Aaron Zangi: Beaten and interrogated in Basra
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On January 27, 1969, nine Iraqi Jews were publicly hanged, having been accused of spying for Israel.
The court that sentenced the men spared three people. One of them was Basra-raised Aaron Zangi, the son of a well-respected textile businessman.
Mr Zangi, whose ancestors hailed from Iran, built the family home in 1936 in a Muslim-Arab area of Basra. Following the Farhud, the antisemitic pogrom in 1941, the Jewish community of Basra fled to Ashar, Iraq. Mr Zangi’s family, however, refused to leave.
Mr Zangi said that spending his childhood in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood was a benefit. He remembers joyous Arab weddings and playing with Muslim children. He now believes that his close relationships with Muslims have given him an understanding of how to co-exist with Arab culture.
Mr Zangi also says his connection to Muslims did not compromise his Jewish identity. He and his family kept kosher and attended the Beit Knesset in Basra at 3am for slichot services.
Mr Zangi’s perception of Muslims changed when he went to high school. Some treated him with resentment as they adopted Communist affiliations, backed Egyptian president Jamal Abdul Nasser or joined Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party.
Mr Zangi hoped to leave Basra to study at university in England. However, come 1964, Iraqi authorities had stopped granting the Jews permission to leave. Mr Zangi also had to remain in Basra because his father was imprisoned on suspicion that he was spying for Israel, and he looked after the family business in his father’s absence.
One November afternoon in 1968, while his father was still in prison, a mob came and seized his brother as a hostage, refusing to hand him over until Mr Zangi surrendered himself. He turned himself in to the police later that day and was charged with syping for Israel.
Mr Zangi was taken to a cellar in Gassra Nahaira, where he was beaten and interrogated for ten days. He refused to confess and spent the next year in prison. He was eventually released on the condition that he return to Basra to remain under house arrest.
Mr Zangi’s mother eventually found a way of smuggling him to Iran, where he worked for the Jewish Agency, and then Israel, where he served in the intelligence services. His father was unable to leave Iraq beacuse of police surveillance, and he died there along with Mr Zangi’s mother.
JIMENA is a US-based organisation dedicated to the preservation of Mizrahi and Sephardi culture and history