June 1941: Bloodbath on the buses in Baghdad

The Farhud, Baghdad 1941. (Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi Archive)
The Farhud, Baghdad 1941. (Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi Archive)

For the first time, after a month of being locked up in his Baghdad home, 13-year-old Yitzhak Nathan decided to venture out. May 1941 had been an anxious period for the Jews: pro-Nazi Iraqi officers, backed by the Palestinian grand mufti of Jerusalem, had seized power and declared war against the British and their supposed “Jewish collaborators.” At last, however, the curfew had been lifted, the British had defeated the pro-Nazis, the ringleaders had been put to flight, and the Jews of Baghdad could breathe again.

On June 1, 1941, Yitzhak hurried to get on a minibus and join a friend. At the front of the bus, two young men cursed the traitor Jews and threatened to eliminate them. From the middle door surged a huge man whose lower body was wrapped in a red cloth towel and whose naked torso was stained with blood. The man held a dagger and shouted in a threatening voice: “Jews get out!”

“My heart was trembling, but I kept an expressionless face,” Yitzhak recalls. “A young man sitting at the front was hauled out of the vehicle by young men and the huge man. The victim implored them to let him go, claiming that he was not Jewish. From the window, I could see a crowd gather, as he cried and begged for his life. A few seconds passed and the big man stuck his head into the minibus again and asked if there were any Jews. One of the passengers hesitantly pointed at me, and all I wanted at that moment was to disappear and become invisible.”

The bus stopped to let off a passenger. Yitzhak jumped out at speed, rolling several times on the ground. He did not have time to think about his pain as he ran home. A policeman on horseback stopped him. He started running as the policeman followed him. “My hands were shaking when I put the key in the gate of the house. I managed to open it and lock it after me. My family members breathed a sigh of relief when they saw me and told me that an engineer living next door had been murdered by the rioters. We immediately shored up heavy wooden blocks against the door.”

This week marks 82 years since the anti-Jewish massacre known as the Farhud (Arabic for “violent dispossession”) broke out. The killing went on for two days. At least 180 Jews died in Baghdad and Basra (the true figure may be as many as 600) and hundreds were wounded. 900 homes and 586 Jewish-owned shops were destroyed; there was looting, rape, and mutilation. Stories abound of babies murdered and Jewish hospital patients who were refused treatment or poisoned. The dead were hurriedly buried in a mass grave.

Yitzhak, now 95 and living in Israel, is one of a dwindling number of witnesses. He had his story published by Tsionit Fattal Kuperwasser in Arabic newspapers. An Israeli author and fluent Arabic speaker, she wanted to educate an Arab readership in their own language about this cataclysmic event, which had led to the ethnic cleansing of their own Jewish citizens.

Loyal and productive citizens, making up a fifth of Baghdad’s population, the Jews had not known anything like the Farhud in living memory. Before the victims’ blood was dry, army and police warned the Jews not to testify against the murderers and looters.

The Farhud marked an irrevocable break between Jews and Arabs in Iraq and paved the way for the dissolution of the 2,600-year-old Jewish community barely 10 years later, after Israel achieved statehood in 1948. Ninety percent of the community fled to Israel for fear of a second farhud. Other farhuds followed, in other Arab countries, resulting in the flight of their Jewish communities, stigmatized as the “Jewish minority of Palestine.”

But the Farhud was not just another anti-Jewish pogrom.

The inspiration behind the coup, and the Farhud itself, came from the Nazi collaborator, the Palestinian grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. He arrived in Iraq in 1939 with 400 Palestinian and Syrian émigrés. Nazi radio propaganda is thought to have done even more damage. Coffee shops across Iraq had their radios tuned to poisonous propaganda emanating from Radio Berlin.

Today, only 4,000 Jews (out of a pre-1948 figure of one million) remain in the Arab world. Most of the displaced Jews now live in Israel, where they and their descendants are roughly half the Jewish population.

The mufti’s postwar legacy of Islamized antisemitism endures in the kindred ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood – Gaza branch: Hamas. And the campaign to demonize Israel in the West as a “human rights” abuser has been so successful that even the “moderate” Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, was emboldened recently to call for Israel to be suspended from the United Nations.

Arab rejectionism and Islamist antisemitism are products of the Nazi era. They seek to eliminate Jews from the Middle East or reduce them to a subjugated minority. That’s why it is shocking to see the West treat with moral equivalence Israel, a free democracy struggling to survive, and Islamist terrorist groups who support Judeophobia, misogyny, homophobia, and ethnic cleansing. The cry heard at pro-Palestinian demonstrations across the West — “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — is nothing less than a chilling call for genocide: “Palestine will be free… of Jews.”

Meanwhile, those who know about the Farhud are experiencing a weary sense of déjà vu when Jews in the West are subject to verbal and physical attacks and intimidation. The lesson of the Farhud is that Jews, whatever their opinions, remain fair game for collective punishment.

About the Author
Lyn Julius is a journalist and co-founder of Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the UK. She is the author of 'Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilisation in the Arab world vanished overnight.' (Vallentine Mitchell)
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