In 1941, my family survived the farhud – the pro-Nazi uprising and massacre of the Jews of Baghdad, where hundreds were murdered, thousands were injured, and Jewish homes, businesses, and property were destroyed. In the following weeks, dismembered bodies and material wreckage floated down the Tigris River – remnants of Jewish lives and blood mixing with the ancient waters where Jews had swum for shy of three millenia, over 1,300 years before the Arab Muslim invasion and conquest of the region.
The farhud mirrored the slaughter we recently witnessed in Israel: Mobs tore Jewish babies from their limbs and raped girls and women, while forcing families to watch helplessly – enacting a fetishized barbarism, rather than just killing the Jews and getting it over with. Worse yet, Iraqi doctors and nurses – those who took the oath of healing – wholesale refused to treat the victims of these attacks, with one exception: a courageous Muslim doctor at one hospital, who insisted on performing his medical duty and, risking it all, forced his colleagues to do the same.
During the farhud, Iraqi mobs delighted in the dehumanization and suffering of the Jews, in a viciousness mirroring the inhumanity we recently witnessed – not only in the massacre itself, but in the global rallies opposite Jewish vigils, where people have gathered to taunt and mock Jews grieving the Oct 7 massacre. These so-called “pro-Palestinian” crowds are responding not with compassion, but with accusation: Israel is a“white, European, colonizing, apartheid nation,” they assert, and therefore, the massacre was an act of liberation, not persecution.
Despite the direct, immediate, and distinctly illuminating experience of Mizrahim and Sephardim – whose personal stories, dark complexion, and very existence draw back the curtain and expose the fallacy of these claims – Jewish leaders and leading media are, par for the course, ignorantly glossing over our stories, while ruminating on memories of slaughter in faraway lands of Germany, Poland, and Russia. Ironically, as they focus on these stories, from an entirely different continent and geopolitical reality, they reinforce the notion that Jews are from the distant world of Europe – unwittingly bolstering the claim that Israel is a European colony.
Meanwhile, there is nary a peep about the way the Oct 7 slaughter is reminiscent of historical traumas of Jews in countries actually bordering Israel, like Syria and Egypt. Why? Why do Jewish leaders keep ignoring Mizrahim and Sephardim? We are half the Jewish population of Israel, and until the 1990s, we were 70%. We are hardly invisible.
In Iraq, the farhud and subsequent events forced theJews to flee en masse as refugees in 1950, with all personal and collective Jewish property confiscated and nationalized by the Iraqi government. Baghdad was once a thriving Jewish metropolis, much like New York City, with Jews comprising as much as 40% of the population. Today, however, no Jews remain. Most Iraqi Jewish refugees were absorbed by Israel, where we are one of the largest ethnic groups in the Jewish population.
Back in Iraq, in the decades following the farhud, schools taught about the tragic slaughter as a heroic revolution. In recent years, a courageous Muslim man confronted the school district about this educational travesty, insisting that the farhud be taught as the racist massacre it was – among other things, explicitly pointing out that Jews predated Muslims in Iraq.
He was subsequently executed.
Why was this Iraqi Muslim man willing to risk his life to advocate for the visibility of indigenous MIddle Eastern Jews, whereas the majority of Jewish leaders are not even willing to crack open a history book on topic? Not only is it shameful, but it is dangerous. In their Ashkenazi-centrism, Jewish leaders actively have contributed to the rampant ignorance about Jewish history and identity, unwittingly leading the world to believe that Jews originate in Europe – in turn, kicking in the “white European colonizing apartheid” soundtrack.
The solution to eradicating this rampant ignorance is clear: Bring the faces, voices, and stories of Mizrahim and Sephardim to the forefront of Jewish life, and fund research into and education about our communities. Not only is there no acceptable alternative, but we are the overlooked lynchpin of Middle East history, politics, and ultimately, peace.