Emil Murad

Emil Murad



By, Emil Murad. Honorary Doctor & author of books in Hebrew and English

The people of Jacob have dwelt by the Rivers of Babylon ever since the destruction of the First Temple, a continuous period exceeding 2,500 years. The Jewish community of Babylon went along the same path the other peoples of the region had trodden, that of captivity, assimilation and absorption into the ancient Babylonian culture , and finally disappearance .

But unlike the others, Jews remained steadfast in their in their faith and firm in upholding the traditions of their ancestors. Their eyes beheld wonders, mighty kings, world conquerors, devastators and overthrowers of kingdoms.

Even so , the light of Judaism remained illuminated and their faith produced prophets , sages and the Gaonim, who for many centuries were in turn a lamp unto the People of Israel. The Yeshivot of Babylon became the focus of the spiritual birthright of Israel, and the Babylonian Talmud and the entire literature of the Gaonim form a precious, eternal possession.

Even at the summit of its glory, however, the Jewish Babylonian community was a minority living in a foreign land, always at the mercy of the rulers of the land. The Arab state which arose in Babylon, Iraq, was at the beginning of the 1920s a state to which we, as Jews and citizens, have contributed greatly, both to its development and its prosperity; but this state in its turn has not given us tranquility. Iraq has not permitted us to live our lives peacefully.

We, Jews of Babylon, have been a talented element, active in commerce, economy and industry in the midst of our Arab neighbors. We were the pioneers of progress who acquired the values of Western modernization in all sectors of life, but our neighbors , our cousins , not only forgot this contribution of ours , but also ignored a fundamental historical fact that we , Jews, had settled in Iraq 13 centuries before the flourishing of Islam and before the first Arab ever set foot in Babylonia.

Despite this fact of history, a harsh nationalist movement arose in modern times and set itself a determined systematic political line to destroy completely the progressive, established Jewish community .

A substantial change and marked deterioration occurred in the situation of Jews during the period between the two World Wars. The achievement of independence by the Arab countries was accompanied by a blind hatred directed towards all minorities, exemplified by the persecution of the Armenians , the massacre of the Assyrian Christians , the war of extermination against the Kurds in Northern Iraq , and the campaign against the Africans in Southern Sudan .

Not only did the Jews suffer from the hatred accompanying the achievement of independence of the Arab states, but they also found themselves the victims and hostages in the Arab war against the Zionist movement , and against the settlement of Eretz Yisrael. The Jews of Iraq have endured oppression and systematic discrimination ever since – and before – this nation obtained its independence in 1932. Already just after the First World War , when Iraq was severed from the Ottoman Empire and became an Arab ruled state, within the framework of a British Mandate , the Jews were persecuted .

The Jews had secured a special, significant place in the economic administrative and cultural life of Iraq, perhaps because they had been in the country longest. They were superior to their neighbors in education and knowledge, they were outstanding in commerce and many were employed in government administration and in private clerical practice.

But from 1929 onwards they began to be ousted from government departments. From l930 all Iraqi governments systematically suppressed any sign of Jewish or national consciousness on the part of the Iraqi Jews. Specifically the study of Jewish history was forbidden, restrictions were imposed on relations with Jews abroad and Zionism was considered to be treason.

Because of their success, the Jewish community in Iraq made the newly independent Arabs jealous. What made matters worse was that the Jews found an honored position amongst the British and in the eyes of the virtual colonial administration.
The British administration needed senior officials, local agent proficient in English and Arabic. The Jewish intelligentsia was prominent here, and thousands joined the administration passing on their managerial techniques.

The majority of these Jewish officials were employed in those sections of the administration responsible for finance, postage, railways, ports and customs. The Moslems became envious of the Jews, but throughout the years of the British rule, the Arabs restrained their wrath and accepted the situation. In the meantime the Jews of Iraq prospered due to the development of commerce and the economy, and banks under Jewish management were established.

The new status which the Jewish community in Iraq acquired in those few years between the wars helped it to reorganize its institutions; there was even a Zionist Association which fostered close relations with the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem. However, a young Moslem generation demanded its place in the economic and administrative system and began to regard the Jews as interference.

When Hitler came to power in Germany, Goebbel’s agent arrived in Iraq and began to disseminate propaganda against the Jewish domination of government institutions and economy. He instigated the Moslems against the Jews, and in l935 Arab hatred found expression in crowded meetings, which terminated in murderous pogroms .

The Golden Age was over. The economic situation of the Jews became grave. Many merchants were deprived of import permits, and educational institutions refused to accept Jewish pupils. Nazi social theories were added to the nationalist persecution of the Jews.

In April 1941, there was a revolt in Iraq, engineered by German army officials against Crown Prince Abd El-Ilah and the government of Taha El-Hashimi. The revolt was headed by Rashid Ali El-Gailani. Arab hatred of the English was transferred to the Jews, and the brunt of the war declared on Britain was diverted to a campaign against the unfortunate, defenseless Jews of Iraq. Many were imprisoned and tortured, and an enormous amount of money on the pretext of war needs was extorted .

