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Media Analyses





AFP Whitewashes History of Iraq's Jews


It takes a savvy news consumer and careful reading between the lines to begin to decipher the May 1, 2009 AFP article by Joseph Krauss entitled "Muslim shrines bear witness to Iraq's Jews." Even the headline's meaning is shrouded, and likely to mislead the casual reader. The article begins:

Nearly everyone who could read the Hebrew verses carved into the walls of Ezekiel's tomb left Iraq almost 60 years ago, but their memory is preserved in what is today a revered Muslim shrine.

Between 1948 and 1951 nearly all of Iraq's 2,5000-year-old Jewish community fled amid a region-wide outbreak of national violence, but today Iraq's Muslims and Christians still visit its most important holy sites.

In the little town of Kifl, south of Baghdad, the shrine of Ezekiel -- the prophet who followed the Jews into Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC -- has long been a part of Iraq's millenia-old religious mosaic.

A 14th-century brick minaret tilts outside the entrance to the shrine, but inside the mosque is shaped like a synagogue, with old wooden cabinets that used to hold Torah scrolls and balustrades that once separated men and women. . . .

The government has launched a project to renovate the interior of the shrine, and the state ministry for tourism and antiquities says it hopes to eventually repair and renovate other Jewish sites across the country.

The text is maddingly ambiguous; will the Kifl tomb and other historically Jewish sites be renovated to restore and maintain their original Jewish character, or will it be renovated in accord with the Muslim shrines they apparently have become? After all, given the history of Islam, this point requires careful clarification. As noted by scholar Raymond Ibrahim, Muslim conquerers have had a tendency to convert Jewish and Christian holy sites into Muslim shrines. Thus, when the Turks conquered Constantinople in the fifteenth century, the famed Hagia Sophia church, along with 500 other Christian places of worship, were converted to Muslim shrines. The Al Aqsa Mosque is deliberately built atop the ruins of the first and second Jewish temples in Jerusalem. And in more recent days, when the bloodied Israeli army withdrew from Joseph's Tomb in 2000, it was quickly turned into a mosque.

Perhaps Krauss has given away the answer, referring at one point to the revered site in Kifl as a mosque. Yet, the matter is confused when Iraqi spokesman Abdelzahra al-Talaqani is quoted: "The ministry is concerned with all Iraqi heritage, whether it is Christian or Jewish or from any other religion." Does that "concern" translate to the mission of converting abandoned non-Islamic religious sites into mosques, as is apparently the case with Ezekiel's tomb? Krauss does not spell out the answer either way and the discerning reader is left to wonder.

Whitewash of Twentieth Century History

What's clear, however, is that Krauss' account of twentieth-century Iraqi Jewish history is a total whitewash. Thus, while the second paragraph refers vaguely to "a region-wide outbreak of nationalist violence," the article paints a rather rosy picture of life for Iraqi Jews, stating, for example:

"Everyone got along. We missed them when they left," said Ghazi Mohammed Salih, a 66-year-old pharmacist whose family has held the keys to the Kirkuk citadel for more than 1,400 years.

"My father used to talk about the Jewish mukhtar (community leader) Shlomi, who came with his people every Saturday to make a donation to the shrine," [sic] he said. "We all loved each other like brothers." [CAMERA note: Religious Jews do not handle money on Saturday, the Sabbath.] . . .

Prior to the exodus in 1948, Jews made up around a third of Baghdad's population and played a major role in the political, economic and cultural life of the country.

The article then ostensibly goes on to explain the causes that led to the end of the otherwise beautiful, brotherly Jewish-Muslim coexistence in Iraq:

The troubles began in the early 1930s, with the rise and gradual radicalisation of Arab nationalism and the simultaneous arrival of Zionism, with emissaries mobilising Jewish youth and urging emigration to Palestine.

The process culminated with the birth of Israel in 1948, the first Arab-Israeli war and Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, which flew more than 120,000 Jews -- 96 percent of Iraq's Jewish -- to Israel in 1951.

This is a rather prettified version of events, altogether ignoring massacres of Jews, such as the Farhoud, in which 200 Jews were murdered in 1941. The article completely omits this watershed event, while at the same time placing "gradual radicalisation of Arab nationalism" (a euphemism) on the same footing as Zionism in terms of the reasons for the Jewish exodus. Nor does it mention the Iraqi government's alignment with the Nazi regime, which played itself out in very real ways for the local Jews. Maurice M. Roumani, director of the J.R. Elyachar Center for Studies in Sephardi Heritage at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, notes that

The Government of Iraq began to take specifically anti-Jewish steps practically from the moment of its independence; in 1934 the teaching of Hebrew was prohibited and students' entry into high schools and universities restricted. Jews began to be dismissed from certain government positions. Physical attacks on Jews in Baghdad - including murders - became frequent from 1936 on; anti-Jewish propaganda was spread by an openly pro-Nazi and anti-Zionist regime. The tension and "shadowy persecution" erupted into violence in other cities too, where local Muslim leaders used the opportunity to extort money from the Jews. (Maurice M. Roumani, The Case of the Jews From Arab Countries: A Neglected Issue, 1983)

CAMERA's Gilead Ini wrote about the history of the Iraqi Jews in response to a similarly whitewashed article by the BBC:

The situation worsened in 1941. A new Iraqi government, backed by Haj Amin al Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem best known for his collaboration with the German Nazi leadership and his role in anti-Jewish massacres in Palestine, forcefully took power in April of that year, and the Jews of Iraq immediately felt the impact.

