Pushing Jewish refugees from Arab countries centre stage
An account of the 1941 Nazi-inspired pogrom in Baghdad follows the report from JTA.
Nearly 1 Million Jews Had To Flee Since Israel’s Founding
By Ben Sales, JTA/Jewish Forward
September 04, 2012.
TEL AVIV — Naim Reuven was only 8 when he left Baghdad more than 50 years ago, but he still remembers going with his father to catch fish in the Tigris River.
His dad worked in a laundromat, a middle-class father of six and one of Iraq’s more than 100,000 Jews. Baghdad’s Jewish community suffered a pogrom in 1941, but Reuven, born a year later, has only fond memories of his childhood there – until Israel declared independence in 1948.
“When Israel was established it began, there was hate,” said Reuven, now 70. “We had a neighbor we got along with, and then there was hate.”
He still remembers the fear when grenades were thrown into his family’s synagogue.
In 1951, after three years of increasing animosity and persecution, the Reuvens moved to Israel, where the government placed them in an immigrant absorption camp and gave Reuven’s father agricultural work. Reuven now lives in Tel Aviv’s low-income Hatikvah neighborhood, retired after a career in construction.
More than 800,000 Jews lived in the Arab world at the time of Israel’s founding. Virtually all of them left, fled or were forced out of their homes after Israel’s birth, with more than three-quarters moving to Israel. The once-thriving communities they had established in places such as Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Tunisia shrunk and, in some cases, virtually disappeared. In many cases the emigrants were forced to leave behind much of their property.
As part of an effort to have those Jews recognized as refugees and demand compensation for their lost property, the World Jewish Congress will be hosting a conference in Jerusalem next week focused on “raising the flag of rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries,” according to WJC Secretary General Dan Diker.
Then, on Sept. 21, the WJC, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Israeli Foreign Ministry will host a similar conference at United Nations headquarters.
“It’s important that the world accept and recognize that most of them were forcibly exiled and subjected to the worst kind of anti-Semitic assault,” which included Jews being “attacked, assaulted, killed, robbed,” Diker told JTA. “This issue has been largely ignored by Jewish leaders over the past number of years. They were resettled, so it wasn’t perceived as an acute bleeding.”
In addition to the WJC efforts, the Israeli Knesset is slated to vote soon on a resolution to establish a day commemorating the history of Jews from Arab lands and to found a museum focused on that history. The U.S.-based Justice for Jews from Arab Countries also advocates for the refugees’ rights.
While the campaign for the Jewish refugees ostensibly is aimed at winning some recompense for Jews from Arab countries and their descendants – known in Israel as Mizrahim, Hebrew for Easterners – it’s also part of a political effort to create a Jewish parallel to Palestinian refugee claims from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Advocates want the Jewish refugee issue to serve as a counterbalance to the Palestinian refugee issue in any future Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, and want recognition and monetary compensation for Jewish refugees to be a part of any final-status deal.
While no mechanism for such compensation exists now, Diker envisions an international fund that would resolve claims for Jewish and Palestinian refugees. Meir Khaolon, chairman of the World Organization of Libyan Jews, which is collaborating with the WJC in its campaign, says Mizrahi Jews have listings of 80 percent of the property left behind in Arab countries.
“It restores parity to Arab-Israeli diplomacy,” Diker said. “That narrative has become distorted in recognizing and advancing the narrative that the Palestinian Arabs are the sole aggrieved party in this conflict.”
The issue of the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries is now new, but Diker said it has risen in prominence now because of a parallel effort by Knesset members to celebrate Mizrahi history and culture in Israel. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who is leading the effort and introduced the resolution in the Knesset two months ago to memorialize Mizrahi communities, will speak at the upcoming WJC conference along with other Israeli and international politicians.
“All those Jews wanted to be part of the Jewish rebuilding” of Israel, Ayalon said. “But the fact that they were harassed, that they were killed, that they were robbed of their dignity as human beings is something that has never been recognized.”