Jewish officials were sacked and businesses closed. In May, 1941 several English aircraft flew over Baghdad. The hostile population accused the Jews of signaling to the planes. On that very day the Jews endured great suffering. Many were seized and interrogated On the same day, too, patients in hospitals were accused of signaling to aircraft .

On Sunday, the first day of the Feast of Shavuot, at 10:00 a.m. youths who had gathered to greet the Crown prince, Abd- El-Ilah , came to the airport . Meanwhile, Jews dressed in festive attire went out into the streets in a markedly happy atmosphere.

All of them were pleased at the return of the Crown Prince and at the restoration of order to the capital, Baghdad. Suddenly, however, hooligans began to stone the Jews. A panic-stricken fight began, with wild cries of “Moslems! Moslems!” A glance into the street revealed Jews, among them an injured woman, running, hastening to lock themselves into their homes.

Large numbers of Jews fled into the side streets. There were sounds of shooting, cries, the flash of knives. That was the beginning of an unforgettable pogrom , called The Farhood. By mid-afternoon Jews who had not heard of the earlier incidents came out into the streets dressed in their festive clothing. Traitors and rioters from the ranks of Kataib-el-Shabab (the Arab Youth agitators ) as well as defeated soldiers and inflamed students gathered in Bab-El-Sheikh neighborhood.

They began dragging Jews out of buses and murdering them in the road. Wild crowds and defeated soldiers who had returned with their weapons to the city, saw the pogrom as a celebration and a sort of amusement. The Jewish Quarter in the city centre became a battlefield, with looting, robbery, and rape. Babies were killed in the arms of their mothers. Young children were forced to murder their parents and parents were made to slaughter their own offspring. If they refused they had their throats cut in the presence of their sons and daughters.

Armed police and soldiers joined the mob and took part in pogroms against the Jews. A bloody harvest was in full swing. The Jews did not dare defend themselves, and anyway lacked means of self defense .

The pogrom inflicted mortal wounds on the Jewish community. Every fourth house was touched by mourning and grief. Not one family was unaffected. Everyone was in despair. No one came to their aid. To the Jews, frightened and depressed , their degradation and threats , and then a day later , came another round of massacre.

Arab voices could be heard everywhere in Baghdad: ” The small feast is over, now you (the Jews) prepare for the great feast !”

The Jews began to organize themselves and to whisper about self defense: how and in which way !!! The future of the community lay in the hands of youths and younger men and girls. With a sort of unexpected enthusiasm a “chaluz” movement arose clandestinely .

When the Palestine problem appeared and waves of refugees came to Baghdad , a new trouble and curse fell upon the Jews. Four club-houses belonging to the Jewish community were confiscated and schools were taken over , leaving students without schools , and even synagogues were attacked
In addition, associations for the extortion of money from Jews were established. There were even rumors about a plan to put the Jews in a concentration camp , and the town of Baakuba was designated for the purpose.

Many Jews were put to death. After the second round of The Pogrom many of those who had escaped death wished to leave Iraq, but were not allowed to leave the country. The total value of the property looted in the Rashid Ali pogroms (The Farhud) was approximately four million dollars. The government estimated it at one million, but paid the Jews only half a million when the storm had passed.

The Jews remained silent and organized themselves clandestinely. The Underground Movement was organized turning all Jewish eyes to Zion They were ready to pay any price for their right to go to Israel , be it loss of property , imprisonment and torture – even loss of their own lives.

The news of the establishment of a new state , the State of Israel , in 1947 aroused great joy that was celebrated in silence within closed doors . On the following day a thanksgiving prayer was declared in the synagogues for the new “hope” for the Jews. But the Arabs in the streets were also aroused and mobs demonstrated in anger and protest, calling for the flag of holy war, Jihad, to be raised against Zionism and the Jews.

That Friday night, a few hours after the Declaration of the State of Israel , when Jewish housewives lit an extra candle in addition to the traditional Sabbath candles to honor the birth of the new State , the Iraqi Prime Minister , broadcast a speech announcing the mobilization of the Iraqi army to join the fighters and the invasion of the so-called Jewish Entity .

At the same time, the martial law was declared, prohibiting demonstrations and gatherings . In police circles it was whispered that if the mobs burst into the Jewish Quarters of the capital in a pogrom like that which occurred in June 1941 , this time it would not be so easy to control the situation , since a change had occurred in the spirit of the Jews.

The police knew that many Jews had armed themselves and decided to fight for their lives at all costs. The “chalutz” movement , and all the clandestine underground movements , mobilized its strength and set up barricades to defend the Jewish Quarters at strategic points.

Radio communication was established between these points by the young Jews of the “chalutz” . Secret broadcasting stations were also set up and Molotov cocktails were prepared in each Jewish house under the guidance of the young “chalutzim” .

