In the lead-up to Shavuot, we have been commemorating a little-known event which occurred 75 years ago. The Nazi-inspired pogrom, the Farhud, sounded the death knell for Iraq’s ancient Jewish community. It heralded the ethnic cleansing of 99 % of Jews from Arab countries.
At a moving ceremony last Thursday attended by 300 people and the Israeli ambassador Mark Regev, eight children lit candles for each of the defunct Jewish communities in Arab countries. Twenty-seven notes were blown on a plaintive shofar to represent the 27 centuries that Jews had lived continuously in Iraq since the Babylonian exile.
My mother still remembers those fateful two days in June 1941 when her aunt’s terrified Jewish cook pounded the door pleading to be let in: “I was on a bus, and the Muslims were pulling the Jewish passengers out and killing them. I said I was a Christian.”
At least 180 Jews died in Baghdad and elsewhere (the figure could be up to 600 ); 1,000 were wounded, homes and shops destroyed or looted, women raped, babies mutilated. The dead were hurriedly buried in a mass grave.
Two months earlier, as Field Marshal Rommel looked victorious in North Africa, pro-Nazi officers, led by Rashid Ali al-Ghailani, seized power in Iraq. Britain routed the coup leaders – but not before the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, then in Baghdad, had incited murder and mayhem against the Jewish “fifth column”.
Jews, wearing their Shavuot best, had ventured out to greet the returning pro-British Regent, only to be ambushed by an armed Arab mob.
Terrified Jews barricaded themselves inside their houses, or ran for their lives across the flat rooftops.
The Farhud (Arabic for “violent dispossession”) marked an irrevocable break between Jews and Arabs in Iraq. A question mark hovers over the role of the British: encamped on the city outskirts, they delayed intervening until the looting had spread to Muslim districts. Yet the victims’ screams could be heard by the British ambassador, Cornwallis.
Loyal and productive citizens comprising a third of Baghdad, the Jews had not known anything like it in living memory. Before the victims’ blood ran dry, army and police warned Jews not to testify against the murderers and looters.
The Jews understood that they had no place in an independent Iraq. Fear of a second Farhud was a major reason why 90 % of Iraq’s Jews fled to Israel after 1948.
But the Farhud was not just another anti-Jewish pogrom. The Nazi supporters who planned it had a more sinister objective: the round-up, deportation and extermination in desert camps of the Iraqi Jews.
The inspiration behind the coup, and the Farhud itself, came from the Grand Mufti. Exiled to Iraq by the British in 1939, he whipped up anti-Jewish feeling. Nazi radio propaganda brainwashed an illiterate populace. On the eve of the Farhud, the Nazi youth brigade, the Futuwwa, daubed Jewish homes with a red palm print. Before he was deported, the antisemitic governor of Baghdad al-Sabawi – together with the Mufti and Rashid Ali, he spent the rest of the war in Berlin – instructed the Jews to stay in their homes so that they could more easily be rounded up.
The Farhud cemented a wartime Arab-Nazi alliance designed to rid Palestine, and the world, of Jews. As ambassador Regev remarked, honourable Arabs and Muslims saved Jews, but far too many supported Nazism and identified with its genocidal aims. Mr Regev called on today’s Palestinians, instead of revering the Mufti as an icon, to condemn his virulent antisemitism.
The uprooting of the 140, 000 Jews of Iraq followed a Nazi pattern of victimisation – denationalisation, dispossession and expulsion. The Arab League’s Nuremberg-style laws criminalised Zionism, freezing Jewish bank accounts, instituting job and travel bans. The result was the exodus of nearly a million Jews from the Arab world.
More Jews died than on Kristallnacht, yet getting the Farhud recognised as a Holocaust event has been a struggle. Only recently, Israel granted Farhud survivors Holocaust reparations.Thanks to the determined efforts of a few, such as the US writer Edwin Black, the Farhud’s 75th anniversary has been commemorated this year in New York, Washington, London and Jerusalem.
In spite of its solemnity, our London commemoration ended on a note of hope: the candle lit by Mrs Vered Regev to represent Israel burned brightly. As the shofar played out Hatikva, the audience leapt to its feet with a rousing chorus.