The following article is the personal testimony of an Iraqi Jew regarding the last days of his community and their preparations for emigration to Israel. It is an extract from Emil Murad’s book, The Quagmire (London: Freund Publishing, 1998).
Editor’s Note: This article differs quite significantly from the usual material published by MERIA. The story of the immigration of Middle Eastern and North African Jewish communities to Israel, and their expulsion from their host nations, remains a severely under-treated subject both in the field of research on the Middle East and in the English-speaking world more generally. I recently visited the old Jewish neighborhoods of Baghdad and was struck, although not surprised, by the utter absence of any physical evidence that a Jewish community had thrived in that city for many centuries. MERIA is thus keen to do what it can to help ensure that this subject, vital to an understanding of the modern Middle East, begins to receive the attention that it deserves.
–Dr. Jonathan Spyer
Strange, is it not? that of the myriads who
Before us pass’d the door of Darkness through,
Not one returning to tell us of the Road,
Which to discover we must travel too.
According to the official census of 1947, the Iraqi Jewish population numbered one hundred and thirty-five thousand. This included Jews living in the area from Basra in the south to Rawanduz in the mountains of Kurdistan. In Baghdad alone there were seventy-seven thousand Jews, one-fourth of the city’s population.
Throughout Iraq, Jews began to secretly organize and talk of self-defence. An upsurge of clandestine Zionist activity precluded the establishment of the Chalutzim, or pioneer movement, by young people who were conscious of their indispensable role in the continuation of the Iraqi Jewish community. Underground branches of the “Chalutzim” were established in every city and town where Jews lived. Delegates and representatives were sent from Israel to establish secret connections with Jewish representatives. One of the Israeli delegates to come to Iraq in 1949 was Mordechai Ben Porat, a native Iraqi whose mother had been kidnapped in Baghdad in January 1941. Ben Porat was a young boy at this time, and he had remained in the capital under Jewish protection. As an adolescent, he rented a dairy shop where he could preach Zionism. “If you don’t see me, ” he informed his friends one day, “Don’t look for me!”
The Jews of Kurdistan, for whom transport and communication with their Iraqi brethren was cumbersome due to their remote location, bridged distances by means of the Chalutzic Movement. The Zionist revival fed a spark which could not be extinguished, and it found its way to every Jewish home.
Throughout 1946, 1947 and 1948 the mob attacks continued. Hundreds of Jews were wounded. After the pogroms many Jews sought to leave Iraq, but were refused exit permits. The Jews were prepared to pay any price to immigrate to Israel, even if it meant losing property, imprisonment, torture or even death. Many who fled through the mountains, deserts and sea perished before reaching the Holy Land. We heard about a convoy of forty escapees who left Baghdad for Israel. The Arab who had agreed to smuggle them out never showed up at the agreed rendezvous point. With no guide, the group became lost in the desert. The truck overturned in rough terrain, killing two boys and seriously wounding several others. They buried the dead in the desert and continued on with the wounded. After eight days of wandering in the desert without water, they eventually made their way back to their departure point in Baghdad. Some were captured, tortured and hanged. Many such tales of blockade-running and illegal immigration to Palestine circulated. Some made it, others did not.
The year 1947 was a strange one. I was sixteen years old at this time. I spent summer evenings with my friends strolling down city streets and going to clubs and hotels. Some of my friends would swim across the river to the opposite bank, but Ya’acov, Menashe and I would take a boat across the river. Other days, we would feast on the delectable foods and fruits of the good earth. But whenever Rahamim and I, and other Jewish friends in the neighborhood met, we had one topic on our lips: another Jew has illegally made his way to Palestine.
Father’s first and foremost concern for me and for my siblings was to complete high school. If I devoted all my time to studies, he said, I would become somebody. Perhaps a doctor, like one of our relatives who had been awarded the title Doctor of Medicine. My father had told me on several occasions, “I want you to learn to separate the wheat from the chaff, the relevant from the trivial, the necessary from the redundant. You can achieve this through education.”
In 1947 I completed my studies with honors at the American High School. I had received instruction there from a staff of male and female American teachers. At the age of sixteen and a half, I was the youngest graduating pupil in the class. I vowed that some day I would describe the graduation ceremony to Ali Baban, but I knew full well that this day would never come, and that I would never see my good friend again. I had received my highest marks in English and English Literature. Because of my proficiency in English, I had edited the school bulletin, and even published articles and poems, some of which were subsequently published in American newspapers and anthologies.