British journalist Marina Benjamin described in a book about her family's life in Baghdad the month that followed the coupe d'etat:

... the Jews were harassed by pro-Nazi elements mobilized by the rebel government. They had to contend with swastikas being crudely daubed all over the Jewish quarter and with direct intimidation by the Futuwwah [paramilitary youth organization], whose members brought rather too much enthusiasm to their new role of policing Baghdad. ... the Jews served as punching bags ....

Hardly a day passed without some Jew or other being hauled up by the police and accused of signaling to British planes flying overhead. ...

On May 6, 1941, a mob armed with knives and cudgels stormed the [Jewish] Meir Elias hospital looking for British agents who had reportedly based themselves there in order to signal to enemy bombers. The vigilantes attacked patients and staff, shooting indiscriminately. (Marina Benjamin, Last Days in Babylon: The History of a Family, the Story of a Nation, 2006)

Then, on the first two days of June, 1941, the Jews of Baghdad faced a devastating pogrom, known to Iraqis as the Farhoud.

Bat Ye'or, an expert on the treatment of minorities under Islamic rule, described the event as follows:

Iraqi soldiers, police and members of youth groups seized Jewish pedestrians, bound them hand and foot, and threw them under the wheels of tramcars; others were stabbed. Murder, pillage, rape, and the burning of Jewish shops and houses continued for two days ... . (Bat Ye'or, Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide, 2002)

Marina Benjamin also described the "free-for-all slaughter":

... trouble began in earnest when a number of Jewish men returning home that afternoon were accosted by a band of demobilized soldiers on the Khurr Bridge. The soldiers flew at them with fists and knives, kicking them to the ground and pummeling them with their boots in a frenzied release of pent-up frustration. Then they ran off, leaving one Jew dead and another sixteen injured. ...

As dusk fell acts of pillage and murder spread, forcing the Jews, who had so recently come out of hiding, to run straight home and lock their doors. ...

In Bataween [Baghdad's main Jewish quarter], cries of horror and suffering could be heard throughout the night ... women were raped, babies crushed, children mutilated. In this free-for-all slaughter, Jews old and young were killed. Some were shot and some stabbed. Houses big and small were broken into and plundered.

Indiscriminate looting of Jewish property, meanwhile, was urged with the slogan "Mal el Yehud halal," or "Jewish property is kosher for the taking" (David Kazzaz, Mother of the Pound: Memoirs on the Life and History of the Iraqi Jews, 1999).

In two days, roughly 200 Jews were killed, 2,000 were wounded, and hundreds of homes and businesses were looted or burned.

The Farhoud, which devastated the confidence of the Iraqi Jewish community, might be described as the beginning of its end. Though the next six years would be relatively quiet, the stage was set for the eventual wholesale emigration/expulsion of Iraq's Jews. Swastikas began "appearing everywhere." An ominous 1942 British intelligence report noted that "the Iraqis will punish the Jews eventually" (Basri).

Indeed, the next phase of anti-Jewish hostilities - perhaps the predicted "punishment" - began in 1947, in the wake of the United Nations decision to partition Palestine. The Iraqi government quickly adopted what author and journalist Edwin Black described as "Nazi confiscatory techniques," levying "exorbitant fines as punishment for trumped-up offenses." Zionism was made a criminal offense. As Arab countries invaded the newly declared Jewish state, the Iraqi police ransacked Jewish homes and arrested hundreds of Jewish citizens (Edwin Black, "Dispossessed: How Iraq's 2,600-year-old Jewish community was decimated in one decade," Reform Judaism, Winter 2004). Hundreds more were dismissed from their public jobs. Crippling restrictions targeted Jewish commerce and travel. The government seized Jewish property, cut off municipal services to Jewish neighborhoods, and shut down Jewish newspapers (Basri).

The Jewish community's sense of security was further eroded when Shafiq Adas, the richest Jew in Baghdad, was publicly hanged - amidst public rejoicing - after being convicted for allegedly selling scrap metal to Israel and having communist affiliations. His prominent Muslim attorneys were prevented from cross-examining prosecution witnesses and from calling their own witnesses. The British Ambassador to Iraq would shortly afterward draw parallels between the plight of Iraqi Jews and that of blacks in the American South, specifically citing the unjust court system in each locale as one of the similarities (Basri).

The BBC eventually amended its whitewashed history of Iraqi Jewry after CAMERA's intervention, and AFP should likewise correct the record.

Restitution? Don't Bank On It
 
Krauss ends on a false ecumenical note of unfounded optimism, writing: "the faithful from three religions may soon make their way again to the Kifl shrine, near which Ezekiel is said to have walked through a valley of dry bones and seen God lift them up and clothe them with flesh."
 
But getting back to more mundane matters, if Iraq plans to turn abandoned Jewish sites into tourist destinations, shouldn't some of that money be sent to its actual (Jewish) owners, who were forced to leave behind all assets when they fled?  The negative answer comes in the last paragraph by the Iraqi official who says it best: "'If any delegation comes with permission from the government they are most welcome,' Abdelhadi said with a smile. 'As long as they are only coming to visit.'" In other words, everyone -- Jews included -- are welcome to come spend their money in Iraq. But heaven forbid the dispossessed ancient Jewish population of Iraq should seek compensation, or worse, return to live in their birthplace.

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