish neighbors to stay with her; Muslims who pretended to live in Jewish homes to protect Jewish property; a neighborhood hoodlum who not only hid Jews but also forced the grocer to bring them food; Iraqis who bribed rioters and threatened them with weapons – all in order to rebuff the mob. The stories show the Farhud was not only characterized by looting, murder and incitement but also by the keeping of certain social norms by which Jewish friends and neighbors were seen a precious family members, as well as by heroic and touching stories of rescue. Another story, exposed by my colleague Esther Meir, who has long worked on the Farhud and its memory, is that the Jews of Iraq did not want to immigrate to Israel after the danger subsided. Some of the younger generation, however, turned to more radical avenues – communism and Zionism.

It is a great honor to write a foreword to the recollections of the father of Oshra Shaib Lerer, Avner Izak Shaib. His voice expresses the culture, politics and neighborly relations of the community. I hope Israeli students will learn the history of the Farhud from multiple perspectives – and that they’ll remember not only the marauders and exploiters but also the neighbors and friends, from the Christian community party leader who after the looting in Basra implored the government not to harm the Jews, to the Shi’ite looter who came to steal Jewish property but pleaded with another looter not to stab a Jew and was stabbed herself. And I hope that the Farhud will not be the only story students will get to hear. I hope they also learn about the Arab-Jewish writers, the wonderful musicians, the communists and Zionists, and about the ways this culture was preserved in Israel, in the face of a state that forces assimilation and Westernization.

“The Farhud, ” As My Father Told It to Me / Oshra Shaib Lerer

I was four years old when the Six Day War broke out, the war that brought with it the hubris, the arrogance, and the “shufuni,” or “everyone, look at me.”

For my father, the war brought something else. It brought a bounty of books in Arabic, which were now available for purchase in Gaza. The house filled with books in Arabic, which we children, in shame, shoved into deep storage, far away from the eyes of guests and friends.

The books were the path back to his native language, which he so loved: Arabic. With the books came the stories of the city that just can’t be forgotten: Baghdad. The markets where he sold his merchandise. Skipping ahead a couple grades at the Muslim and Jewish school. The rooftops they climbed to sleep on sweltering nights. The alleyways and the bridge. The Zionist underground and the communist underground. And many more.

My father longed for the words and, to borrow a wonderful expression coined by Dudi Busi, rolled them on his tongue like he was asking to touch them and not just one more time – to touch them through the Arabic radio stations, the television programs, the prayers from the Qur’an during Ramadan and through the books.

Mostly, he came back to those three days of slaughter, robbery and looting that happened to the Jews of Iraq. Three days that are the microcosm of the complexity of being a Jew in Iraq on Shavuot of 1941. This week he recounted the story to his granddaughter:

In 1941, about a month ahead of the Shavuot holiday, the rule of the British Mandate in Iraq was toppled by al-Gaylani. On Shavuot eve, rumors spread that the Iraqi army was defeated and that English had returned to rule Iraq. The Jews celebrated the holiday and the victory in the streets and in the synagogues. Baghdad was in a state of anarchy as the English had yet take power and Nazi rule was crumbling. The poor people living on the other side of the Tigris took advantage of the situation and crossed the river and to rob, pillage and murder Jews. As news of the slaughter reached out neighborhood, we began to barricade our homes and prepare for self-defense: hot oil, stones, reinforcing the gates to the homes and more. Some of the Arabs, which I call “Righteous Among the Nations” protected Jews while risking their own lives.

My father returned that day from the market, told us about the terrible killing happening throughout the city in the Jewish neighborhoods, and said we must defend ourselves. We, who lived in the heart of the Muslim Arab neighborhood, climbed up on the roof and cried out for help. The aid came from our Muslim neighbor. With his encouragement, we jumped from our roof to his. As this was happening, the neighbor threatened his mother with a gun that if she will turn us in instead of helping, he will shoot her. We stayed at the neighbor’s house for two days of horror and he protected us and provided us with water and food until the rage faded away. Our house was pillaged but we were saved.