Most Mizrahi Jews who moved to Israel did so because they faced persecution in their home countries, according to Maurice Roumani, a professor at Ben-Gurion University and an expert on Libyan Jewry. While Jews had lived under Muslim rule for centuries with restricted rights, their situation became increasingly precarious during the years leading up to Israel’s founding. When Israel declared independence, Jews across the Arab world lost rights and in many cases citizenship, and expulsions followed in the years and decades following 1948.
“The claim that Jews left on their own is not reflecting the truth of history because the true history shows that Jews could no longer continue living there without having their lives threatened,” Roumani said. “Jews from Arab countries had been living in continuous insecurity for generations. If their lives had not been so insecure, few of them would have left.”
Reuven said he does not see himself as a refugee from Iraq. “I’m Israeli for everything,” he said.
Clara Yona Memshumar, whose parents left Libya for Israel in 1947 and 1950 before marrying, said her family left not under duress but “out of religious faith. They always said, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ ”
“From my parents’ stories it was the fulfillment of the dream,” said Meshumar, who also serves as the academic director of Kedma, an Israeli nonprofit that in part promotes the teaching of Mizrahi history in Israeli schools. “They were not Zionist in the European sense, but they were Zionists. The moment that legal immigration became possible, most people went.”
While the Palestinian refugee community places its refugee status at the center of its identity, Meshumar and other Mizrahi Jews said their families made no formal effort to preserve the memory of their former homes or commemorate their exodus from Middle Eastern countries beyond telling stories or performing Mizrahi Jewish rituals during holidays.
By contrast, Palestinian families retain mementos of their former homes in present-day Israel, such as keys or land deeds, and annually commemorate losing their homes during Israel’s establishment, which they call the Nakba – the “catastrophe.”
Israel and the Palestinian Authority haven’t negotiated directly since 2010, but Diker said that creating parity between refugees could allow the parties to resolve their respective refugee claims separate from negotiations on borders and security.
“You don’t need a final status agreement in order to solve the refugee problem,” he said. “We’re not adding a claim. We’re recognizing a claim.”
Farhud memories: Baghdad’s 1941 slaughter of the Jews
By Sarah Ehrlich, Witness, BBC world service
June 1 2011
On 1 June 1941, a Nazi-inspired pogrom erupted in Baghdad, bringing to an end more than two millennia of peaceful existence for the city’s Jewish minority. Some Jewish children witnessed the bloodshed, and retain vivid memories 70 years later.
Heskel Haddad, an 11-year-old boy was finishing a festive meal and preparing to celebrate the Jewish festival of Shavuot, oblivious to the angry mob that was about to take over the city.
Thousands of armed Iraqi Muslims were on the rampage, with swords, knives and guns.
The two days of violence that followed have become known as the Farhud (Arabic for “violent dispossession”). It spelt the end for a Jewish community that dated from the time of Babylon. There are contemporary reports of up to 180 people killed, but some sources put the number much higher. The Israeli-based Babylonian Heritage Museum says about another 600 unidentified victims were buried in a mass grave.
“On the first night of Shavuot we usually go to synagogue and stay up all night studying Torah,” says Haddad, now a veteran ophthalmologist in New York.
“Suddenly we heard screams, ‘Allah Allah!’ and shots were fired. We went out to the roof to see what’s happening, we saw fires, we saw people on the roofs in the ghetto screaming, begging God to help them.”
The violence continued through the night. A red hand sign, or hamsa, had been painted on Jewish homes, to mark them out. Families had to defend themselves by whatever means they could.
Haddad remembers the marauders coming down his street at dawn, and watching them from the roof as they looted his neighbour’s house.
“My father had a dagger in his hand and a pipe to prevent people from attacking us on the roof. An idea came to me and I took some bricks from breaking the walls and started throwing them. Other kids came with me and began throwing rocks on these people.
“And when we hit somebody and they began to bleed, they began screaming ‘Allah!’ and they left. And they left the loot behind them.”
