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The Forgotten Farhud: Remembering the Jews of Iraq

Dingoor Family Photo, Bombay, Iraq
Owner: Michelle Daniels (formerly Dingoor)
Dingoor Family Photo, Baghdad, Iraq, circa 1925

I am a Jew from Judea. 

A Jew from Babylonia. A Jew from Mesopotamia.

I am a Jew from Iraq where my grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-great-grandparents were born.

I am a Jew from India where my parents were born.

I am a Jew born in Australia and a Jew living in America.

I am all of these Jews.

Mesopotamia/Iraq. Photo credit: WorldAtlas

We lived for 2600 years in Babylonia, or, as we now know it, Iraq.

We were Iraqi Jews.

We were a vibrant and thriving Jewish community.  We made significant contributions to every part of society and rose in prominence to the highest levels of government, education, finance, trade, and the arts. We were part of the fabric of Iraqi society.

By the early 1900s we, as Jews, made up a third of the population of Baghdad.

But times were changing. By the mid-1930s, something sinister was brewing for the Jews of Iraq. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Muhammad Amin al Husseini, an influential leader of the Arabs in Palestine, fled British-mandated Palestine in 1937 after a warrant for his arrest was issued for inciting riots against the British. One of the countries he took refuge in was Iraq. Husseini had found a comrade in Hitler at the time, as Nazi ideology spread to the Arab countries.

Hussein’s meeting with Hitler in 1941 in Berlin was well documented. They both shared a common goal – the annihilation of the Jews of Europe, and the removal of Jews from Palestine. Husseini sowed fear, distrust, and hatred towards the Jews of Iraq.

Haj Amin al Husseini and Adolph Hitler, November 1941.      Photo credit: UnitedwithIsrael.org

It marked the beginning of the end for generations of Jews living in Iraq.

The Farhud, Baghdad, Iraq, June 1-2, 1941. (Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi Archive)

With so much changing in the world, one thing remains the same: In every generation, a bloodthirsty crowd turns against its Jews.

With eerie similarities, the first chapter of Edwin Black’s “The Farhud” reads like a play-by-play of massacres that took place 82 years later in Israel on October 7. Here is an excerpt:

“As thick swirls of black smoke wafted across the Baghdad sky, as orange tongues of flames leapt through stone-framed doors and windows, as the stinging smell of torched Jewish households and shops filled the air, the irrepressible screams continued. Cheers and jeers from the rioting Arab crowds competed with cries of horror and anguish as family after family were pulled from their vehicles or chased down the street. The Jews of Baghdad were captured by the nightmare that raced through the city that June 1 and 2, 1941. It was bloody. It was beastly. 

“Infants were viciously bashed to death against the pavement and then thrown lifelessly into the Tigris.  Jewish women – hundreds of them – were mercilessly and openly raped in front of their husbands, in front of their parents, in front of their children, and in front of the wild Muslim mobs. If the woman was pregnant, sometimes she was first raped, and then sliced open to destroy the unborn baby…after murdering defenseless Jewish men and women with hatchets, axes, and swords, the chanting throngs hacked their inanimate bodies to pieces…..Baghdad was a burning madhouse. It burned not just with ethnic hatred but with cries to murder and destroy the Jewish community who had lived peacefully in the country for 2,600 years, since a millennium before the advent of Islam.
                                                                       – Edwin Black, The Farhud

 

This was the Farhud. A pogrom. A slaughter. A massacre.  A violent dispossession. And only two decades later, there would be less than a few dozen Jews left in Iraq. Many Jews had their businesses and possessions confiscated and fled with the clothes on their backs. A few years later, some were hung in a public square after being accused of being Zionists and spying for the newly created State of Israel.

Gone are the Jews from Iraq today.  Gone are the Jews of India, where many fled between WWI and WWII. We are now scattered amongst the many Western nations of the world, but most Iraqi Jews returned to their original home in Judea – in Israel, Yisrael, Zion, The Holy Land. The Jews have returned.

As a Jew, I cannot visit Iraq, but next week I’ll take a journey to Israel where many of my family members live. It will be a bitter-sweet return to the Jewish Homeland as a traumatized nation struggles to make sense of the absolute pain and chaos since October 7.

But one thing is true about the Jews: we don’t stay down for long. We have proven our resiliency. We pack up and move on. Life is too short to remain victims. No matter how many times we have been down, we have risen – even more determined to prosper, succeed, educate, create, and make agricultural, medical, technological, and artistic contributions to the world.

Part of that resiliency is our ability to remember, respect, and commemorate our past. People ask why we can’t just move on. We can and we do, but it is incumbent upon us to remember. We teach the next generation so they will know the history of their people. And they will teach the next generation, so we know from where we came and where we are going.

In exactly two weeks today, we commemorate the Farhud. It changed the face of the Arab world resulting in the loss of Iraq’s 2600-year-old once vibrant Jewish community.

The Jews of Babylonia, Mesopotamia, and Iraq are free to return home to Judea.

About the Author
Michelle Daniels was born in Australia to Indian Jewish parents born of Iraqi descent. She has a lifelong love of Israel, and although not orthodoxly observant, her Judaism and the traditions are of great importance to her and serve as a moral compass for everyday living. She loves to read and is currently writing a novel based on her father's life. She moved to the United States in 1993 and is currently living and working in New York City.