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 Iraqi Jews before the Fall

Two narratives have been generated about the life of Jews in Arab lands. One claims that life was wonderful, the other claims that life was terrible. Saul Silas Fathi's account of his early life in Baghdad, related in his book, Full Circle, seems to bear out both versions. In fact the same could be said of the life of Jews in many places in the Diaspora. It was very good until it was very bad. Saul's father was director of the Iraqi railway system. His family lived well, but by the 1930s, the storm was gathering. Below is Fathi's account of the prelude to the Farhud (Farhoud or Farhood), the 1941 Iraqi pogrom of of the Jews.

Click here to read more about Saul Fathi and Full Circle  

Farhood: Krystallnacht in Baghdad, June 1, 1941

Part I: Prelude

Iraq Jews, 1940 - Fathi family
Fathi Family: Iraq, 1939.
Children: Berta, Yedida, Saui

The treatment of Jews in Iraq during the early part of the twentieth century had been relatively positive. The British under the 1917 mandate saw the value of having Jews work with them and later with the newly formed monarchy. They realized that the Jews, who were already holding prominent positions in government and commerce, understood the Iraqi culture and knew both English and the local dialects.

In Iraq, Zionism, or the encouragement of Jewish identity and culture, was permitted from World War I to the early 1930s. However, with the rise of pro- German and pro-Nazi sympathizers in Iraq, restrictions began to be leveled on Jews. In 1933, the Iraqi government forbade the teaching of Hebrew and restricted its use to the Holy Scriptures and in prayers. Extra permits and licensing fees were levied on Jews; and sometimes an extra bribe had to be made in order for Jews to ship or receive goods, without their merchandise sitting in a customs dock indefinitely. Many Jews also were fired from their government jobs.

By the mid 1930s, Nazi-inspired policies became more widespread. Arab boys in Baghdad were often sent to Germany to attend Hitler Youth events. Public high schools stopped teaching French, the language of diplomacy, and began to teach German. Junior high school boys were encouraged to join the Futtuwa, paramilitary programs based on the Hitler Youth groups. Finally, in 1938, no Jews were permitted to attend the public high schools, nor were Jews permitted to leave the country. The Jewish community restricted its own movements to known safe places: work, school, and the marketplace. Though the Balfour Declaration after World War I favored British support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the British in Iraq could do nothing about the growing Arab support of Arab Palestinians and anti-Zionist hate. Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda found its way into Iraq and was actively distributed. German-backed anti-Jewish radio broadcasts filled the Iraqi airwaves, and short-wave radio receivers could pick up anti-Jewish broadcasts from Germany. Hajj Amin al Hussayni, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (1920-1937) under the British mandate, had fled to Iraq after authorizing terrorist attacks on the British and the Jews in Palestine, and was welcomed by the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri Al Sa’id. In response, Hussayni and his old friend, Fawzi Kawakchi [Kaukji, Kawkji], spent a year agitating the Iraqi populace against the monarchy, the Regent Abd Al-Ilah, the British, and, of course, the Jews. They used Iraqi radio as their primary propaganda tool.

It was in 1938 that Iraq and the rest of the world heard the awful news of Krystallnacht in Germany. Called “Crystal Night” or the “Night of Broken Glass,” two-days of violence swept through a large Jewish community. German soldiers systematically marched from city block to city block, burning, looting, and killing. One hundred Jews were murdered. Thirty thousand were rounded up and moved to concentration camps. Seven thousand Jewish owned businesses were destroyed and two hundred synagogues were burned.

With growing pro-Nazism in Iraq and the rise of hatred of the Jews there, the Jewish community feared open violence would reach their people as well. When World War II began in late 1939, Iraq’s treaty with the British stipulated that Iraq would officially and politically side with the Allies. This served only to fan the flames of Arab nationalism that found sympathy with Nazism and anti-Jewish sentiment within the country.

In early April of 1941, Arab nationalism, anti-British revolt was brewing within Iraq. Pro-Nazi military officers, known as the Golden Square, launched a successful military coup and set up Rashid Ali el Gaylani, another Nazi sympathizer, as Prime Minister. The British sent the legal Regent and the Prime Minister, along with Jamil Al-Madfa’ii, Ali Jawdat Al-Ayubi, and Da’ud Pasha Al-Haydari, to Jerusalem.

Gaylani opened diplomatic relations with Germany and invited Dr. Fritz Grooba, the former German ambassador, to return to his post with a complement of aides and Nazi military personnel. Grooba encouraged attacks on British air bases in an effort to remove the military power behind the legal Iraqi government.

When forces from the coup attacked these bases on May 1, British planes bombed rebel positions the next day, crippling them and bringing a rapid defeat. Rebel forces attacked Meir Elias Hospital on the pretext of searching for British pilots who were supposed to be hiding there. They looted the hospital, set it on fire, and rounded up hospital physicians and administrators. The President of the Jewish Community, Sassoon Khedhouri, enlisted the aid of the Inspector General of Police, Husam Al-Din Jum’a, to release the hospital staff and restore order to the hospital.

By May 29, 1941, Al-Gaylani, Husseini, Fawakchi, and other rebel forces realized that their coup had failed. They fled to Iran and Turkey, and Husseini was welcomed in Germany. In the wake of the escape of the rebel leadership, Yunis Al-Sab’awi, the Minister of Economics, appointed himself as the Military Governor of Baghdad.

The next day, May 30, the Mayor of Baghdad Amin Al-Asima, Arshad Al- Umari, Husam Al-Din Jum’a, and other government officials signed an armistice with the British, declaring an end to the revolt. Though it looked as if all hostilities were ending, another, much darker horror was about to be unleashed on the Jews of Baghdad.

The same day that the armistice was signed, Al-Sab’awi called the President of the Jewish community and told him that all Jews were being restricted to their homes May 31 to June 2. Then, Al-Sab’awi instructed the Katayib Al-Shabab, a paramilitary youth group, to mark all of the Jewish houses and stores in red paint. Then, Al-Sab’awi sent a message to the radio station, urging the Arab public to massacre the Jews. Fortunately, the broadcast was prevented, and Al-Sab’awi was sent to the border.

Nevertheless, the Katayib Al-Shabab and others who had been incited by anti-Jewish propaganda carried out Al-Sab’awi’s plan. Farhood, Iraq’s own Krystallnacht, began in the evening of June 1, 1941. It was the Feast of Shavuot (Pentecost), a harvest festival held on the fiftieth day after the end of Passover. What would have been a celebratory holy day turned into a nightmare.

Hussayni fled to Berlin, where he met with Hitler himself, and continued to incite Arabs to persecute Jews, only returning to the Middle East after World War II. Later, during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, it was he who would call on the Palestinians to leave their homes and join the Arab forces “to re-conquer it back and finish the Jews.”

This marked the genesis of the Palestinian refugee saga.

The personal description of the pogrom itself: Farhud - Baghdad's Krystalnacht

For more information about the Farhoud and the Iraqi coup, see Farhud and also pro-Axis coup and the Farhoud.

Click here to read more about Saul Fathi and Full Circle

More about Jews from Arab countries: Point of No Return


Excerpt from "Full Circle" Copyright by Saul Fathi. All Rights Reserved.

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Jews in Baghdad