In the American High School our goal was the same irrespective of race, religion or creed: to graduate with high marks so as to be eligible for a scholarship and grant to continue studies in the United States. I was fortunate enough to win one of these scholarships.
Throughout all my years of study, I never felt discrimination at the American High School. I never felt that I was a Jewish boy among non-Jewish pupils. Within the school, at the playground, in the assembly and lecture halls or within the four walls of the classroom, we were governed by one feeling only: fraternity. All pupils enjoyed equal rights, celebrated their own holidays, and upheld their own beliefs. Morning prayers were not compulsory, and all students were allowed absolute freedom to follow the teaching of their father’s home.
In 1948, the state of Israel was born. I had not forgotten my good friend, Ali Baban, but hadn’t heard a word from or about him. I felt a longing to meet with him, to look into his eyes with understanding and to wish him and his nation a state of their own. I knew that wherever he was, he was thinking about me and wishing, as I did, to share his innermost feelings. I wondered about Baban senior and how the farm was holding up without Ali’s elder brother, Jamal. I wondered about Ali’s poor sister, Fatima, left on her own with her son, Khalifa. Fatima’s husband, Colonel Koder, could not possibly return to Iraq. He was wanted by the Iraqi authorities almost as much as Mulla Mustapha El-Barazani was. I wondered about Ali Baban. He would be a man of nineteen now, and had probably grown taller. Perhaps he had become a horseman, or perhaps a fighting and avenging Kurdish soldier who now served as his ageing father’s right hand. Or has he forgotten me by now? I wondered. How I wished he was by my side so I could tell him about the terror we felt, terror of the Arabs! I felt the need to be with him, to reminisce about school days. I wanted to travel with him, to write to him, to somehow contact him. At the same time I knew that this was not possible. I was frightened that he would write to me and reveal information better kept private. The results could be catastrophic for my family and me, were this to happen. I knew that any contact was unthinkable. I was left to sit and ponder without my old friend, Ali Baban.
At the end of 1947 I had approached my parents and explained to them that now, having won a scholarship, I could travel to the United States and continue my university studies as a medical student without any financial strain on them. It was for this reason, to reach this goal, that my father had insisted that I study and complete high school.
My parents half-heartedly agreed that this was an opportunity not to be missed. They had encouraged me to reach this goal, yet were reluctant to see me travel so far from home. Thus, with my parent’s assent, I applied to one of the best universities in the United States, and then proceeded to make travel arrangements. My next step was to go to the Ministry of Interior Affairs to submit affidavits and apply for a passport.
I told Rahamim of my plans, and how I would someday return to Iraq to obtain a position of standing.
“They will never let you. You are a Jew!” Rahamim laughed.
On the day of my appointment with the Ministry of Interior Affairs, I entered the room of the officer in charge to find three high-ranking policemen standing beside him. I explained that I wanted to apply for a passport as I would be leaving for the States within two months to study at a Boston university.
The officer studied the diplomas I handed him. He asked my name. I responded. He took another look, smiled fleetingly, then bellowed in rage: “A JEW!”
I repeated, “An Iraqi Jew!”
The officer looked at me, grabbed the diplomas lying on the table, ripped them to shreds, and flung them into the nearby garbage pail. As if that wasn’t enough, he filled his mouth with saliva, spat in my face and shouted, “Get out of here, filthy Jew! Get out of here, damned Zionist! Go before I rip you apart like a fish!”
Panic stricken, I wiped the spit off my face and raced for home, periodically looking back over my shoulder. Without anyone noticing my arrival, I ran breathlessly up to my room and threw myself onto my bed. In sorrow and shock, I buried my head into my pillow and cried bitterly. Rahamim had been right. Now, I possessed no documents and no diplomas. I was a man without an identity. An unnamed and aimless man. All my efforts to obtain higher schooling culminated in no more than a position of petty clerk.
That night I tossed and sighed in my bed. My head was heavy with thoughts that jostled in my brain. I thought of all the dreadful contingencies and possibilities that lurked around me, and it filled the darkness of the room with fears, nameless ghosts, and shapeless forms.
The atmosphere prevailing among the Jews at the end of 1947 was one of tense apprehension. No Jew was to be found outside home after nightfall. Late at night, the lights went out and babies nestled in their cribs, but the young people and adults did not sleep. Every day, day in and day out, the Jews suffered from acts of violence and animosity.
