The world has reacted with shock to Iraq ratifying a ‘draconian’ law criminalizing normalization with Israel. The news has been splashed across the media, from Jewish News to Al-Jazeera. Violation of the law is punishable with execution or life imprisonment. Business relations or even contact with Israel through social media are punishable with the death sentence or life imprisonment.
The law was proposed by the pro-Iranian Shi’ite cleric and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who has the largest party in the Iraqi parliament, in a probable bid to show he is more Iranian than the Iranians, Israel’s mortal enemy.
Jews with roots in Iraq, however, have been rolling their eyes with a weary sense of déjà-vu. Anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist legislation is nothing new and has led to the vicious persecution of the 150,000 member-community. Iraq was one of five Arab-League states to declare war against Israel and is still officially at war. Iraq took its revenge for the 1948 Arab defeat on its own Jews. Law 51 of 1948 added Zionism to the criminal code. Jews wearing wristwatches (supposedly capable of sending secret signals to the Zionists) could be arrested, tried and even executed for ‘Zionism’. Law 1 of 1950, in force for a year, permitted Jews to leave Iraq legally on condition that their citizenship was revoked. Law 5, passed in urgent session in March 1951, froze the property of Iraqi Jews stripped of their citizenship. From 1951 to 1956, several decrees were passed, seizing, managing, disposing and liquidating Jewish property. In 1969, nine Jews were executed on trumped-up spying charges and dozens more disappeared.
But the community was already badly shaken before Israel was established. Those with a sense of history will note that the al-Sadr law was passed days before the 81st anniversary of the Farhud, the massacre of hundreds of Jews incited by pro-Nazi Iraqis on 1 and 2 June 1941. The pro-Nazi regime in Iraq had declared war on the Allies. Jews were scapegoated as a fifth column in league with the British. Had the Nazis won WWII, the Palestinian Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini, who fled from Baghdad to become Hitler’s guest in Berlin, would have managed the extermination of the Jews of the Middle East, starting with the Jews of Iraq.
The al-Sadr law is consistent with Iraq’s historic antisemitic policies — but is not aimed at Jews: there are only three still living in the country. The Jews have become merely the canary in the coalmine for the rest of society. A parliamentary statement said the legislation is “a true reflection of the will of the people.” Since the Arab Spring of 2011, however, a brave former parliamentarian, Mithal Al-Alusi, has called for normalization with Israel. Significant sections of the intellectual and middle class have looked back with nostalgia and sympathy to the colonial era, when Jews made a huge contribution to Iraq’s economy and culture. A news presenter called for a public apology for their treatment.
In September 2021, 300 Iraqis attended a conference demanding normalization in the wake of the signing of the Abraham Accords. Arrest warrants were served on the participants. But as far as is known, none were imprisoned, let alone executed.
It is one thing to criminalize the Jews, quite another to do it to Iraqi society at large. To enforce the new law, the Iraqi government would have to monitor every single communication and social media post and deploy spies at every international business conference. It would be impossible to swim against a swelling pro-normalization tide and punish all offenders. It is to be hoped that this law will turn out to be so much window-dressing, designed to pay lip service to Muqtada al-Sadr’s Iranian masters.