The Fate of Iraq's Jews

Israel Shahak

I WILL NOT discuss all the criticisms raised by Joseph A. Massad against Samir al-Khalil’s Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modem Iraq [reviewed in ATC 31, 36-39]. But Massad’s employment of arguments that have been used to justify anti-Semitic pogroms and persecutions of Jews in Iraq, while also using the most one-sided imaginable sources, calls in my opinion for a rebuttal.

In the first place, regarding the pogrom (farhoud) of 1941: Massad, who accuses al-Khalil throughout his review of giving only partial information, himself forgets that the pogrom was initiated by an Iraqi government that tried to ally itself with the Nazis.(1) Such a government, which also enjoyed great popularity, can be assumed to act from anti-Semitic motives.

The popularity of the Nazi alliance also tells its own story about the anti-Semitism rampant in the Iraqi society, which was whipped up especially by those elements whom al-Khalil calls pan-Arabic and whom Massad calls Arab nationalists. All sources not written by crude Arab nationalists or influenced by them, and first Jewish Iraqi sources—including non-Zionist ones—are unanimous on this point.

The use of the crudest anti-Semitism by Arab nationalism in its Iraqi or pro-Iraqi form is still very prominent, as it is also among pro-Iraqi Palestinians.

Against al-Khalil’s estimate that hundreds of Jews were killed then, Massad quotes the official estimate of “the leader of the Iraqi Jewish community” (that only 130 were killed—Massad’s review, 37)—that is, an estimate made by a stooge of both the British and of the royal Iraqi family subservient to them.(2) This is like quoting the estimates of victims in East Timor made by a “leader of the community” nominated by Indonesia, or quoting the Palestinians who collaborate with Shamir’s government about the situation in the West Bank.

Incidentally, Massad’s chief source on these mailers, Abbas Shiblak, author of The Lure of Zion, the Case of the Iraqi Jews, was when he wrote his book (and may still be) a functionary of the Arab League (of which Iraq is a most influential member) in London. This is like quoting a Zionist official to the effect that what Palestinians are claiming about their situation is “exaggerated.”

In general, Massad avoids a single quotation from anything written by Iraqi Jews about themselves. Even more important is the implication that the Iraqi Jews constituted a threat to Iraq. Quite apart from the fact that the Jews were a small and powerless minority (not represented in the army or police) in the Iraqi population, Massad avoids mentioning that until the 1941 pogrom the great majority of Iraqi Jews were patriotic or even ultra-patriotic, and actually fought against Zionism vigorously.

Even after the pogrom, many remained patriotic in spite of the continuing anti-Semitism, while others turned either to Communism or to Zionism. But although I am a resolute opponent of Zionism, I have to say that the story Massad quotes about “the Zionist movement’s scheme to found ‘an autonomous Jewish state in Mesopotamia’” [Massad’s review, 37] is completely false.

Zionist Plan for Mesopotamia?

First, Israel Zangwill, quoted in Massad’s source, not directly but as what one British diplomat wrote to another [see Massad’s note 2] was not a “then prominent Zionist” as Massad claims. Zangwill was never a prominent Zionist at all; he left the Zionist movement a long time before the date on which he is quoted, and founded a tiny movement of his own called “Territorialism” that was of no influence whatsoever.

The Territorialist movement was bitterly opposed to Zionism. There is no proof that the “scheme” of Zangwill was even known to a single Iraqi Jew, or that Zangwill ever visited Iraq. Even the most casual knowledge of Zionist principles and practices would bring one to the conclusion that “an autonomous Jewish state in Mesopotamia” could not be a scheme of Zionists and in fact would have been violently opposed by them had it been more than an idle rumor.

To bring up this story, in a falsified form, to imply the Iraqi Jews were a threat to Iraq is a manner of reasoning that would justify persecution of any group whatsoever, Palestinians included. To explain public hangings, torture and all kinds of horrifying persecutions of Jews who elected to remain in Iraq after 1952 by quoting false stories dating from 1910 is a practice adopted by racists.

Further, isolated declarations of Arab nationalists which Massad cites [Massad’s review, 37]—especially a declaration from 1915, when Iraq was firmly by Ottomans, solemnly quoted by Massad as relevant to a period several decades later—are without effect if not compared with both the anti-Jewish propaganda, and even more important the anti-Semitic terror, which the Ba’thists established in Iraq.

One should add that whatever the truth about the bombing [allegedly by Israeli agents—ed.] of one synagogue in Baghdad (not several Jewish neighborhoods as Massad asserts), the decisive fact that drove the Iraqi Jews to escape was the confiscation of their property and revocation of their citizenship by a racist law, which treated them as “aliens” even if resident in the country for untold generations, by a simple decision of an official.

A similar racist law was enacted by Gamal Abd Al-Nasser in Egypt in 1957, also acting from what he called nationalist motives in which there was a strong element of racism, which caused the expulsion of almost all Egyptian Jewry (most of which emigrated to France and Britain, not to Israel).
The only Iraqi party, legal or underground, which opposed the law was the Communist Party. The Ba’thist Party was firm in supporting it, a fact that Massad forgets.

Notes

  1. The anti-Jewish pogrom (fathoud) was initiated by a pro-Nazi government shortly before British troops, who were then stationed in Iraq but not yet occupying the cities or countryside, moved out of their camps and easily conquered the country. The government thought that attacking, would help mobilize a popular anti-British struggle (a very common delusion in many countries), but the reverse happened: The population remained passive after the royal family, which accompanied the British forces, promised mercy and forgiveness.
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  2. The British and their royal Iraqi stooges were especially interested in “not raising trouble.” This explains the low figure of Jewish deaths claimed by their ally, the Jewish community personality whom Massed quotes.
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July-August 1991, ATC 33