Farhud: a slaughter in Iraq

By Lyn Julius, May 31, 2011
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There was a frenzied banging on the front door. When my mother answered it, she recognised her aunt's Jewish cook, ashen-faced, pleading to be let in: "I was on a bus, and the Muslims were pulling the Jewish passengers out and killing them. I said I was a Christian." A month earlier, pro-Nazi officers led by Rashid Ali al-Ghailani, had staged a successful coup in Iraq. The German-backed Rashid Ali and his men were soon routed by British troops - but not before they had incited murder and mayhem against the Jewish "fifth column".

Seventy years ago, on June 1 1941, a group of Jews, wearing their Shavuot best, had ventured out for the first time in weeks to greet the returning pro-British Regent, only to be ambushed by an armed Arab mob. Terrified Jews barricaded themselves inside their houses, or ran for their lives across the flat rooftops.

The rioting went on for two days: around 180 Jews died in Baghdad and Basra (the exact figure is not known); hundreds were wounded, 900 homes and 586 Jewish-owned shops were destroyed; there was looting, rape and mutilation. Stories abound of babies murdered and Jewish hospital patients refused treatment or poisoned. The dead were hurriedly buried in a mass grave.

Jews recognised some assailants - the butcher, the gardener. But some brave Arabs saved Jews. My aunt tells how the neighbours sheltered her until the trouble had died down. The neighbour was a prominent Nazi, but his wife was "a lady --- she even made the beds for us," my aunt recounts.

The screams reached the ambassador at a candlelit dinner

The Farhud (Arabic for "violent dispossession") marked an irrevocable break between Jews and Arabs in Iraq and paved the way for the dissolution of the 2,600-year-old Jewish community barely 10 years later.

A question mark hovers over the role of the British - encamped on the city outskirts, they delayed intervening until the looting had spread to Muslim districts. Yet the victims' screams reached the British ambassador, Cornwallis, who was enjoying a candlelit dinner and a game of bridge.

Loyal and productive citizens comprising a fifth of Baghdad, the Jews had not known anything like the Farhud in living memory. Before the victims' blood was dry, army and police warned the Jews not to testify against the murderers and looters. Even the official report on the massacre was not published until 1958.

Despite their deep roots, the Jews understood that they would never, along with other minorities, be an integral part of an independent Iraq. Fear of a second Farhud was a major reason why 90 per cent of Iraq's Jewish community fled to Israel after 1948.

But the Farhud was not just another anti-Jewish pogrom.The Nazi supporters who planned it had a more sinister objective: the round-up, deportation and extermination in desert camps of the Baghdadi Jews.

The inspiration behind the coup, and the Farhud itself, came not from Baghdad, but Jerusalem. The Grand Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, sought refuge in Iraq in 1939 with 400 Palestinian émigrés. Together, they whipped up local anti-Jewish feeling. An illiterate populace imbibed bigotry through Nazi radio propaganda. Days before the Farhud broke out, the Nazi youth movement, the Futuwa, went around daubing Jewish homes with a red palm print. Yunis al-Sabawi, who, together with the Mufti and Rashid Ali, spent the rest of the war in Berlin, instructed the Jews to stay in their homes so that they could more easily be rounded up.

The Farhud cemented a wartime Arab-Nazi alliance designed to rid Palestine, and the world, of the Jews. The Mufti's postwar legacy endured. The uprooting of the 140,000 Jews of Iraq followed a Nazi pattern of victimisation - dismantlement, dispossession and expulsion. Nuremberg-style laws criminalised Zionism, freezing Jewish bank accounts, instituting quotas and restrictions on jobs and movement. The result was the exodus of nearly a million Jews from the Arab world.

More Jews died than on Kristallnacht, yet the Farhud has not become part of Holocaust memory. Indeed, the Washington Holocaust Museum had to be vigorously lobbied to include the Farhud as a Holocaust event.

Nazism gave ideological inspiration both to Arab secular parties and the Muslim Brotherhood (Gaza branch: Hamas). The unremitting campaign to destroy Israel is simply a manifestation of the genocidal intentions of Arab nationalism and Islamism. The demons awakened by the Farhud are still with us today.

Lyn Julius is a journalist and co-founder of Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. The Farhud will be commemorated at 7.30pm on June 1 at Ohel David Eastern Synagogue, London NW11.

Last updated: 11:31am, May 31 2011