For two days in June of 1941, as a ten-year-old Iraqi Jewish boy, Joseph Samuels, witnessed first-hand one of the most violent pogroms of the Holocaust in Baghdad by angry Muslim mobs who destroyed and looted Jewish homes and businesses as well as killed, beat and raped thousands of Jews without the authorities intervening. Today that pogrom is known among historians as the “Farhud” or Arabic for “violent dispossession”.
While the Farhud has rarely been taught or widely discussed by the larger American Jewish community, it is still a very vivid memory of the Shoah for Samuels who is 88-years-old and living in Santa Monica, California. “It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life,” said Samuels who became very emotional when sharing his experience with me recently. “The Farhud made me realize that Iraqi Muslims look at us Jews as strangers and traitors — and I said this is not my country anymore and I will never go back to Iraq”. But the Farhud was just the beginning of great calamities awaiting Samuels and the remainder of Iraq’s Jewish community in the 1940s. By 1948, the Iraqi regime began to randomly arrest and torture the country’s Jews, confiscate their assets, execute other Jews and expel the vast majority of Iraq’s ancient Jewish community. In December 1949, Samuels who was only 19-years-old at the time, risked his life to illegally flee his home in Baghdad with the help of smugglers who ferried him to freedom in neighboring Iran.
I had the rare pleasure to meet and befriend Samuels nearly four years ago as I interviewed him for an article I was preparing on Iraqi Jews. His story of experiencing anti-Semitism first hand in Iraq as well as his harrowing tale of escaping his former homeland is something that resonated with me as my Jewish family experienced a similar crisis in 1979-1980 at the hands of the Khomeini regime in Iran.
Samuels is not only an inspiration because he is such a vocal pro-Israel advocate in his late 80s, but he is one of the voices of nearly 850,000 Jews who fled or were expelled from the Arab countries and Iran during the 20th century. His story is a critical part of the Israel story which has largely been overlooked by the larger Ashkenazi Jewish community and by the Israeli government for many decades. Yet, “Christians United For Israel”, (CUFI) the largest pro-Israel advocacy group in America, with more than 5 million members, has not forgotten the Mizrahi story and, more importantly, has shed the light on Samuels and other Mizrahi Jews plight. “As anti-Semitic levels rise in the US and abroad, CUFI remains committed to fight the lies and prejudice against Israel and has proven to be a true philo-Semite group,” said Samuels.
In late January CUFI invited Samuels to their annual leadership conference in San Antonio to share his story and Samuels also appeared in the 2017 “Mizrahi Project”, a short documentary film made by CUFI containing the stories of Jews from the Arab lands and Iran sharing their painful experiences in fleeing their respective countries. (In full disclosure, I was also a part of the Mizrahi Project). I also recently had a chance to speak to CUFI’s national diversity outreach coordinator, Pastor Dumisani Washington about his organization’s objectives in featuring Mr. Samuels in their film and at their recent conference. “Mr. Samuels represents the first generation of Mizrahi refugees who are getting older. Like our Holocaust surviving Jewish brothers and sisters, soon, the Mizrahi Jews who were expelled from the Arab and Muslim lands will no longer be with us,” said Washington. “Christians see the modern state of Israel as a fulfillment of God’s promise. Also, especially for our college and high school students, the story of the Jewish refugees of North African and the Middle East is the perfect counter to the disproportionate telling of the Palestinian refugee story. Both Arabs and Jews suffered as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But unlike the Palestinians, Israel has chosen to move forward, build, and be a blessing to the world”.
Samuels and other Mizrahi Jews in America who have collaborated with CUFI have only been spoken positive words about the Christian Zionist group and asked Jews who are skeptical about the organization’s true intentions to delve deep into CUFI’s actions and words regarding the Jews. “I never felt for one second that the people at CUFI were trying to convert me to Christianity,” said Samuels. “They looked at me with kindness and welcomed me with open arms. To those Jews who are skeptical, I ask them to be open minded about CUFI and look to their actions when it comes to Jews and Israel. Then judge for yourselves”. It is not surprising to see why Samuels and countless other Mizrahi Jews have embraced CUFI and applauded their efforts to share the Mizrahi Jewish stories with the rest of world since many in Israel for decades and also in America did not discuss their plight. It was not until June 2014 when Israel’s government adopted a law designating November 30th as a national day to commemorate the 850,000 Jews who forced out of various Arab countries and Iran during the 20th century. And CUFI’s pro-Israel Christian members have embraced the Mizrahi Jews stories and incorporated them in their daily Israel advocacy efforts. “The most repeated sentiment I hear (from our members) is one of amazement that the Mizrahi Jews lost everything, but did not descend into bitterness and hatred,” said Washington. “Rather, they moved forward and helped build the Jewish State of Israel, and substantively contributed to any society in which the found themselves”.
In a time when Israel and Jews worldwide are encountering increasing anti-Semitism worldwide and hear the calls for second genocide of our people by the Iranian regime, we must join forces with our friends in the Christian Zionist community such as CUFI who support us. Joe Samuels’ story and those of every Mizrahi Jewish family’s experiences in the Arab world and in Iran must be told and retold, because the Mizrahi Jewish community is a huge part of Israel today. Israel is the only outpost of freedom and democracy in the Middle East and those who support Judeo-Christian values, regardless of their religion must stand with Israel.