Then a Jewish millionaire , Shafiq Adas , from the port of Basrah in the south , was arrested on a pretext of Zionism and of sending arms to the Israeli Defense Forces . Actually Shafiq had never been a Zionist , he had not even participated in Jewish communal affairs , nor had the time to contact any of the “chalutzim” of the Underground Movement . He had had firm ties with the people in Iraq’s ruling circles , and with high officers in the Iraqi army , and this had given him a feeling of confidence . He believed himself immuned from harm , and his connections with reputed Moslems were strong .

Yet –his trial was short. The court sentenced him to death by hanging in the Square before his own beautiful palace in Basrah , and all his property was confiscated .
Thousands of Arabs streamed from Basrah to view the execution, whilst Jews mourned and fasted. Depression and despair hung over the Jewish Quarters, all over Iraq .

After the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jews of Iraq became hostages in the land of their birth. When the defeated Iraqi soldiers returned from the war against Israel in 1948, things became unbearable, and a new spirit entered every Jewish citizen in Iraq .

Children 14 years of age joined the young Underground Zionist Movement, and wanted to flee the country through the desert or by any other route . About 20,000 young people , boys and girls , left Iraq by impossible and dangerous routes . (See
BABYLON IN THE UNDERGROUND and QUAGMIRE , both by the writer of this article , EMIL MURAD )

There was no Jewish home without some member of the family missing. The graves of those who couldn’t make it are to be found on the mountains, in the desert or by the sea.Three years after the establishment of the State of Israel, Iraqi Jews were given an opportunity to leave Iraq en masse . This happened on the eve of Purim 1950

When the Iraqi parliament held a special sitting and ratified the law permitting any Jew who wished to leave the country, provided that he or she give up their citizenship and all their property .So began Operation Ezra and Nehemiah when an airlift – the most daring organized in peace time – transferred over 120,000 Jews from Iraq to Israel .

The Jews of Iraq left behind them not only a continuous history of 2,500 years, but all that was holy and precious to them, both spiritually and materially. This had been a rich community, deeply conscious if its Jewishness, and well organized, in other words : the brains of the Iraqi country .

There were many synagogues in 1950, when hundreds of Torah scrolls , encased in valuable caskets , covered in velvet and gold and silver plate . For Babylon was and is a Biblical land, second to the land of Israel .

The tombstone of the Prophet Ezekiel stands on the banks of the Euphrates, the tombstone of Ezra stood on the bank of Tigris next to the sea port of Basrah. The bones of Joshua are preserved in the city of Baghdad; the grave of Yonah Ben Amitai was in the northern city of Mosul , and the grave of the Prophet Nahum al Kashi was located in Al-Kash in Kurdistan . (See MY FRIENDS , THE KURDS by EMIL MURAD )

During Shavuoth, thousands of Jewish pilgrims visited the graves of those holy prophets , the tradition of long ages. Now these sites remain desolate. The exiles who sat by the Rivers of Babylon since the destruction of the First Temple were returning to their origin in the Land of their Forefathers to build it and to be built in it .

But in Israel there was no apartment with a key ready to welcome them, no school to teach them the language which they had never learnt in the their land of origin, where they were born, the language that had been prohibited from learning. Only the Jewish elders knew some Hebrew from prayer books, but they didn’t know how to speak or understand the language. They came to the land of Israel and all they were given was an iron bedstead, a leaky tent in a transition camp, called a “Ma’abara”, and two days a week of relief work to provide for their living.

While approximately 6,000 Jews remained in Iraq after the majority had left, those who departed had abandoned enormous communal property and much private property. Since 1951, the Iraqi custodian confiscated Jewish property to a value of at least eight million dollars, but the true value of the property was greater, since it was sold cheaply and much of the proceeds were pocketed by corrupt government officials.

During the period before the Six-Day War about 3000 Jews remained in Iraq , many of them rich and possessing a great deal of property. Among other things the government of Iraq ruled that any Jew without an identity card was to be deprived of his or her citizenship and property. Each Jew had to carry a special identity card and it was decreed that any Jew who could not prove his or her Iraqi citizenship was to have all property confiscated

Immediately the Six-Day war began, the Iraqi authorities began to persecute the remaining small Jewish community. Heads of families were imprisoned for no reason, and were freed only after payment of large sums of money .

Iraqi mobs looted shops, commercial centres and houses. Jews dared not complain and feared to leave their houses. After that short war the position of the remaining Jews deteriorated even more, and there was absolute supervision of all moneys due to the Jews. Other statutes were promulgated such as refusal to grant permits, and discharging all Jews employed by government or public companies.

Today only a handful of Jewish families remain in Iraq, a few hundred (at the time of writing this) perhaps even a few tens souls about whom very little is known .

This is the tragic story of the rise and fall of the Babylonian Community of Iraq, the Golden Age followed by total destruction and annihilation. The Jews of Babylon have drunk the cup of affliction to the very dregs. Their glory in the remote past has, as it were, been forgotten.

The time has come for the world to learn the truth , the bitter unvarnished facts , and to give candid consideration and true expression to both the glory and the suffering of this ancient Jewish people .

People forget, but History never does!