When Israel and Diaspora Jewry worked together to save the Jews of Iraq

The growing estrangement between the Israeli government and many segments of the American Jewish community makes it almost nostalgic to remember how, only a few decades ago, the two communities could work together to rescue Jewish communities including in the Middle East. This region has seen countless waves of minorities’ persecution. In Iraq, we witnessed the waning of Christian communities, topped by the inhuman abuse, albeit by ISIS, of Iraqi Yazidis. The Jews of Iraq escaped this lot; for the simple reason that, they no longer live there. Forsaking centuries of meaningful life between the two rivers, they left Iraq, though not without their share of vicious persecution. Their yanking from the claws of the Iraqi State and cruel security services was made possible through a combination of a prudent Israeli policy and open activity of American Jewish leadership.

The glorious Babylonian diaspora preceded Islam in Iraq by more than a thousand years. In the 1940s, it numbered over one hundred and thirty thousand people who participated in the nation building of independent Iraq. However, beginning with the Baghdad pogrom known as the ‘Farhud’ of 1941 to the late 1950s, the majority of Iraqi Jews emigrated. The ‘Farhud’ was only the harbinger for continued persecutions throughout consecutive Iraqi regimes.

Public hangings took place in January 1969, when 14 civilians accused of treason were hanged in Baghdad’s main square, nine of them were Jews. In another round of executions in August of that year, two Jews were hanged alongside nine Muslims and Christians, all charged with treason. Many were arrested, some have disappeared, and their fate is not known to date. These hangings took place shortly after the coup d’état that brought the Ba’th party to power and in the wake of extensive purges among businessmen with ties with America or Britain.

The gruesome nature of the public executions, followed by abusing of bodies by the mob and pestering of mourners produced worldwide outrage. Israel expressed its shock in a Knesset speech by PM Levi Eshkol. US Ambassador in Tel Aviv Walworth Barbour cabled Washington expressing his concern that Israel might respond militarily against Iraq. Secretary of State William Rogers then issued an immediate condemnation, asking the Secretary General of the United Nations to act forthwith, while asking Israel to restrain its responses.

The vigorous reactions of American Jewish communities, both discreet and overt, continued throughout the 1970s, even after the Iraqi regime ceased the executions and denied anti-Semitism — extracting denials from Iraqi Jewish dignitaries. The widespread reverberation discouraged and startled the Iraqi regime and especially strongman Saddam Hussein who was behind the purges.

Israel kept a low profile, entrusting the public activity to the Jewish organizations. Israel did not want to obstruct the rescue efforts or to highlight the fact that many Iraqi Jews have settled in Israel.

Not much was disclosed so far on this vital and well-coordinated activity by the Jewish organizations in securing the assistance of the Administration and Congress. The newly elected chair of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), Judge Arthur J. Goldberg, former US Ambassador to the United Nations, tightened the coordination, organizational collaboration and political activities. A “Committee of Concern for Jews in the Arab Lands” was established in New York, headed by General Lucius d. Clay, a decorated hero of the Second World War. This body was also active in Paris and London in defense of Jews and Jewish causes.

AJC representative George E. Gruen coordinated the Committee of Concern’s activities with various organizations such as the American Jewish Congress, the Joint Distribution Committee, Jewish federations and synagogues and even HIAS, which was not always in accord with Israel. This combined activity for the Jews of Iraq had coincided with, and even slightly preceded the much acclaimed “Let my People Go” campaign for Soviet Jewry.

Jewish activists initiated meetings with international leaders like UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Sisco and World Bank President Robert S. McNamara, who believed he could exert some influence due to the Bank’s crucial ties with Iraq. They were active vis-à-vis the Geneva-based human rights agencies, approaching the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Aga Khan, who then surprised the Iraqi Ambassador in Geneva, demanding explanations on the day following an execution.

