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.
An Iraqi Shiite cleric walks by the tomb of the Prophet Ezekiel in Iraq
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.”