Until midway through the 20th century, the Iraqi Jewish community was one of the oldest continuous communities in the world, with a proud history spanning more than 2,600 years. Today, fewer than 10 Jews remain in Iraq. While there are many reasons for the decimation of this community, one event in particular stands out: the Farhud, the unprovoked massacre of Jewish Iraqis by their compatriots in a frenzy of nationalist, pro-Nazi rage.
The experiences of the Jewish people in Iraq over history were varied, with periods of persecution and horrific attacks, as well as times of relative calm and somewhat tolerable conditions.
Under centuries of Islamic rule, Jews were subjugated and classified as dhimmis (“protected persons,” though second-class citizens) required to pay taxes, sometimes exorbitantly high. Failure to do so could result in death. As the Ottoman Empire began to crumble, however, reforms led to Jews receiving a greater degree of equality, a process hastened by the subsequent era of British colonialism.
The Jews’ success at integrating into Iraqi society was tempered by the fact that they were still seen as outsiders by many of their Muslim neighbors, classic anti-Semitic discrimination remaining a significant impediment.
When Jews officially received equal rights in 1922, this did not lead to a parallel rise in social status. Instead, their emancipation precipitated a surge in tensions between the Muslim majority and Jewish minority. At the same time, Arab nationalism became increasingly influential across the region, leaving Jews excluded.
After a failed nationalist coup in 1941, there was a power vacuum before the resumption of British control, during which an atmosphere of lawlessness prevailed.
Some believe that the violence started spontaneously when Jews met with the returning regent, an act that infuriated Arab nationalists. Others think the violence was premeditated, sparked by anti-Jewish preaching in a nearby mosque. Whatever the immediate trigger, the subsequent carnage was the product of years of incitement and the legitimization of anti-Semitism. The resulting pogrom is now commonly known by its Arabic name: al-Farhud.
Numerous testimonies record that several days before Shavuot 1941, Jewish homes and properties in Baghdad were marked with a red hamsa (“palm print”).
As Jews left synagogue on June 1, a crowd began to riot in the streets with batons, daggers and swords, first pouncing on the Jews and then moving on to lay waste to Jewish properties and a synagogue. Many of the Jewish properties marked in red were ransacked as entire families were murdered.
Survivors testified regarding police breaking into houses and slaughtering Jews, cutting off limbs and looting jewelry. Men had their genitals severed and stuffed in their mouths. Women were raped and slashed open while still alive. Children were thrown into wells and the river. People were thrown off rooftops, and the crazed mob delighted in hearing the pained cries of the stricken and tormented Jews.
As these terrible crimes took place, other Muslims pretended to be the owners of Jewish homes, in order to shield the Jewish homeowners. Policemen were bribed to guard Jews. Some brought food to the hidden Jews, others threatened attackers with guns, and in at least one case, an elderly woman invited her Jewish neighbors into her home to take shelter.
For two days, the streets flowed with blood. The cries of the Jews were heard all over the city, and their torn bodies, dead children and burning holy books were everywhere. Finally, the bodies were piled into a mass grave. Some 1,500 Jewish-owned properties had been broken into, ransacked and set ablaze.
Within a little more than a decade of this barbaric pogrom, almost all the Jews remaining in Iraq had fled, thus ending the community’s illustrious thoussands’-year-old history.
Emanuel Miller is a Jerusalem-based writer who has previously worked for “The Jerusalem Post” and “The Times of Israel,” and helped establish the English media department of My Truth, an organization that documents the experiences of Israeli soldiers. He regularly speaks about media bias and Israel’s geopolitical complexities to audiences including Birthright groups, student leaders visiting Israel and those seeking to attain a more nuanced understanding of the Jewish state.
This is an extract from an article that originally appeared on the HonestReporting website. Read the article in full here.