The Extent of Nazism in the Middle-East: the Farhud

            May 2013    
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The Farhud was a Nazi Inspired Violent Pogrom that took place in Iraq on Shavuot in 1941

By Joseph A. Levy

The horrors perpetrated by Nazi Germany and its allies in Europe have been well documented and for the most part are matters of public record. While we will never be able to know the full and complete extent of these horrors, we still have a very good idea of what happened to our Jewish brethren in Europe from 1933 to 1945.

But the evil influence of Nazism went well beyond Europe. Outside of Europe, nowhere was this influence felt more strongly than in the Middle East, an influence that is felt to this very day. Almost as soon as Hitler took power, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Mohammed Amin Al-Husseini, yemach shemo, enthusiastically embraced Hitler and said that Nazism and Islam were totally compatible with each other. Soon after Hitler took power, parties imitating the Nazis were founded in Syria and in Egypt. As early as 1934, a pro-Nazi, anti-Jewish pogrom took place in Algeria. In 1935, the Shah of Persia, inspired by the Nazis, changed his country's name from Persia to Iran, the name Iran literally meaning "Aryan." At the same time, the Shah took no actions against his Jewish population. When Hitler enacted the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, he received congratulatory telegrams from Arab capitals all over the Middle East. In 1938, demonstrations were held in Egypt calling for the ouster of Jews from both Egypt and Palestine. During World War II, a few thousand Tunisian Jews were taken to the concentration camps in Europe. Anti-Jewish riots took place in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Yemen in the 1940's. After World War II ended, many Nazi war criminals found refuge in Arab countries.

But while Nazi influence spread all over the Arab world, nowhere was this influence more strongly felt than in Iraq. This Nazi influence over Iraq culminated in probably the most vicious pogrom in Iraqi Jewish history, the Farhud. Farhud, which means violent dispossession in Arabic, took place over a two day period, June 1 and 2, 1941. The primary source of my information is the book "The Farhud" by Edwin Black.

As we all know, there was a continuous Jewish community in Babylon dating back to the destruction of the First Temple. In the seventh century, with the advent of Islam, it became an Arab land. As was true of all countries in the galut, the Jews of Babylonia-Iraq had their good times and their bad times. In 807 CE, 1130 years before Hitler, Iraqi Jews were forced to wear the Yellow Badge of Shame. That same century, in 854 and 859, decrees were issued ordering destruction of synagogues. In 1333 and 1344, Jews were ordered to convert to Islam or face death, with the latter including a decree ordering the destruction of synagogues. A massacre also took place in 1828.

Up until World War I, the Middle East was under Turkish control, when they were defeated by the British. Following World War I, the British and French divided up their conquests in the Middle East, with the British receiving from the League of Nations a mandate over Iraq. They then imposed a Hashemite monarchy there, with Feisal becoming a puppet king. Even when Iraq got its nominal independence in 1932, the British were the real force there until Iraq became a republic in 1958. Feisal was one of two sons of Sherif Hussein, who supported the British during the war. Originally, Feisal was to be king over Syria, and his brother Abdullah was to king over Iraq, but as the French took over Syria, Feisal instead got Iraq, and Abdullah got Trans-Jordan, which had been originally been part of Palestine, and was taken from the east side of the Jordan River. Just before he was installed as king, Feisal met with Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, and gave his blessing to the Zionist movement, stating:

"We Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement. . . We will do our best, in so far as we are concerned, to help them through; we will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home... I look forward, and my people with me look forward, to a future in which we will help you and you will help us, so that the countries in which we are mutually interested may once again take their places in the community of the civilized peoples of the world."

He went on to add that both the Zionist movement and the Arab nationalist movement were nationalist and not imperialist, and "there is room in Syria for both of us."

During the 1920's, helped in part by the British influence, the Jews of Iraq, like the Jews of most Arab countries, enjoyed great economic prosperity. The vast majority of them were non-Zionists; on the contrary, they saw themselves as Arab Jews. While they were not assimilated, they were fully integrated into Iraqi society. Many of them were doctors, lawyers, businessmen and bankers and they played an important role in Iraq's development. Iraq's first finance minister was a Jew, Sassoon Eskell. But beginning in 1933, a year after Iraq got its independence, and the same year that Hitler took power in Germany, a pattern of anti-Jewish discrimination began in Iraq that bore a striking similarity to what was going on in Nazi Germany. What is very interesting is that Feisal died that same year.