However, the major field of operation was Capitol Hill, where Jewish lawmakers initiated relevant debates. Congress then passed resolutions condemning Iraq’s human rights abuses, and expressed concern over the safety of Jews in Iraq. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, mostly non-Jews, co-sponsored legislations like the one on 30 January, 1969 by Congressman Leo J. Ryan Jr. (D-CA), condemning Iraqi crimes against the Jews and enabling asylum in the US for Jewish refugees. On February 6, 1969, the House Foreign Affairs Committee adopted Resolution HR 227 condemning the public executions, and calling on the President to demand a special session of the United Nations Security Council due to infringements of the UN Charter by Iraq.

Since Iraqi authorities denied exit-requests and in view of an upcoming Baghdad visit (in March 1973) by Aga Khan, the UNHCR, they gave him a list of Jews arrested or disappeared which he duly delivered to the Iraqi President. Western press kept reporting human rights abuses with each wave of harassment of Iraqi Jews.

In the US, this activity highlighted the political power of the Jewish community vis-à-vis the public, Congress, and the Administration, who acted even without an accredited American Ambassador in Baghdad, turning to allies. (Primarily, Canada, the UK and the Netherlands answered the American call). However, some State Department officials opposed this activity, which they saw as contradicting US goal of improving relations with Baghdad.

The Ba’th regime never expected such an international uproar and kept denying vehemently anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish attitudes. The Iraqi government considered its actions, including public executions, as legitimate measures of countering riots and as an internal Iraqi issue. Baghdad maintained that most of those convicted were not Jewish. In the eyes of the Ba’th regime, they were potential rivals, including former government’s officials or military officers, Communists, Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis or Ba’th operatives who fell out of grace. Only years later did Foreign Minister Tareq Aziz admit that the executions of the Jews were intended also for interior motives, seemingly to pacify national humiliation after the defeat against Israel in June 1967.

In the eyes of the regime, the protests dealt disproportionately with the Jews. By contrast, Iraq’s Communists had also gone through punishing times of persecutions and executions, culminating with the expulsion of the Iraqi Communist party from the National Front, but even the Soviet Union settled for a weak protest, keeping the military aid and support for projects inside Iraq.

The constant Jewish activity created Iraqi awareness of Jewish effective influence. It resulted in a toned-down response in order to protect Iraq’s image and later led to look the other way at the departure of the Jews, especially since they left behind vast properties.

The Iraqi astonishment with the international uproar fell on fertile ground of anti-Semitic imagery prevalent in Arab societies. In a sort of a conspiracy theory, many believed that Jewish mythical powers were behind the American support of Israel, contrary to “real” US interests. Audio tapes of Saddam’s inner circle sessions in the 1980s, reveal that he instructed senior Revolutionary Guard leadership to learn the secrets of the Zionist power, through the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” which was available in Arabic. (These tapes are kept at the National Defense University).

In his History of the Jews, Paul Johnson wrote, “the expansion and consolidation of United States Jewry….was as important in Jewish history as the creation of Israel itself; in some ways more important. For, if the fulfillment of Zionism gave the harassed diaspora an ever-open refuge with sovereign rights to determine and defend its destiny, the growth of US Jewry … gave Jews an important, legitimate and permanent part in shaping the policies of the greatest state on earth”. This brotherly connection enabled the two leading communities to see to the rising success of Israel as well as to the fate of Jews in post-war era. The joint operation of rescue of the Jews of Iraq is a case in point, and it behooves both sides now to ensure that a current family debate will not become a lasting rift.

Dr. Shulamit Binah’s book, UNITED STATES – IRAQ BILATERAL RELATIONS, Confusion and Misperception from 1967 to 1979, was published last month by Vallentine-Mitchell in London.

About the Author
An expert in Middle Eastern affairs, Shulamit Binah’s book, UNITED STATES – IRAQ BILATERAL RELATIONS, Confusion and Misperception 1967 to 1979, has just been published by Valentine-Mitchell (London 2018). Dr. Binah retired from government service after of full career of analysis and evaluation. She currently resides in Kfar Sava, Israel following a four-year stint in Copenhagen, where she joined her husband who served as Israel’s ambassador to Denmark.
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