It was early on 1st June 1941, that the woman who delivered milk to Ivy Shashoua’s house in Baghdad warned: ‘Stay at home.’ Trouble was brewing for the Jews that day. The milk woman led Ivy’s family to a small room. They spent 12 hours there without food and water in the Baghdad heat, thinking they were safe.
Meanwhile, they could hear screams and gunshots as a mob ran riot through the streets, murdering and raping Jews, mutilating babies and stripping Jewish homes bare of every last object.
This was the Farhud, an Arabic word for ‘forced dispossession.’ The rioting went on for two days (although the British army, at the gates of Baghdad, could have intervened to stop it) : at least 180 Jews died (some say as many as 600); 900 homes and 586 Jewish-owned shops were destroyed.The dead were hurriedly buried in a mass grave.
The Farhud was incited by pro-Nazi Iraqis who seized power in a coup two months earlier. It marked an irrevocable break between Jews and Arabs and paved the way for the dissolution of the 2,600-year-old Jewish community barely 10 years later. Loyal and productive citizens comprising a fifth of Baghdad, the Jews had not known anything like it.
Other ‘Farhuds’ followed in other Arab countries and just under a million Jews fled. Communities predating Islam and the Arab conquest by a millennium were driven to extinction within a generation.
But the Farhud was not just another anti-Jewish pogrom. Its Nazi inciters had a more sinister objective: the round-up of Jews, their deportation and extermination in desert camps.
The inspiration behind the coup, and the Farhud itself, came from the Palestinian Grand Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini. Moving to Iraq in 1939 with 400 Palestinians, he whipped up local anti-Jewish feeling. An illiterate populace imbibed bigotry through Nazi radio propaganda. Before fleeing Iraq with the Mufti and prime minister Rashid Ali to spend the rest of the war as Hitler’s guests, Yunis al-Sabawi, who translated Mein Kampf into Arabic, 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 the world, including Palestine, of the Jews. The Mufti’s postwar legacy of islamised antisemitism endures in the kindred ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood – as seen in the latest conflagration between the Brotherhood’s Gaza branch, Hamas, and Israel.
In London, in the US, Canada and Germany, Jews have been subject to verbal and physical attacks and intimidation in a reminder that mob violence has long been an instrument of political coercion in the Muslim world.
Farhud survivors could not rely on the police to protect them – indeed, some police joined the rioters. Jews turned to their Muslim neighbours to save them – and many did.
But some neighbours had evil intentions. The milk woman which Ivy Shashoua thought would save them had planned to kill the family and steal their possessions. In the end, a Muslim friend rescued them.
Two ingredients were present in the Farhud: incitement and the failure of the forces of law and order to protect the Jewish minority. Fear of a second Farhud, and mistrust of the Iraqi police and army, were major reasons why 90 per cent of Iraq’s Jews fled to Israel after 1948. If the authorities in western countries do not deal firmly with antisemitic incitement and attacks, diaspora Jews will feel that they have no choice but to move to the only country which will protect them – the Jewish state.
An international mega-Zoom commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Farhud takes place on 30 May at 5pm. Register here.