In 1932, German Arab specialist Frits Grobba arrived in Iraq as Germany's charge d'affaires in Baghdad. Shortly after Hitler took power, Grobba acquired the Christian Iraqi newspaper Al-Alem Al Arabi and turned it into a Nazi organ that published Mein Kampf in installments. Soon after that, Radio Berlin began to beam Arabic programs across the Middle East. The Iraqis widely accepted the Nazi ideology of conspiracy and international manipulation, especially within the framework of the Palestine issue.

As mentioned previously, Haj Mohammed Amin Al Husseini, the Mufti, openly embraced the Nazis and spent the war years in Berlin. During this time, he brought other Arabs to Germany where they got training in terrorist tactics, which they put to use in 1947-1948. This included the bombing of the Palestine Post building by Fawzi El-Kuttub, a graduate of an SS terrorist course in Nazi Germany. A confederate of both Grobba and Husseini was Sami Shawkat, an Iraqi nationalist active in the movement to adopt Nazism. In 1933, he delivered a lecture to the students of the Central Secondary School, saying that "the nation which does not excel in the Profession of Death with iron and fire will be forced to die under the hooves of the horses and under the boots of a foreign soldiery."

In Germany, the pogroms did not begin the moment Hitler took power. Kristallnacht, the first major act of violence by the Nazis, did not take place until November 1938. Rather, the anti-Jewish persecution was a step by step process. In April 1933, Jewish civil servants were excluded from state service; that same month, Jewish enrollment in universities was restricted. Soon after, Jews were banned from professions; after that, mixed marriages were banned. Some 400 anti-Semitic decrees were enacted by Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1939.

In Iraq, it was eerily similar. In September 1934, a few dozen government clerks were ousted from their jobs because they were Jewish. In 1935, the Iraqi ministry of education adopted unwritten quotas for Jews seeking admission to college. In 1936, hundreds of Jews were dismissed from government service. Over the next few years, bombs and grenades were hurled at synagogues and yeshivas.

At this time, a group called Futuwwa was formed. Basically, this was the Iraqi version of the Hitler youth, and Shawkat was one of its leaders. Shawkat required its members to attend a candlelight Nazi rally in Nuremberg in 1938, at the invitation of the chief of the Hitler youth. Another key figure in Futuwwa was Salah ad-Din as-Sabbagh, who was known for his many publications extolling the Nazis. The Mufti and his allies had thoroughly permeated Baghdad's ruling circles. Taha al Hashimi, the Iraqi chief of staff, was also the head of the committee for the defense of Palestine, which lead to unending propaganda and slander against Iraqi Jews.

By 1941, there was no doubt that there would be a pogrom against Iraqi Jews. The only question was when and how. There was a Jewish officer in the Iraqi army, Shaul Sehayik, who was in charge of processing all orders, which were stamped in numerical sequence. He saw one missing, and since he had a key to the commander's safe, he found a document containing an order to closely supervise the Jews, since they were potentially disloyal and to prepare a list of Jews in the province. On May 3, 1941, Sehayik, now an ex-soldier, was in a Baghdad coffee shop where he heard people shouting praise and admiration of Hitler and stating that they could even do a better job of getting rid of Jews than the Nazis. On May 6, 1941, a fanatic crowd armed with knives broke into a Jewish hospital accusing the Jews of infamy and destroying an X-ray machine, believing that it was sending coded signals to the British. Two days later, Baghdad radio began the messages: "After the victory over the British, revenge shall be taken on the 'internal enemy' (the Jews) and we shall hand him over to your hands for destruction." That same day, General Archibald Wavell, commander-in-chief of the Middle East theatre, urged London not to show any force in Iraq, fearing that this would unite Iraqis behind Rashid Ali al Gaylani, a pro-Nazi figure in Iraq. Gaylani had back on April 1, 1941, led a pro-Nazi military coup that installed him as Prime Minister which led to a British invasion shortly thereafter. The British concern was not to make it appear that they wanted to re-occupy Iraq, and to keep the oil flowing.

In late May 1941, just a few days before the pogrom took place, Nazi al-Sabawi, a member of the committee for internal security and the self-appointed governor of Baghdad, summoned Chief Rabbi Sassoon Kadoori. Kadoori was ordered to instruct the Jews to lock themselves up in their homes for a few days, stay off the telephones, cook enough for a three-day journey, pack a single suitcase and prepare for transport to detention centers. This was eerily identical to the Nazi approach in Poland and Eastern Europe. What Rabbi Kadoori did not know was how murderous the plans were. Jewish homes had already been marked in advance with a blood-red mystic palm print to guide the killing. Radio broadcasts were planned for the next day.