The regime in Iraq always knew how to strike a balance and protect the Jews throughout Iraq and the same happened this time.

I was only 12 years old then but the event led me to later join the Jewish communist underground, believing that this movement and its ways will improve our lot. Later on, I joined the Zionist underground.

In the Zionist underground I was given the name Avner, which I have kept to this day. I immigrated to Israel under a false identity because I was wanted in Iraq. If there is one thing I learned from the days of the Farhud is gratitude to the Righteous Among the Nations that saved us and the self defense by Jews who would not surrender.

This is my father who called himself an “Arab Jew” before it became a political statement, out of love and appreciation for the Arab culture in which he grew up. It was a love he tried to pass on to us, his children.

To my father, Avner Izak Shaib, who taught me pride and wisdom, I dedicated the song “No, It Is Not I Who Would Cry” by Mohamad Abdel Wahab.

Read this article in Hebrew on Café Gibraltar.

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    1. Samuel

      “The British forces could have entered the city earlier and saved the Jews but they decided to not get involved.”

      That is why Jews need Israel so we won’t have to rely on others to save us. So that we can be in a position to defend ourselves.

      Reply to Comment
      • RICK

        Jews don’t “need Israel”. Israel needs Jews; Jews who will hold up the ridiculous hasbara that Israel is some kind of democracy instead of the reality of a Jewish Fascist state bent on the dispossession of the indigenous people. Israel has created more anti-semitism that was dissipated in Europe and the U.S. because we give it impunity against its daily crimes against innocent people.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Ben

      My old neighbor in Neve Shanaan, Rachel, told me about how her Muslim neighbors formed an armed neighborhood militia to repel the looters. She claimed that the police, at the urging of “hadha kalb Nuri as-Said,” shot her brother. She and her family emigrated to Israel in 1946, where her father and surviving brother, both doctors, were only able to obtain work as electrical inspectors because their degrees in Arabic were not recognized. Her brother, formerly a surgeon, died while testing a faulty circuit in Tel Aviv. She still had pictures of their old home in Iraq, including a small portrait of Faisal I, whom she remembered with fondness.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Sami H

      Nice article…
      Just one appreciation…they loved Arab and Arabic culture because as I was taught they are Arab, only that their religion is Judaism, as well as there are so many Arabs who are Christian, and of course the Muslim majority.
      Sure they were Jews and they had their “cultural differences” with other Iraqis, as well as northern Iraqis had with southern Iraqis, as well as in any other place on Earth…
      Anyway, I repeat, really nice and thank you

      Reply to Comment
      • Ginger Eis

        WRONG, Sami H., they are NOT Arabs! Jews are a distinct ethnic group as are Arabs. Denying that amounts to cultural genocide.

        Reply to Comment
        • Mary Hughes Thompson

          Don’t be silly, Ginger. Jews are not a distinct ethnic group. They are members of a religious group, and perhaps more than just a religious group. But millions of Jews are also Arabs, most of them proud to be Arab Jews. In fact they are the only Jews who have any genuine connection to the land of Palestine. It is you, Ginger, who are guilty of cultural genocide, by your own definition.

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            So, what you are saying is that the Arabs have exclusive ownership over this land? On what basis?

            Reply to Comment
          • Ginger Eis

            Mary, ‘Jews are an ethnic group made up of several sub-ethnic groups’. Period. Thanks to Israel we are once again a proper Nation on our own Home Land. We define ourselves. Neither you nor anyone else has the right to define us, for we define you not. Striping Jews of their ethnicity is nothing other than a form of cultural genocide. Not even the Nazis attempted. On the contrary!

            Reply to Comment
          • Ginger Eis

            “… Not even the Nazis attempted denying Jewish ethnicity. On the contrary, they called the Jewry a “race”!

            (sorry for the incomplete sentence. My bad.)

