By Marina Benjamin
In the 1941 Farhud (pogrom), my husband’s mother lost a relative. Ten years later, along with most of the Iraqi Jewish community, the entire family left for Israel (300 of them filled a plane). As they locked the door of their house, Muslim neighbours stood in the street crying and begging them to stay. This is a complex story, very different to the Ashkenazi Jewish experience.
Marina Benjamin’s book was inspired by her grandmother Regina’s stories of growing up in Old Baghdad. Regina recalls a happy childhood embedded in tight-knit, extended families. “Life was good, life was simple,” she remembers. Jews were a protected minority under Muslim Law and co-existed peacefully with the Arabs.
Benjamin demonstrates how the rise of Arab nationalism, stoked partly by Nazism, coincided with the rise of Zionism and set them on a collision course. The Jewish community was stable and well off in Iraq, she notes; what did they need a Jewish state for? But the Nazi-influenced Farhud changed everything and, as the atmosphere in Iraq became increasingly hostile, Regina, by then a widow with three children, escaped to India. By 1952, 140,000 Jews had left Iraq, leaving behind only 6,000. Today, it is impossible even to raise a minyan.
Benjamin’s immensely readable book ends with an account of her trip to Baghdad in 2004, where the handful of remaining Jews compared themselves to Robinson Crusoe, “marooned on a sea of otherness, starved of the company of loved ones and with little hope of relief”. But nor did emigration to Israel attract them: “In Iraq we are Jews, but in Israel we are Arabs.”