The outbreak of mob violence against Baghdad Jewry known as the Farhud (Farhud is an Arabic term best translated as “pogrom” or “violent dispossession”) erupted on June 1, 1941. It was a turning point in the history of the Jews in Iraq.
In the 1940s about 135,000 Jews lived in Iraq (nearly 3 percent of the total population), with about 90,000 in Baghdad, 10,000 in Basra, and the remainder scattered throughout many small towns and villages. Jewish communities had existed in this region since the 6th century BCE, hundreds of years before Muslim communities established a presence in Iraq during the 7th century. The Jews shared the Arab culture with their Muslim and Christian neighbors, but they lived in separate communities. Jewish assimilation into Muslim society was rare.
Anti-british nationalists politicians who spread their hateful propaganda had triggered the british mandate to flee from Iraq. The rise of this pro-German government led by those anti-british politicians was also a threat to the Jews in Iraq. Nazi influence and antisemitism already were widespread in Iraq, due in large part to the German legation's presence in Baghdad as well as influential Nazi propaganda, which took the form of Arabic-language radio broadcasts from Berlin. The nazi ideology and writings were translated to arabic and published in newspapers and radio. For an instance “Mein Kampf” had been translated into Arabic by Yunis al-Sab'awi, and ended up being published in a local newspaper.
Although the Farhud occured in the absence of the British mandate the presence of the British in Iraq did not aid the Iraq jewry. the British did not wish to appear to be intervening in Iraq's internal affairs therefore they allowed local authorities to deal with crises concerning muslims and jewish conflicts and in most cases jews were discriminated. Local iraqi authorities rarely punished or pressed charges against muslim attackers who targeted the jewish community.
About the Iraqi Farhud 1941
The most traumatic event in the collective memory of Iraqi Jews — the Farhud — took place during the Shavuot holiday in 1941. During these violent riots in Baghdad thousands were raped and wounded, Jewish shops and synagogues were plundered and destroyed, and a staggering 180 people were brutally murdered. This unprecedented attack on the theretofore flourishing, peaceful Jewish community of Baghdad is generally thought of as triggering Iraqi Jewry’s Aliyah to Israel.
Seldom do we ask how such a pogrom could have occurred in a place where Jews had lived quietly for centuries, in a country that had not, up until that moment, been known for anti-Semitism.
A closer look at the historical background of the Farhud reveals a complicated web of factors that led to the pogroms — the opposing interests of the Iraqi government and the British Empire; Nazi Germany’s underlying influence; varying Arab movements; and internal struggles between groups of Iraqi intellectuals. The unfortunate Jews were caught in the middle of this growing conflict.
In fact, in the early 20th century, restrictions from the Ottoman era were abolished, and, following World War I, the establishment of the British mandate improved the situation of Iraqi Jews.
The war, however, had other consequences. Some believed that, as long as the Jews did not hold national aspirations, they were a part of the Iraqi nation. Others, such as the Al Istiklal, felt differently. Perceiving the Iraqi nationality to be Muslim Arab, they refused to accept religious minorities. Formally, after Iraq became independent from Britain in 1932, Jews were citizens of Iraq. There were voices, however, that spoke out against their integration.
At the same time, the world was experiencing profound changes. Fascist leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini were on the rise in Europe and had significant supporters among the Iraqi elite. The nationalists insisted that Iraq establish close ties with Germany rather than be exploited by Britain.
The Germans encouraged Iraq’s support. “Mein Kampf” and Hitler’s speeches were translated into Arabic, and German educators came to Iraq to spread anti-Semitic propaganda. Iraqi newspapers became vocally pro-Germany, especially post-1939. They asserted that Iraqi Jews and Zionists were one and the same, that the world’s Jewry was scheming to ruin the glorious nation of Iraq and that Iraqi Jews must be banished from public life. Eventually all students and teachers were forced to join the anti-zionists and anti-semitism movement, including Jews. In 1939 the mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, settled in Iraq and began promoting a pro-German agenda while spreading damaging anti-Semitic propaganda.
In May 1941 the Al Fatwa saw a window of opportunity to incite the masses and take their anger at losing to the British out on the Jews. They marked Jewish houses in red, and on June 1st an angry mob rioted against the Jews for the first time in Iraqi history. From the newly born to the elderly, no Jew was safe. The rioters used all manner of weapons, including running people over with their vehicles. Some Jews were rescued by Muslim neighbors who refused to join the mob. These Muslim resisters hid Jews, at great risk to their own safety. The massacre only ceased when the British entered the city and stopped it. Sadly, the British knew about the pogrom a day prior, but made no attempt to prevent it. Just like the local authorities, they preferred to let the masses take their rage out upon the Jews.
The Farhud triggered the mass Jewish emigration from Iraq. Ten years later, as part of Operations Ezra and Nehemiah (1950-1952), some 120,000 Jews — 90% of Iraqi’s Jewry — chose to leave Iraq for the young state of Israel.
From the glossary:
Pogrom: Russian word meaning “to wreak havoc, to demolish violently.” Historically, the term refers to violent attacks, usually planned, by local non-Jewish populations on Jews.