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First came the Farhud: The 2-stage ethnic cleansing of Iraqi Jewry

Eighty years after slaughter, rape and robbery, after expulsion and dispossession, Iraqi Jews are denied access to a precious archive of their communal history
The author's great grandfather, Hakham Ezra Reuben Dangoor (1848–1930), Chief Rabbi of Baghdad from 1923 to 1926, at the Shrine of Joshua, the High Priest in Baghdad
The author's great grandfather, Hakham Ezra Reuben Dangoor (1848–1930), Chief Rabbi of Baghdad from 1923 to 1926, at the Shrine of Joshua, the High Priest in Baghdad

Eighty years ago, on June 1 and 2, 1941, the Farhud brought devastation on the Jews of Iraq. This pogrom was the culmination of the pro-Nazi uprising in Iraq. It took place on the harvest festival of Shavuot commemorating the giving of the Torah to the Jews. It occurred well before the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. My family lived through the horrific violence. 

The official Iraqi government report, written soon after the Farhud took place, states that “110 Jews and Muslims” were killed. Other reports state that “179 Jews of both sexes and all ages were killed.” However, a newly discovered document of the Religious Zionist Workers Archives, dated July 17, 1941, offers very different numbers along with a shocking new detail:

“The height of the slaughter occurred at the local hospital where poison injections were administered, causing the deaths of 120 Jewish patients. …The hospital director in charge had his privileges to treat patients as a doctor taken away for five years. Based on estimates, the number of murdered and disappeared is over 1,000 people.”

This startling number of more than 1,000 Jews murdered or disappeared makes sense when one looks at photos of the mass grave of the Jewish victims of the Farhud, where I was told by my family more than 800 Jews were buried together. Yet, the official estimate of 110 Jews and Muslims seemingly belies this fact. The official Iraqi government report includes “Jews and Muslims” and is supposedly based on Iraqi government sources. However, the newly discovered Intelligence Report 26 cited above was written based on eyewitness accounts and letters to relatives a mere month and a half after the Farhud to inform Jews in pre-state Israel of the dire plight of Iraqi Jews.

The Farhud victims were buried in a mass grave

The stark discrepancy in casualty count is just one reason the perspective of the victims, those Jews in Iraq who witnessed the Farhud, is so essential to protect the accuracy of the historical narrative.

Who shall write the history of the Iraqi Jews and the Farhud? Will the victims, the ethnically cleansed Iraqi Jews who lived in Iraq for 2,700 years since the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE, be able to write their own history? 

History is a sacred trust. Iraqi Jews need to be able to preserve their history. Yet, when most Iraqi Jews left in 1952 due to state-sponsored ethnic cleansing, they lost not only their citizenship but the tangible artifacts of their rich lives and communal history. Authorities made it illegal to leave with anything more than one suitcase containing just “three summer outfits; three winter outfits; one blanket; six pairs of underwear, socks and sheets; one wedding ring; one wristwatch; one thin bracelet; and no more than 50 Dinars.” No prayer books, Torah scrolls, photographs, community records, or cultural and religious artifacts could be taken.

But 18 years ago, a treasure trove of Iraqi Jewish artifacts was found. The Iraqi Jewish Archive archive contains tens of thousands of communal documents and religious and cultural artifacts of the Iraqi Jewish community that were stolen by the secret police in Iraq under the direction of Saddam Hussein.

The Archive includes contemporaneous records of the once vibrant community, including the records of the Frank Iny School, built and named by my grandfather, and possibly the communal records of the Farhud, as well as ancient texts dating from the 16th Century and possibly much earlier. The Iraqi Jewish Archive was discovered in the flooded basement of the secret police headquarters in Baghdad Iraq in 2003 and salvaged by the United States National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). 

Shall the Iraqi Jewish community ever have complete access to examine these essential communal records and cultural artifacts? In fact, it required the intervention of a United States senator just to be able to investigate a fragment that showed the handwriting of the famed rabbinical scholar, the Ben Ish Chai, which miraculously led to the discovery and publication of three volumes of important rabbinical teachings.

Further, without the Iraqi Jewish Archive, how shall the Iraqi Jewish community be able to counter an article like the one in the New York Times, February 20, “Tomb of Joshua, Revered Prophet, Beckons Believers in Baghdad”? The paper’s Baghdad bureau chief leaves out the long history of Jewish custodianship at the tomb, which is identified as that of Joshua son of Nun, even though Iraqi Jews know it to be the tomb of Joshua the High Priest who went to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple and was buried in Baghdad

My great grandfather, the chief rabbi of Baghdad, Ezra Dangoor, was the guardian of the tomb, which was converted into a mosque when the Jews of Iraq were ethnically cleansed. I visited the mosque twice in 2003 and 2004 when I was a member of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and met the Iman of the mosque who welcomed me both times. He willingly acknowledged the Jewish guardianship of the tomb.

Carole Basri at the tomb of Joshua (Courtesy)

Jews in Iraq once numbered 160,000. Up until 1948, Baghdad’s population was 40% Jewish. Today, only four Jews remain in Iraq. The Iraqi Jews were ethnically cleansed through murders, hangings, rapes, torture and terror. Now their history is being erased and they are being denied their precious Iraqi Jewish Archive except for a digital sampling developed for exhibition purposes and not for research and scholarship. 

This is a denial of basic human rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the second stage of ethnic cleansing, the cleansing of history and of creating a taboo history for Iraqi Jewry and mankind.

About the Author
Carole Basri is the daughter of Iraqi Jewish Refugees; The Frank Iny School, the last Jewish school to operate in Baghdad, was built by her grandfather. She is the producer, together with Adriana Davis, of four films about the Jews of Iraq. Their latest, “Saving the Iraqi Jewish Archives: A Journey of Identity” explores the significance of the archives and the struggle to keep it safe and accessible.
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