            Reply to Comment
        • Baladi Akka 1948

          Who the hell are you to decide how people define themselves! The author here says her father called himself an Arab Jew, and so do others though not all of course.
          ‘Arab’ is an inclusive category, containing many ethnic groups, the only decisive indicator is having Arabic as your mothertongue.
          Talking about cultural genocide (i.e. ethnocid), you should take a look at what Israel has done to the diverse Jewish cultures. I’ve read that more people study Yiddish in Paris than in Israel, and an ex-Israeli once told me that his Iraqi parents were scolded for speaking Arabic to him when he was a kid by some Ashkenazi ‘social worker’ or ‘civilizer’.

          Reply to Comment
        • JG

          Wow, GingerEisBarRab goes full Rassentheorie. You know who would loved that? German Rassetheoretiker.

          Reply to Comment
    4. Tzutzik

      People decide where they want to belong.

      People like Arab Jews or Jewish Arabs have the choice of claiming to be part of the Arab nation or the Jewish nation.

      One thing is for sure though. It is cultural genocide to deny the existence of the Jewish nation.

      Another thing is that Arab Jews who declare themselves to be part of the Arab nation, are welcome to return to their Arab brothers. And when they become targets for slaughter again for being Jewish, they should not complain.

      In any case, the whole thing is academic because most of our brothers and sisters, Jews who came here from Arab lands consider themselves Israelis now. Some of their grand parents may have had some nostalgia towards the old countries from which they came from, that is natural. That is where they grew up. Their grandparents and parents may have felt some discrimination from fellow Israelis who came from different backgrounds, that was not nice but is not unnatural in the melting pot that Israel was and still is. So many different people from different places to integrate. Such things never go smoothly.

      But look at how things are now. We are one people. Intermarriage between Ashkenazi, Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews is common place. And israel itself is going from strength to strength. Sure there are obstacles to solve but the future is bright.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Kevin Morrow

      Frankly, the idea that our identity is determined by our blood is creepily fascistic. The reality is that Jews have always been small in number worldwide. Because they started as a distinct nation, then yes, there is an element of blood-descent identity that links Jews of today with the Jews of 3,000 years ago, but over the course of 3,000 years, blood becomes very diluted with all kinds of other things. Ultimately, ethnic identity is relative, and never pure, for these reasons. There’s no such thing as a pure-blooded Italian, or Spaniard, or Englishman. Ethnic identity comes down to choice in the end, very much like what happens in America. I have the blood of at least 10 nations in me, but I identify as Irish-American because that’s the dominant culture in my family, and it’s where I get my name. Bottom line: don’t force this Naziistic blood-identity crap on people. If they want to call themselves Jewish Arabs or Arab Jews, that’s their God-given right to identify themselves however they want. If Israelis must demand that all Israelis flush all non-Israeli elements of their identity away in order to preserve Jewish security, then I say that Israelis are even more pathologically insecure than I thought.

      Reply to Comment
      • Victor

        Maybe people should visit Israel instead of reading websites about it. Wherever you go, the big local music part is called Mizrahi. It’s popular with the vast majority of the country, and it’s quite Middle Eastern sounding. Just as are the foods local to the Middle East. Israelis did not flush these elements out of their identity. They have incorporated them quite well. Even in NYC, some of the best hummus places are Israeli-owned.

        What the Israeli Jews and Jews elsewhere did is stop calling and thinking of themselves as “Arab Jews,” just like the Christian Arab writers started telling them to do in mid-19th century and just like the Arabs (in general) treated them in the 20th century.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Susan

      How did an article about Iraq lead to a discussion of collaboration of Ashkenazi Zionists with the Nazis. This is the anti-Zionists favorite weapons against Zionists or against Jews in general. It also proves that haters of Israel have never cared about the suffering of Jews in the Arab world. The Iraqi Jews remind me of German Jews who loved German culture and thought of themselves as Germans first. They were to discover that their love of German culture was unrequited. They were the only Germans who thought of themselves as Germans first.

      Reply to Comment