On the Sabbath, I met with Salem, Ya’acov and Menashe, friends from our street, and with my cousin Jacob. The atmosphere had become sad and bleak. What could be done, we wondered. Travelling far from home was too dangerous. We concluded that it would be best to sit at home, waiting and hoping for better days. And what if a coup d’état took place in Iraq? No one knew what would happen!
Going out with friends became less attractive. Everyone talked about the State of Israel, a Jewish homeland. The persecution of Jewish youth was escalating. More than two people walking down the street together was considered an assembly. If their number exceeded three, then they most certainly had something up their sleeve.
I didn’t know what to do with all the notebooks I had filled with prose, poetry and memoirs of school and of my many trips. What would I do if one day searched our home? These searches always came without prior warning. What would I tell them? Would they think me a spy, a Zionist agent, a criminal? If this happened, would I die on the gallows! This was not an unrealistic fear. Makeshift gallows existed at every square and on every street corner. Every day innocent Jews were accused of being Zionist agents or traitors, and hanged. It was difficult to sit and do nothing. I felt it would be a pity to destroy my notebooks, and so hid them in the storage room on the top floor of the house. I felt lonely and isolated from myself and my past.
I didn’t write a single word to my friend Ali Baban. I dared not contact him. Due to the overall political situation, Father forbade it outright. The Jewish situation took a turn for the worse in 1947 as the establishment of the State of Israel drew near.
One day, as we discussed the situation, Rahamim and I agreed that our V-Day would come. When that day arrived, the Arab’s uproarious outcries would prove to be much ado about nothing.
“Do you mean that the empty drum beats a loud noise?” Rahamim asked me. Our glances exchanged in mutual understanding.
“Ishtara b’lagayna kish-kish karia! (Empty vessels rattle the most!),” I replied in Aramaic.
At the beginning of April 1948, Kaukji’s Iraqi “Salvation Army” repeated its attempts to conquer Jewish settlements in Palestine and attacked Mishmar HaEmek. His forces bombarded the settlement with artillery, and when the assault was repelled, Kaukji retreated in the direction of Jenin. The guns were transferred to the front at Jerusalem, and at the beginning of May were used to shell the city’s Jewish neighbourhoods.
On the eve of 15th May, 1948, the eve of the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jewish communities in Arab countries were stricken by fear. As Jews in an Arab land, we knew we were vulnerable to increased persecution and imprisonment. Outwardly, we were silent. But in our hearts we were dressed in holiday attire, lighting candles in secret, reciting the kiddush over the wine and the shehiyanu for having a Jewish state at long last.
The establishment of the State of Israel, the Jews’ overall situation in the world and in Iraq in particular, so preoccupied my thoughts that I ceased thinking about my friend Ali Baban. I kept the Kurdish issue out of my conversations, fearing that a slip-of-the-tongue would cost me my neck. Kaukji’s moves echoed loudly in Baghdad, and the Iraqi Arabs doubled and tripled their acts of hostility against the helpless Jewish population. Father was extremely concerned about the situation. None of us had forgotten the Shavuot pogrom of 1941.
One day, Father returned from work and announced that we had no friends left in this world. Our situation had worsened, he said, and we must play deaf and dumb to keep from being accused of crimes we had not committed. Even Iati and Midhat, Father’s Kurdish friends who worked with him at the British Petroleum Company, ceased coming to visit our home for fear of the authorities. These authorities knew no reason or justice. It was forbidden to assemble, forbidden to talk, forbidden to lead normal lives.
Regular Iraqi troops invaded Palestine at the Gesher sector, Kawkab el-Hawa. On the 14th of May, the Arab legion conquered electrical installations within the Trans-Jordanian realm, and Gush Etzion fell as well. The Arabs in Baghdad and in every other Arab country made a big ruckus, marching and shouting victory songs and threats.
News of the establishment of the State of Israel prompted great rejoicing in Iraqi Jewish circles. It was the Sabbath eve, and housewives lit another candle alongside the traditional Sabbath lights. Over the radio, the Iraqi Prime Minister announced a general mobilization of Iraqi troops for invasion of the “imaginary ” Jewish state. There was a declaration of martial law and a prohibition of demonstrations and gatherings. Martial law was geared to restrain the angry Arab mob protesting the establishment of the Jewish state and calling for jihad against Zionism and the Jews.