Rabbi Kadoori then summoned Jewish leaders, who urged him to go the mayor of Baghdad, Arshad Umari, who was friendly towards the Jews. The Rabbi walked into the mayor's office and threw his circular turban on the floor, which was a symbol of utter despair, surrender and heartbreak. Umari told the Rabbi not to worry, and Umari relieved al-Sabawi of all power. By May 31, Iraq radio announced that order had been restored to Baghdad. The regent of Iraq was returning the next day, June 1, which also happened to be Shavuot. The Jews of Iraq were in a joyous mood. But little did they realize that this was merely the quiet before the storm.

At 3:00 pm on June 1, Prince Abd al-Ilah landed at the airport. During the few hours surrounding the return, a power vacuum existed in Iraq, and this would result in the bloodbath known as the Farhud. When the prince returned, a lot of Jews were there to greet him. As it was Shavuot, they were dressed in their finest clothing. But at a bridge, they ran into a group of soldiers. These soldiers attacked Jews with knives and axes, and the violence quickly spread. Frenzied mobs raced through the city and murdered Jews openly in the streets. Women were raped; homes and stores were emptied and burned. Infants were killed right in front of their parents. Beheadings, torsos sliced open, babies dismembered, tortures, and mutilations were widespread. Limbs would be waved around as trophies.

The devastation continued. In some cases, police units rolled up to a Jewish home in machine gun mounted vehicles and would turn their weapons on the front door and start shooting. Jewish homes and shops were burned; a synagogue was invaded, its Sifrei Torahs defiled and destroyed, all in a matter very similar to Kristallnacht. Iraqis broke into a girl's school, and Jewish girls were endlessly raped, with one girl even getting her breasts slashed off, which was typical for that day. Young or old, Jewish females were set upon and mercilessly gang raped and often mutilated.

Even the hospital proved no relief. There were doctors who declined to render medical assistance, and some soldiers even tried in the hospital to rape women. Other Jews were poisoned in the hospital. Things very similar to this also happened in Germany, where German doctors also declined to render medical assistance to Jews.

The Farhud was not a one day event. It continued until the next day, and the police and army were active participants. Only when British ambassador Cornwallis told the regent not to sit down but to form a government did things settle down. The regent did succeed in eventually restoring order.

How many Jews were murdered? Some say a little over a hundred; some say closer to 200; others say several hundred. Hundreds of others were injured, while over 1,500 homes and businesses were looted. 2,500 families - 15% of the Jews in Baghdad - suffered directly from this pogrom. This was not a gang operation, but a mass movement copying Nazism. Compare this with Kristallnacht, there 91 were murdered and 7,000 businesses were destroyed in Germany and Austria. When you consider that the Farhud took place in only one city, Baghdad, and that the Jewish population in Baghdad was around 75,000 (125,000 in Iraq as a whole) and the Jewish populations of Germany and Austria were around 800,000, the proportional damage done by the Farhud was actually greater than the damage done in Kristallnacht. The biggest question is why the British, who were on the outskirts of the city and were in a position to stop the massacre, stood by and did nothing. While papers which might shed light on the matter are to be kept closed by the British until 2017, some information has seen the light of day. The pro-Nazi regime had been overthrown, and they did not want to overshadow the Iraqi government by stepping in to quell the attacks. Only when the situation got so out of hand that the Iraqi government could not control it did they ask the British to come in. In this way, the British could say that they were invited by the government and that they were not acting to protect their interests.

Eventually, order was restored to Baghdad, and the Jews were able to resume their previous economic prosperity. But things would never be the same for them after that. The scars inflicted from this devastation remained and a community that had for the most part been non-Zionist began to embrace Zionism.

Things were relatively quiet for the rest of World War II, due in large part to British influence over Iraq. Iraqi Jews were not taken to concentration camps, although according to Carole Basri, an Iraqi Jew who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, the Iraqis did draw up plans to do this. But once the war ended, and the Jewish refugee question took center stage, Iraq, even though it did not have borders with Eretz Israel, was at the center of the question. Between 1947 and 1949, anti-Jewish riots occurred on a regular basis. In November 1947, Iraqi foreign minister Fadhil Jamali said the following at the United Nations:

The masses in the Arab world cannot be restrained. The Arab-Jewish relationship in the Arab world will greatly deteriorate. . . . Harmony prevails among Muslims, Christians and Jews [in Iraq]. But any injustice imposed upon the Arabs of Palestine will disturb the harmony among Jews and non-Jews in Iraq; it will breed interreligious prejudice and hatred.

