Iraqi Jews in Israel and abroad are mourning the death, on the second day of the Jewish New Year, of Professor Shmuel Moreh, 85, emeritus professor of Arabic Language and Literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Born Sami Muallem in 1932 in Baghdad’s upmarket district of Bataween, Professor Moreh was a well-respected academic (as chairman of the Association of Academics from Iraq in Israel, he presided over the publication of countless books), who excelled in his command of the Arabic language.
Immigrating, together with most of Iraq’s Jews, to Israel with his family in 1951, he received his B.A. and M.A. from the Hebrew University in Arabic literature and Islamic Studies and his Ph.D. in modern Arabic poetry (SOAS, London University) in 1965. He was a poet and a prolific author of over 20 publications in English, Hebrew and Arabic. His memoirs were serialised in the online Arabic medium Elaph in 2009 -10 and awakened huge interest among Iraqis in their lost Jewish community. The series was later published in Arabic as Baghdad Mon Amour.
At the same time as he served as a bridge between Israelis and Arabs, Professor Moreh made sure not to sugarcoat the persecutions suffered by Iraq’s Jews. Moreh was a survivor of the Farhud pogrom, in which at least 179 Jews were killed, and wrote vividly of his experiences. In 2010 he published in English, with Zvi Yehuda, a ground-breaking collection of essays about the Farhud, and was in the forefront of the campaign to have the pogrom recognised as a Holocaust event.
Among his lesser-known talents was boxing, a skill he refined at his primary school when taunted and bullied by the other boys. The tensions in the lead-up to the Farhud led him into fights with Faisal, the son of the pro-Nazi prime minister of Iraq, Rashid Ali al-Gaylani. When the boy threatened to knock his eye out with a stick, Shmuel punched Faisal and the boy went running to their Christian headmistress.
He was a proud Israeli, and yet confessed to not feeling entirely at home until he received the Israel Prize for Middle Eastern Studies in 1999.
In his latter years he was an advocate for the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and devoted his energies to using his contacts to call for the preservation of Iraq’s Jewish cultural heritage, deploring, for instance, the transformation of Ezekiel’s shrine into a mosque.