Police circles were well aware of the transformation that had occurred in Jewish spirits since the pogrom of June 1941. A pogrom like that one would not be so easy to pull off. Unlike in 1941, the Jews now bore arms and were eager to retaliate. The Chalutzim mobilised their strength at strategic positions to defend the Jewish quarter, and taught every household how to prepare Molotov cocktails. Clandestine broadcasting stations were established to link positions by radio communication.
A massacre was indeed averted that night, but a “white pogrom” took its place when the police conducted a search of Jewish homes. If Hebrew books or a letter from Israel were found, the “criminals” were thrown into cellars and subjected to interrogation and brutal torture. They were then tried before a military court, convicted, and sentenced to years of imprisonment with hard labour.
A thanksgiving prayer recited in the synagogue on the following day was premature. Now, new and stricter laws circumscribing Jewish economic freedoms were enforced. Jewish children were prohibited from enrolling in state schools. To accommodate waves of Palestinian refugees flocking to Baghdad, four Jewish community clubs and schools were nationalized, and associations were established to extort money for the refugees. A plan to banish Jews to a concentration camp was proposed. The town of Baakuba was designated for this purpose. Many Jews were put to death. The Jewish millionaire, Shafik Adas, from the port of Basra, was accused of shipping arms to Israel and subsequently arrested. Shafik had never been a Zionist, nor had he participated in Jewish communal affairs. Owing to his close ties with ruling circles, he had erroneously assumed that he was immune. After a brief trial, the court sentenced him to death by hanging. All of his property was, of course, confiscated. He was hung in the square outside his magnificent mansion in Basra. Thousands of Arabs flocked to Basra to witness the spectacle, while the Jews mourned and fasted.
The gap between Arab and Jew widened. Overcome by depression and despair, Jews of all classes resolved to leave the living hell of Iraq for a life of freedom and liberty in Israel. Through bribery, some Jews were successfully smuggled out. Others were shot while crossing the frontier, and died as martyrs. Most became hostages in Iraq, the land of their birth. The situation was further aggravated by defeated Iraqi troops returning from the 1948 war with Israel. Unable to bear the unbearable, approximately twenty-thousand Jewish teenagers escaped Iraq by unimaginable routes. In every Jewish household at least one member was missing.
In May 1948, the atmosphere in Baghdad grew electrified as the winds of an impending pogrom hovered in the air. In the Jewish ghetto young people swarmed to their posts, firmly intent on keeping the rioters out. The spirit of self-defence, heroism, and “my soul shall die with the Philistines” prevailed among the young people. They even considered blowing up bridges and dams to flood Baghdad and reduce it to ruin.
The authorities in Baghdad assessed the situation prudently. They realized that the Jews would retaliate, and that the period of Rashid Ali Al-Gailani, when the Jews were helpless and unarmed, would not repeat itself. That Sabbath eve, a few hours after the declaration of the State of Israel and the invasion of Palestine by concerted Arab armies, the Iraqi prime minister gave a moving oration. In his speech he praised the Iraqi army, within the framework of the entire Arab military effort, in its efforts to destroy the imaginary Jewish state at its birth. Simultaneously, martial law was declared to prevent assemblies and demonstrations and the bearing of firearms. The Jews’ defensive weaponry was returned to its caches in homes, synagogues and to the foreign embassies which had offered assistance.
We followed every move that occurred in Palestine. We would sit in the room farthest from the street, doors and windows shut tight, turn on the radio, and strain our ears to hear the news. Father dared to go even farther: after the news in Arabic, he searched for the ” Voice of Israel” channel and listened to the news in Hebrew, which only he understood. In those days, it was forbidden for us to listen to the news even in Arabic. We were allowed only to go to work in the morning, walk down the street, look at the gallows in the main streets and keep walking without reacting or uttering a word. We were not allowed to speak to friends or acquaintances. Anything we said might be used against us. When we left the house in the morning we couldn’t be certain that in the evening we would return safely home to our families. We couldn’t be sure if the contents of our homes would be upside-down from the search, or if the police would be waiting to place us under arrest. God only knows what we night have said or done or how we might have condemned ourselves by reaching a certain way to a particular issue.
