Farhud: The forgotten ordeal of Iraqi Jews
November 1, 2021

2021 marked the 80th anniversary of Farhud*—a two-day pogrom against Baghdad Jewry. Following a failed pro-Nazi coup d’état in 1941, angry Muslim rioters killed 175 Jews, injured 1000, and robbed and destroyed 900 Jewish homes. Many Jewish girls were raped and children maimed in front of their families. BBC Radio 4’s religious and ethical news program Sunday decided to feature a short segment about Farhud, and producer Carmel Lonergan contacted me to arrange for a Zoom interview. My Arabic translation of Violette Shamash’s Memories of Eden had been released in 2020 in Beirut by ASP Inc. and it included a chapter about this history.

Unlike the other interviewees, who lived in the UK and Lonergan could talk to over the phone, there’s an eleven-hour time difference between us—I live in New Zealand. She emailed a list of questions to outline my perception of the massacre prior to the interview, which aired in September last year. As the 81st anniversary’s date nears, I thought my answers and thoughts might shed more light on the ordeal of one of the oldest Jewish diaspora communities in the world (2600 years) who’d made up nearly a third of Baghdad’s population in the early 20th century, and is now reduced to only three persons.

Although I was born three decades after Farhud, I’ve read many books and heard different stories about it from family friends. The picture I have in my mind of Iraq during that era is that of a young country that was a work in progress. Of course, Mesopotamia is as ancient as the dawn of human civilization, but modern-day Iraq was created by a British decision after WWI. It was almost modern, almost secular, almost democratic and had an almost active political opposition. It probably had a good potential for prosperity, but was evidently too weak to survive the many surrounding challenges.

One of those challenges was becoming a hotbed of World War II activities. Despite being granted independence by the UK in 1932, Iraq still hosted two large British military bases, which Germany considered to be a threat to its interests and aspirations in the region. Radio Berlin launched its Arabic language service in 1939 and it immediately started in on manipulating Arabist sentiments and promoting Nazism and anti-Semitism. Fritz Grobba, former German ambassador to Iraq, and exiled Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini, were conspiring to inflame the Muslim majority in Iraq against the Jewish community and pro-British politicians. Their efforts came to fruition in April 1941 when four Iraqi officers, known as the “Golden Square,” carried out a coup to install Rashid A. al-Gaylani, a strident supporter of the Axis powers, as prime minister. The new government, however, lasted for a very short time. Gaylani fled to Berlin, where he was received by Adolf Hitler.

By Sunday 1 June, it was clear that the coup had failed. Radio Baghdad announced that Prince Abd al-Ilah, then Regent, as well as other exiled members of the royal family were returning very soon. British and Transjordanian forces were surrounding the capital and it was only a matter of days before they restored law and order. The Jewish community breathed a sigh of relief and thought it was safe to celebrate the Shavuot, but when they left their homes dressed up for the holiday, they were met by the retreating troops. The defeated soldiers thought the Jews were gloating over the distress and humiliation of their army and fellow countrymen. The first attack took place on a bridge in downtown Baghdad. And then all hell broke loose.

What happened during the following 48 hours is an obvious case of scapegoating. If we compare the Farhud to what had happened in Nazi Germany, for instance, we can see the scenarios are strikingly similar. An ethnic minority works hard to acquire a respectable financial, social and political status, but eventually becomes an object of envy. When hardships befall the majority, they cause xenophobia and chauvinism to arise. It’s always easier to blame the minorities for the majority’s problems, and they – the minorities – often end up being punished for a crime they had not committed.

Eight decades later, the scar of Farhud is still there and is not likely to ever go away, but many Iraqi Muslims and Jews today are aware that hatred had been inflicted on them by foreign agendas and ideologies. I remember when we travelled to Europe during our summer holidays in the 70s, we were approached by strangers who looked and talked like us. They offered to help us get directions, and wondered if we happened to know their old friends in Baghdad. They were Iraqi Jews. Also, nearly all the survivors’ testimonies I have come across, mentioned that many Muslims had indeed protected their Jewish neighbors during Farhud, preventing the angry mob from harming them and offering to shelter them in their own houses

After sending my third book to press in 2018, I decided my next endeavor was going to be an Arabic translation of one of those memoirs. ISIS’s campaign of genocide against the Yazidis, and the cleansing of the Middle East’s Christian communities were clearly episodes in an ongoing series. The plight of the Iraqi Jews was too relevant to be ignored anymore, but I had to be very careful selecting a manuscript given the sensitivity of the topic.

Memories of Eden stood out because of its pure and warm storytelling. Violette Shamash (1912 – 2006) was a loving grandmother, telling her grandchildren about their ancestors’ life in a distant land that was dear to her heart. The narrative exuded trust, and was not the least interested in settling old scores or seeking revenge. It took me more than two years to finish this project, during which, I became Violette’s lost Iraqi voice. She in turn became my much-loved Jewish grandmother.

I strongly believe that we have valuable lessons to learn from the Jewish-Muslim coexistence in pre-1941 Baghdad. Having witnessed the atrocities of consecutive wars in Iraq, I wholeheartedly feel for the civilians caught up in the violence in Israel/Palestine and wish for their suffering to end very soon, but reaching a peaceful solution to the conflict there seems unlikely when both sides are investing in surrounding themselves with more walls – physical and otherwise.

There’s no denying that the earlier generations of Iraqi, as well as other Arab Jews had been through a lot, but their children and grandchildren are in a very special position today, because they have both cultures distilled in them. So, if anyone is qualified to bridge the gap between the two peoples, it’s definitely them.

*The roots of the word remain a mystery to me. That said, the colloquial connotation of the verb “farhad” is not exactly, but close to the English “to devour”.

The answers to the producer’s questions for the interview appeared in Ali Shakir’s Raseef22 blog, entitled: Lessons from Baghdad’s Jewish Community’s History.

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