Yesterday, I visited The Breman Museum. Its current exhibit, running through the end of the month, Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage, is as much about the restoration of the documents found in Saddam Hussein’s basement as the community’s story they tell. Created by the National Archives and Records Administration, with support from the US Department of State, they are astounding when we stopped to think about the time and painstaking care taken to restoring each piece of history. This press release is worth a read for the details it provides about the process and the collection itself.
One fact noted in the exhibit jumped out at me, even more than the fact that there have been Jews in Iraq for over 2,500 years. In 1920, Jews made up 25 percent of Baghdad’s population. A quarter of the city’s residents. I have to ask – other than in Israel, have we made up that large a portion of any city’s population during my lifetime? To be that large part of any population to me is mind-boggling.
But just as the Hitler’s final solution decimated European Jewry, it had its impact on the Middle East too. The Israeli Diaspora Museum, Bet Hatfutsot, conveys this in detail; very broadly (and hopefully correctly summarized by me), following 1932’s independence from Britain, the British wanted Iraq to facilitate the transport of goods though the country. Nationalists opposed and the country actually turned to supporting Germany, but did not directly assist either country. By 1939, though, that translated into vocal anti-Semitism, and in 1941, Iraq stepped up its anti-British activity. Iraqi-German forces were defeated by the Irgun-supported British with help from India. And that set the backdrop for the Farhud – a huge pogrom in Iraq that changed history for Jews in Iraq forever.
“During these violent riots in Baghdad thousands were raped and/or wounded, Jewish shops and synagogues were plundered and destroyed, and a staggering 180 people were brutally murdered. This unprecedented attack on the theretofore flourishing, peaceful Jewish community of Baghdad is generally thought of as triggering Iraqi Jewry’s Aliyah to Israel.”
It is interesting, with the restoration of these water-logged documents in Hussein’s basement, is the renewed interest from other quarters in Iraqi Jews over the last decade or so. David Dangoor who grew up and later fled Iraq for England, created a well-received documentary, Remember Baghdad, in which the last Jews, accompanied by home movies and archive footage, tell their story. But in this piece, he reviews the artifacts and their restoration and critiques for what they are and what they aren’t, offering a different perspective.
And just last month, an Iraqi television host suggested that Iraq apologize to the Jews who were so very hurt by the Farhud, and to make them whole with compensation. He cited the story of one woman who posted her story on an Iraqi Jewish Facebook page. History isn’t something that lives only in books.
Many Jews left everything they owned behind when they fled Iraq and other countries in the 1950s. The masses who came to Israel from so many Arab and North African countries were not integrated into society as well or easily as they should’ve been, but they nonetheless changed the face of the country. Israel put Mizrahim refugees, like my former in-laws whose families came from Tunisia, into ma’abarot, tent camps, before being relocated to crowded neighborhoods. Out of curiosity, I looked up the history of Jews in Tunisia and discovered that our presence went back over 2,000 years. I am willing to bet that if you were to pick any country and look up the history of the Jews in it, you will find an interesting story of strangers in a strange land. Sojourners.
Jews have been in the Diaspora for so long and our memory is so short. I think that both these facts affect the way Jews in Israel are viewed today. Emphasis is often given to the European Jews who came in the Second Aliyah and helped found the modern State of Israel. And given the country’s own less-than-stellar treatment of Mizrahim, we forget the long and history of Jews in the Middle East. That is why the four part historical series Jews & Arabs: Intimate Strangers (currently available via Amazon Prime) is so interesting (well, at least the part I’ve seen — I still have to watch two episodes); the history between our two peoples is far more intertwined than separate. When we look at the long view of history together with the return to Israel, it is not difficult to understand why anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are so often overlapped. And shouldn’t be.
All of this is to say, we all need to understand history more, to get more context. Find it where you can.
Until April 29th, this incredibly interesting piece of Iraqi-Jewish history can be found at Atlanta’s Jewish museum, located in the same building as the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. The Breman also houses a moving and well done permanent Holocaust exhibit and a fascinating (long term but temporary) exhibit on Atlanta’s Jewish community called 18 Artifacts. If you haven’t seen them all, go now.