The tension in Baghdad increased, and the fear which gripped every Jew intensified: fear of the Arabs, fear that the horrors of June 1941 would be repeated. We remembered well the pro-Nazi rebellion of Rashid Ali Al-Gailani, and the frenzied and plunder-hungry Arab mob incited by nationalistic factions. They murdered, raped and robbed before the very eyes of the British occupation forces, that didn’t so much as flinch.
More and more young people spoke of running the border to Palestine. We spoke of it in secret and among friends and family, but we never voiced it openly. Rumors abounded of those who, in their attempt to reach Palestine, were apprehended and tortured to death.
From May onwards, the tension among the Jews of Baghdad became more and more pronounced. Atrocities far worse than those perpetrated during the Rashid Ali period were expected, and the young people stepped up their activities.
One night, a secret operation was carried out simultaneously in every Jewish home in Baghdad. When the pre-arranged signal was given, Father mobilised the family. Throughout that entire night we took pictures off the walls, collected every photograph in the house, letters from friends abroad, papers and addresses, books in Arabic and English on Palestine and other Jewish topics, and extra prayer books, and set them all ablaze. At the sight of this spectacle I ran to my room and burst into tears. I went over to my drawer, removed all the poems and stories I had written and translated, along with treasured letters I had preserved, and burned them, too.
That night I felt so alone and separated from my past that from that point on I focused only on the future, or another place and another time. To this day, no one in my family knows just how difficult it was for me to take this step.
The next operation was entirely different. One night, we all assembled in a tiny room which had previously served as a walk-in closet for winter clothing. According to Father’s instructions, we removed a few tiles from the floor. There we proceeded to stash our valuables, including silver and gold articles and Mother’s jewellery.
One evening the motion picture “For Whom the Bell Tolls” was playing at the Ghazi Theatre not far from our home. My brother Jackie and I decided to see it, along with Ya’acov and Menashe, neighborhood friends. Ya’acov and I walked together, while Menashe and Jackie walked on the opposite side of the street. We entered the theatre trying, as much as possible, to reduce our conversation to a minimum. Although the film was spellbinding, I found it strange and frightening to sit in a theatre, once occupied by Jewish crowds, now filled with Arabs. When the film ended the audience dispersed. Menashe and Jackie descended the stairs and headed home.
“Halt!” a voice suddenly barked. We accelerated our pace. When we reached our street corner, I grabbed Ya’acov’s hand. I was too frightened to turn around, to look to the right or to the left. Two Arab boys our own age approached us. “They’re Jews! Can’t you see by the face?” said one.
“Adnan, ta’al jai! El-Yaum nadhbah el-Yahud!” (Adnan, come here, today we’re going to butcher the Jews!)”
Adnan darted over, and the two of them grabbed us by the nape of our necks.
“But we didn’t do anything to you,” Ya’acov uttered throatily.” My voice had escaped me altogether.
They flailed us with blows, spat in our faces, and ripped off our shirts. Only when two adults approached did they leave us alone. I was so ashamed of my cowardice that I asked my brother Jackie not to tell our parents.
The next day when I met Ya’acov and Menashe in the street, Ya’acov whispered: “Do you hear?! I didn’t sleep all night and all I’m still dreaming about a land in which we can be free to live like human beings!”
“Where? In America? How are you going to get there?” Menashe asked.
“Not America, Eretz Israel!” I whispered to them.
Winter was cold in Mesopotamia. The cold penetrated our bones, but with each new morning there was hope that the sun would shine and radiate its warmth. And in the heart of every Jew that some day we would reach Eretz Israel and breath the fresh air, the air of freedom and liberty, equality and justice. We looked out to beyond the mountains, beyond the Tigris and the Euphrates, to Eretz Israel.
The day after the United Nations Partition Resolution on 29th November 1947, anti-Jewish riots broke out. At the beginning of 1948, a decision which had preoccupied me for some time now crystallised into a firm decision. I discussed it with my brother Jackie, and with other young Jewish friends, and found that they, too, had reached the same decision.
* Emil Murad, teacher and educator, is a graduate of The American College in Baghdad. He is author of Babylon in the Underground and My Friends, the Kurds (both in Hebrew) as well as Deep into the Soul. He has also published three poetry books in English and in Hebrew and published numerous articles and short stories in the UK, United States, and South Africa. He was awarded the Editor’s Choice Award for the National Library of Poetry, U.S.A. and an Honorary Doctor of Literature form Marlborough University, UK.