According to Israeli diplomat Yaakov Meron, writing in the Middle East Quarterly in 1995, Jamali, by "the masses in the Arab world," meant in fact his own government, which soon took a series of steps, including anti-Semitic legislation, against its Jewish population. Following World War II, Iraqi Jews could no longer practice their professions, and in 1948 there was an amendment to the Penal Code of Baghdad, adding Zionism to other ideologies and behavior (communism, anarchism, and immorality) whose propagation constituted a punishable offense. Laws enacted in 1950 and 1951 deprived the Jews of their Iraqi nationality and their property in Iraq, respectively.

Meron further points out that at times, Iraqi politicians candidly acknowledged that they wanted to expel their Jewish population for reasons of their own, having nothing to do with retaliation for the Palestinian exodus. More than anything else, they saw the establishment of Israel as an excuse to throw out their Jewish population and expropriate their property. Perhaps the most interesting incident took place at the tail end of the Israeli war of independence, in late January or early February 1949, when Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri Sa'id described a plan to expel Jews from Iraq to Alec Kirkbride, then the British ambassador at Amman, and Samir El-Rifa'i, head of the Jordanian government. Kirkbride recounts that Nuri came out with the astounding proposition that a convoy of Iraqi Jews should be brought over in army lorries escorted by armored cars, taken to the Jordanian-Israeli frontier, and forced to cross the line. Quite apart from the certainty that the Israelis would not consent to receive deportees in that manner, the passage of Jews through Jordan would almost certainly have touched off serious trouble amongst the very disgruntled Arab refugees who were crowded into the country.

Similarly, when Nuri visited Jerusalem on January 13, 1951, he met 'Arif al-'Arif, the Palestinian leader who served as Jordan's district commissioner for Jerusalem. 'Arif asked Nuri to hold up the departure of Jews from Iraq "until the problem of Palestine and of the refugees had been solved" or at least "for one or two years." Nuri refused to do so. Revealingly, his reasons bore only on considerations of internal Iraqi policy:

The Jews have always been a source of evil and harm to Iraq. They are spies. They have sold their property in Iraq, they have no land among us that they can cultivate. How therefore can they live? What will they do if they stay in Iraq? No, no my friend, it is better for us to be rid of them as long as we are able to do so.

Nuri candidly acknowledges here that he wanted the Jews out of Iraq, and never mind what consequences their exodus might have for the future of the Palestinian Arabs.

This (and other evidence) leads to the conclusion that while the Iraqi government sought to present the expulsion of Jews as a crowd-driven retaliatory act for the exodus of the Arab refugees from Palestine, it in fact had a full-fledged plan in place before the Arab refugee problem even came into existence.

This interpretation resolves a number of historical questions. It explains the origins of the otherwise mysterious legislation in 1950 depriving Jews of their Iraqi nationality. Shlomo Hillel has suggested that Nuri Sa'id did not really intend immediately to apply the law. But according to Meron, it is more likely, however, take into account the U.N. declarations, the anti-Jewish legislation, and the government persecution of Jews, and it becomes clear that the deprivation of Iraqi nationality was but another step in a plan of expulsion.

The Iraqi plan of expulsion also explains the bombing of the Mas'uda Shem Tob Synagogue in Baghdad on January 14, 1951, as Jews were registering there to immigrate to Israel. Zionists have been accused of causing the violence in the hopes of spurring the Jews to leave Iraq, an accusation whose truth so eminent an authority as Elie Kedourie has said "must remain an open question." But knowing of the authorities' expulsion plan suggests that not Zionists but Muslim Iraqis were behind the incident. That an Iraqi army officer arrested for throwing the bomb belonged to the opposition Istiqlal Party points to that faction's responsibility.

In 1951, Iraq lifted bans on emigration, and the result was that 121,000 of the 125,000 Iraqi Jews - almost 97% - left, with almost all of them coming to Israel. Chaim Weizmann called this the end of the Babylonian Exile. One friend of mine told me that she was a school child at this time, and her teacher asked all students who were going to Israel to raise their hands. She did, and immediately she was escorted out of school and sent home, where she was literally under house arrest until her family finally left for Israel a few months later. Others had their businesses and property taken away, and as a result they almost all came to Israel penniless. At first, they were looked down upon and mocked at by native Israelis, but because they were for the most part well educated, they were able to adjust and integrate very well into Israeli life.