Some families bribed policemen to stand guard, paying half a dinar for each bullet fired. Others owe their lives to Muslims who took great risks to protect them.
In a nearby street in a mixed Jewish and Muslim quarter, Steve Acre lived with his widowed mother and eight siblings in a house owned by a Muslim.
Acre, now 79 and living in Montreal, climbed a palm tree in the courtyard when the violence began. He still remembers the cry “Cutal al yehud” which translates as “slaughter the Jews”.
From the tree he could see the landlord sitting in front of the house.
“When the mob came he talked to them. He told them that we are orphans who took refuge in his house and they cannot touch us. If they want us they have to kill him. So lucky for us, the mob moved away, moved to other houses,” he remembers.
The men then crossed the street and screams began to emanate from the house of his mother’s best friend.
“Later lots of men came outside and set the house on fire. And the men were shouting like from joy, in jubilation holding up something that looked like a slab of meat in their hands.
“Then I found out, it was a woman’s breast they were carrying – they cut her breast off and tortured her before they killed her, my mother’s best friend, Sabicha.”
Until the Farhud, Baghdad had been a model of peaceful coexistence for Jews and Arabs. Jews made up about one in three of the city’s population in 1941, and most saw themselves as Iraqi first and Jewish second.
So what caused this terrible turn of events?
A month earlier, a pro-Nazi lawyer Rashid Ali al-Gilani, had overthrown Iraq’s royal family, and started broadcasting Nazi propaganda on the radio.
But when an attack on a British Air Force base outside Baghdad ended in humiliating failure, he was forced to flee. The Farhud took place in the power vacuum that followed.
In a tragic twist to the tale, it turns out the British Army could have intervened to halt the violence. On 1 June, British cavalry were just eight miles from the city, having raced 600 miles from Palestine and Egypt under orders to prevent Iraqi oil falling into Nazi hands.
“To Britain’s shame, the army was stood down,” says historian Tony Rocca, co-author with Farhud survivor Violette Samash of the book, Memories of Eden.
“Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, Britain’s ambassador in Baghdad, for reasons of his own, held our forces at bay in direct insubordination to express orders from Winston Churchill that they should take the city and secure its safety. Instead, Sir Kinahan went back to his residence had a candlelight dinner and played a game of bridge.”
A move to halt the pogrom was finally taken by the Mayor of Baghdad and police loyal to the Iraqi monarchy, who imposed a curfew at 5pm on 2 June.
After the Farhud, life changed drastically for the city’s Jews. Up to that point Haddad had had many Muslim friends.
“Suddenly I changed my attitude. I didn’t feel any more Iraqi. I felt I’m a Jew and I vowed that I wanted to kill an Arab,” he says.
One day, swimming in the River Tigris, he encountered a drowning man, and instinctively helped him to the shore.
“When I came home I was shook up. Not because I saved the guy but because I didn’t follow my vow to kill an Arab. And when I went to see the rabbi, he said, ‘You can’t make a vow to kill. You can only make a vow to help.’
“That’s what stimulated me to go into medicine, actually. I knew that I want to save lives, not to kill people.”
The anti-Semitism that Hitler had successfully exported to Iraq made life unbearable for the Jewish community. There were frequent arrests on false charges of spying and public hangings of prominent Jews.
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In 1950, Jews were finally allowed to leave, on condition they give up all their property and assets, including their bank accounts. By 1952, only 2,000 of 150,000 were left.
Acre and Haddad still feel a lingering distrust of the British, because of their failure to stop the violence.
For Haddad, another legacy of the Farhud is a contradictory attitude to Iraqi Muslims. He has operated on injured Iraqis free of charge, has visited Iraq as an adviser to the government, and is described by Iraq’s ambassador in Washington as “the best Iraqi I know”. But while he numbers some Iraqi Muslims among his friends, he remains on his guard in the presence of others.
“I have this feeling, a sort of distrust, that the Farhud created,” he says. “It’s an emotional thing that you cannot eradicate that easily.”