March 2012 marked the 45th anniversary of my father Moshe’s escape from Iraq. He is just one of the nearly one million Jews that were persecuted and expelled from Arab countries since 1948. If we put this into perspective, that’s a greater number than that of the Palestinian Arab refugees created as a result of the 1948 War, initiated by the Arab countries. These Jews were not themselves involved in the conflict, they were loyal citizens and served their countries well.
Today, these countries are almost completely devoid of Jews. To this day, as Israel’s UN envoy Ron Prosor recently pointed out, “their history remains one of the 20th century’s greatest untold stories.” It should not be ignored that most of these refugees were absorbed penniless by the State of Israel.
I was fortunate to grow up in a loving and secure home. Although I knew my father was from Iraq, he managed to shield the family from his past, having closed the book, choosing instead to look forward. He was successful, that is, until I reached my teens and started asking questions in the midst of the Gulf War.
It took some years before my persistent nagging paid off, when my father finally relented and agreed to tell his story. I decided to take a camera and film him.
I went on to interview other Iraqi Jews so as to document their experiences. They all understood that by sharing their stories, we would be able to educate people about what happened. After all, if one forgets history, it is bound to be repeated.
What I heard changed my life forever.
My aim now is to seek justice for what happened, not only to my family, but also to try to serve as a voice for those who didn’t make it. I learned that they were a part of a community that numbered some 180,000 (at it’s peak) out of a total Iraqi population of about 5 million at the time. The Iraqi Jewish community was the oldest settlement outside of biblical Israel and in Baghdad, at one point, they constituted around a third of the population of the city.
My father was the last Iraqi Jew to escape the country before the 1967 Six-Day War.
Having left Iraq in the 1950s to study in London, he had to make the most difficult decision of his life – going back to Baghdad in 1965, to try and extract his elderly father. He made this decision with the knowledge that as a Jew, he might be prevented from leaving again.
This short film, “Escape from Baghdad – Moshe Kahtan’s story” depicts my father’s “two years of hell” in the city of his birth and gives an account of his near-capture by the Iraqi navy.