But this mass exodus did not put an end to anti-Jewish persecution in Iraq. In 1952, Iraq's government barred Jews from any further emigration and publicly hanged two Jews after falsely charging them with hurling a bomb at the Baghdad office of the U.S. Information Agency. But later on in the same decade, more Jews were able to leave, and this time they could take belongings with them.

With the rise of competing Ba'ath factions in 1963, additional restrictions were placed on the remaining Iraqi Jews. The sale of property was forbidden and all Jews were forced to carry yellow identity cards. After the Six Day War, more repressive measures were imposed: Jewish property was expropriated; Jewish bank accounts were frozen; Jews were dismissed from public posts; businesses were shut; trading permits were cancelled and telephones were disconnected. Jews were placed under house arrest for long periods of time or restricted to the cities. During the Six Day War, the Chief Rabbi of Iraq was forced to go on television to denounce Israel.

Persecution was at its worst at the end of 1968 and the beginning of 1969. Scores were jailed upon the discovery of a local "spy ring" composed of Jewish businessmen. Fourteen men, eleven of them Jews, were sentenced to death in staged trials and hanged in the public squares of Baghdad; others died of torture. On January 27, 1969, Baghdad Radio called upon Iraqis to "come and enjoy the feast." Some 500,000 men, women and children paraded and danced past the scaffolds where the bodies of the hanged Jews swung; the mob rhythmically chanted "Death to Israel" and "Death to all traitors." This display brought a world-wide public outcry that Radio Baghdad dismissed by declaring: "We hanged spies, but the Jews crucified Christ." Jews remained under constant surveillance by the Iraqi government.

In response to international pressure, the Baghdad government quietly allowed most of the remaining Jews to emigrate in the early 1970's, even while leaving other restrictions in force. Most of Iraq's remaining Jews are now too old to leave. They have been pressured by the government to turn over title, without compensation, to more than $200 million worth of Jewish community property.

In 1975, Iraq did issue a formal invitation for all Iraqi Jews to return "home." One person accepted that invitation. When the government reported that "a trickle" had returned, reporters called Yussef Navi, the one who returned, "Mr. Trickle." One year later, he returned to Israel. As of today, there are less than ten Jews living in Baghdad.

But even though there were almost no Jews left in Iraq, anti-Semitism did not end in Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein, yemach shemo, Iraq became one of, if not the most militant of the Arab states on the subject of Israel. Back in 1978, Hussein told Newsweek magazine that even if Israel were to pull back to its pre-1967 borders, he would not recognize it or sign a peace treaty. When the initial Camp David accord was reached in September 1978, Hussein offered Egypt $25 billion not to make peace with Israel. In the late 1970's, Iraq was developing a nuclear program, until Israel in 1981 bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor. Interestingly, that raid took place the day before Shavuot. In the 1991 Gulf War, we saw Iraq drop 39 scud missiles on Israel, although Baruch Ha Shem, none of them did any serious damage. The real irony to all this is that the town that was hit the worst was Ramat Gan, which has a large Iraqi Jewish population.

The United States and its allies defeated fascism in 1945, and while fascism was not completely eliminated in Europe, its influence was greatly reduced. In Europe today, we see at least the attempts to eradicate anti-Semitism. But fascism and anti-Semitism were not at all eliminated in the Arab countries; on the contrary, they got worse. The post-war years saw a dramatic increase in Arab violence against their Jewish populations, which led to their leaving these countries. In 1948, there were 880,000 Jews living in Arab lands; today, there are less than 7,000, almost all of them in Morocco. To this day, many of these countries still demonize Jews and teach Mein Kampf and Protocols of the Elders of Zion to their children. And, of course, we have seen an unending Arab hostility towards the State of Israel.

Obviously, we cannot compare what happened in the Middle East to what happened in Europe. Nothing will ever compare to that. At the same time, there is a parable from Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, which states that there were people on a boat, and one of the passengers started to drill a hole under his seat. When he was asked what he was doing, he responded, don't worry, it's only under my seat. Yes, the responded, but when the water comes in, we all drown. If we remember nothing else from all of this, it is that we are all responsible for each other. Ashkenazim cannot say, it's a Sephardic problem, it doesn't affect us and Sephardim cannot say it is an Ashkenazi problem, it doesn't affect us. What affects Ashkenazim affects Sephardim, and what affects Sephardim affects Ashkenazim.

In conclusion, I will quote you from Sefer Shemot, Parshat Beshallach:

    And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.'

    And Moses built an altar, and called the name of it Adonai-nissi.

    And he said: 'The hand upon the throne of the LORD: the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.'

Let us make sure that we are always vigilant to be soldiers in that war.


from the May 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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