The State Department’s controversial decision to ship a trove of Iraqi Jewish artifacts to the government of Iraq, separating it from the exiled Babylonian Jewish community that produced it, has spurred calls to protect the valued relics. “The history of Iraqi Jews is in jeopardy,” a Washington Post opinion piece warned. And in The New York Times, an Op-Ed called on the U.S. to “Keep the Iraqi Jews’ legacy safe.”
While the dramatic dispute over the community’s tangible heritage plays out, the New York Times news pages have been more subtly scraping away at Iraqi Jewish history, with a pair of recent stories that erased the severe persecution that drove the country’s Jews from their homes.
Was Iraq Hospitable Until 1967?
First, in an otherwise interesting piece last September by Jerusalem bureau chief David Halbfinger about the friendly relationship between Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan, readers were informed that Iraq became inhospitable to Jews only after the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 — or in other words, that it had been hospitable before that point.
“After Israel’s defeat of its Arab neighbors in 1967 and the Baathist coup in Iraq a year later, Iraq became inhospitable to its dwindling Jewish population,” the story notes. An online caption reinforces the message: “Fleeing Iraqi Jews arrive at the Israeli consulate in Tehran in 1970. At the time, Iran was an Israeli ally and Iraq was becoming inhospitable to Jews.”
Two Iraqi Jewish women (including the author’s grandmother) gaze at the Tigris River in Baghdad.
While it is true that the small fraction of Iraqi Jewry remaining in Iraq in the late 1960s endured a severe round of anti-Jewish activity, it is a brazen revision of history to claim this was the turning point at which the country “became inhospitable.” (A note about language: While we follow the newspaper’s lead in referring to “hospitality,” in this context the word itself can be misleading. Jews were not guests in Iraq. Their neighbors and government were not hosts. Babylonian Jews were part of the fabric of the land for thousands of years, long preceding the Muslim and Arab conquest of the region.)
Conditions for Jews in modern Iraq took a turn for the worse in the 1930s when, influenced by the Nazis, the country enacted restrictive laws, barred Jewish students from schools, and dismissed Jews from certain jobs. In 1941, a brutal anti-Jewish massacre in Baghdad known as the farhud claimed about 200 lives and shattered the community’s sense of security. And in the early 1950s, nearly all of the country’s Jews escaped the intolerable conditions there.
In 1949, 130,000 Jews lived in Iraq in 1949. Three years later, after 95 percent of the community fled what they clearly considered an inhospitable country, perhaps 10,000 remained. (For a more detailed account of the persecution of Iraqi Jews, see here.)
The New York Times does acknowledge an exodus in its article, but gives no indication of the conditions that triggered it. “Kurdish Jews departed en masse for Israel when the Jewish state was created in 1948,” the piece states, making the “departure” look like something of a religious pilgrimage. But a huge, ancient, and well-established community doesn’t all but disappear from a hospitable land. In the words of researcher Carol Basri, the grave violations by successive Iraqi governments of the human rights of Iraqi Jews amounted to “nothing less than the ethnic cleansing of this ancient Jewish community.”
Times editors have stood by the article, insisting in an email to CAMERA that it would not create any misimpression.
Was Kurdistan a Bastion of Co-Existance?
A second New York Times piece, published on November 7, likewise notes at the absence of Jews from Iraqi Kurdistan, focusing on the town of Amadiya. And it likewise manages to maneuver around any mention of persecution:
Today Amadiya’s population of 9,000 is overwhelmingly Kurdish Muslim. But in the early 20th century there were said to be about two-thirds that many people, about evenly divided among Muslims, Christians and Jews — although there were 10 mosques compared with two churches and two synagogues. Everyone was packed into a circumference of a mile and a half.
Amadiya’s Jews all left after the creation of Israel in 1948.
The piece describes the town’s reputation for tolerance, even as it pokes fun at the fact that it is perhaps easy to be tolerant of a population that no longer exists — the article’s title, for example, refers to “An Iraqi Town Where Muslims, Jews and Christians Coexist, in Theory.”
The narrative of coexistence appears throughout the piece. “Just what accounts for the town’s communal tolerance, people say they’re not sure, except that it has always been so,” Times reporter Rod Norland writes. “We grew up like this,” an Amadiya resident tells readers. “My father always taught me to be like this and I teach my son the same.”
It would be easy to say that part of the secret of Amadiya’s harmony is simply that most of the other faiths have now left town, though some Jews have visited recently to help restore Hazana’s tomb and to pray there.
But locals insist that would be unfair.
And from another townsman: “The Jews were always our friends …. We never thought about what we were, we were just people living together.”
To be sure, there were plenty of friendships between Jews and Muslims in Iraq, and it might be expected that such friendships were particularly prevalent with Kurdish Muslims who have maintained a uniquely friendly relationship with the Jews and the Jewish state. But The New York Times ignores an essential part of the story.
Along with their particular challenges, meanwhile, the Jews of Kurdistan had to contend with the central government’s persecution and incitement during the 1930s and 40s, and would suffer the same exile as the rest of the Iraqi Jewish community. After all, the Iraqi prime minister who insisted the country should get rid of its Jews as they “have always been a source of evil and harm” was the prime minister of the entire state, Kurdish areas included.
But in this New York Times piece, which repeatedly cites harmonious coexistence for Jews, there is not a word about persecution. Neither of the newspaper’s recent articles mentions that Jews were forced out, that they fled Nazi-inspired laws, or that they abandoned their homes and everything they owned to escape anti-Semitic persecution. Instead, they just “left.” They “departed.” Inexplicably.
Compare this with the newspaper’s boilerplate about Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war against Israel. Reporters note that some Palestinians “fled,” while others were “expelled,” “driven from their homes,” “forced to leave”; or “turn[ed] … into refugees.”
For whatever reason, otherwise plain-spoken journalists seem tempted to downplay the persecution of Jews in the Arab world. Not all of them, of course. A pair of New York Times reporters, for example, were more forthright about anti-Jewish activity in a 2016 piece about Iraqi Jews. But consider the BBC story that focused on “an easy, happy life” for Iraqi Jews, who “emigrated” as part of a “religious journey.” Only after a protracted complaint by CAMERA did the BBC add references to anti-Jewish sentiment, discrimination, and the farhud.
And there is the Associated Press story that referred to “some street protests” in Morocco after the establishment of Israel — a far cry from the horrifying situation described by Maurice Roumani, author of The Case of the Jews from Arab Countries: a Neglected Issue. “Bloody riots broke out in June 1948 against the Jews in Oujda and Djerada in Morocco,” Roumani noted. “In Oujda, within three hours, five Jews had been killed, 30 seriously injured, shops and homes sacked. In Djerada, the Jewish population of 100 suffered 39 deaths and 30 severely wounded, the remainder less seriously.”
A Washington Post graphic about refugees and internally displaced peoples since the Second World War doesn’t view the more than 800,000 Jewish refugees squeezed out of Arab and Muslim countries as deserving of the even the briefest mention.
Such is how Arab dispossession of Jews has been downplayed or ignored by journalists. Is it because the story is about dispossession of Jews? Because it is about Arab dispossession? Or because so many of the dispossessed fled to Israel, for which media sympathy is generally scarce? Whatever the reasons, the full experience of Jews from the Arab world has been too often suppressed in mainstream discourse, a trend that continues in the pages of The New York Times.