The outbreak of mob violence against Baghdad Jewry known as the Farhud (Farhud is an Arabic term best translated as “pogrom” or “violent dispossession”) erupted on June 1, 1941. It was a turning point in the history of the Jews in Iraq.
In the 1940s about 135,000 Jews lived in Iraq (nearly 3 percent of the total population), with about 90,000 in Baghdad, 10,000 in Basra, and the remainder scattered throughout many small towns and villages. Jewish communities had existed in this region since the 6th century BCE, hundreds of years before Muslim communities established a presence in Iraq during the 7th century. The Jews shared the Arab culture with their Muslim and Christian neighbors, but they lived in separate communities. Jewish assimilation into Muslim society was rare.
With the establishment of the Iraqi state under the British Mandate in 1921, Jews became full-fledged citizens and enjoyed the right to vote and hold elected office. The Jewish community had between four and six representatives in the Parliament and one member in the Senate. The community was headed by a president, Rabbi Sasson Khedhuri (1933-1949; 1954-1971), an elected council of 60 members, and two executive committees—the spiritual committee for religious issues and the secular committee for managing the secular affairs of the community organizations. Its elite included also high-ranking officials, prominent attorneys and dignitaries, and wealthy merchants. This status of the Jews did not change in 1932, when Iraq gained independence under British informal rule.
In the spring of 1941, Britain was enduring one of its worst periods in World War II. Most of Europe had fallen to the Axis forces, German planes were bombing British cities in the Blitz, and German submarines were exacting a tremendous toll on British shipping. Having driven the British out of Libya, the Afrika Korps under General Erwin Rommel was camped along the Egyptian border and poised to thrust eastward to the Suez Canal. The German Wehrmacht (armed forces) had driven the British out of Greece and Crete, eliminating their last beachhead on continental Europe. British chances of winning the war appeared slim.
Such catastrophic setbacks severely impacted Britain’s presence in the Middle East. Since June 1940, the Vichy government had controlled Syria and Lebanon, and pro-Axis sentiment was prevalent among Egypt’s indigenous government bureaucracy.
In this context, Rashid ‘Ali al-Kailani, an anti-British nationalist politician from one of the leading families in Baghdad, carried out a military coup against the pro-British government in Iraq on April 2, 1941. He was supported by four high-ranking army officers nicknamed the “Golden Square,” and by the former Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husayni. Since his arrival in Baghdad in October 1939 as a refugee from the failed Palestinian revolt (1936-1939), al-Husayni had been at the forefront of anti-British activity. Following the coup, the supporters of the deposed pro-British rule, headed by the Regent, Abd al-Ilah, and foreign minister, Nuri al-Said, fled to Transjordan. In Iraq, Rashid ‘Ali al-Kailani formed a pro-German government, winning the support of the Iraqi Army and administration. He hoped an Axis victory in the war would facilitate full independence for Iraq.
The rise of this pro-German government threatened the Jews in Iraq. Nazi influence and anti-Semitism already were widespread in Iraq, due in large part to the German legation’s presence in Baghdad as well as influential Nazi propaganda, which took the form of Arabic language radio broadcasts from Berlin. Mein Kampf had been translated into Arabic by Yunis al-Sab’awi, and was published in a local newspaper, Al Alam al Arabi (The Arab World), in Baghdad during 1933-1934. Yunis al-Sab’awi also headed the Futtuwa, a pre-military youth movement influenced by the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) in Germany. After the coup d’etat, al-Sab’awi became a minister in the new Iraqi government.
Concerned that Iraq, as a pro-Axis bridgehead in the Middle East, would inspire other Arab nations, and increasingly worried that their access to oil supplies as well as their communications and transportation routes to India were now seriously threatened, the British decided to occupy the country. On April 19, British Army units from India landed in Basra while the British-led Arab Legion troops (Habforce) moved east into Iraq from Transjordan. By the end of May, the Iraqi regime collapsed, and its leaders fled first to Iran and from there to German-occupied Europe.
Because the British did not wish to appear to be intervening in Iraq’s internal affairs, they preferred Iraqi troops, who were loyal to Regent Abd al-Ilah, to be the first to enter Iraq’s cities. British authorities also hoped to transfer control of Iraq directly to the Regent and his government. After occupying Basra in the middle of May, the British refused to enter the city and, consequently, there occurred widespread looting of goods in the shops in the bazaars, many of which were owned by Jews. Arab notables sent night watchmen to protect Jewish possessions and many gave asylum in their homes to Jews.
In Baghdad, the results of this policy were much more severe. On the afternoon of June 1, 1941, when the Regent and his entourage returned to Baghdad and British troops surrounded the city, the Jews believed that the danger from the pro-Nazi regime had passed. They ventured out to celebrate the traditional Jewish harvest festival holiday of Shavuot. Riots broke out, targeting the Jews of Baghdad. These riots, known as the Farhud, lasted for two days, ending on June 2, 1941.
Iraqi soldiers and policemen who had supported Rashid Ali al-Gailani’s coup d’etat in April and Futtuwa youths who were sympathetic to the Axis incited and led the riots. Unlike in previous incidents, rioters focused on killing. Many civilians in Baghdad and Bedouins from the city’s outskirts joined the rioters, taking part in the violence and helping themselves to a share in the booty. During the two days of violence, rioters murdered between 150 and 180 Jews, injured 600 others, and raped an undetermined number of women. They also looted some 1,500 stores and homes. The community leaders estimated that about 2,500 families—15 percent of the Jewish community in Baghdad—suffered directly from the pogrom. According to the official report of the commission investigating the incident, 128 Jews were killed, 210 were injured, and over 1,500 businesses and homes were damaged. Rioting ended at midday on Monday, June 2, 1941, when Iraqi troops entered Baghdad, killed some hundreds of the mob in the streets and reestablished order in Baghdad.
The causes of the Farhud were political and ideological. On the one hand, the leaders of this pogrom identified the Jews as collaborators with the British authorities and justified violence against Jewish civilians by linking it to the struggle of the Iraqi national movement against British colonialism. Other Arab nationalists also perceived the Baghdad Jews as Zionists or Zionist sympathizers and justified the attacks as a response to Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine. Nevertheless, killing helpless Jews, including women and children, was an unprecedented phenomenon that contradicted Muslim law. In this situation, anti-Semitic ideology, derived in part from Nazi propaganda, helped to legitimize murdering Jews in Iraq.
The consequences of this pogrom stunned the Jewish community in Baghdad. Generally unarmed and lacking military training and self-defense skills, Baghdad Jews felt vulnerable and helpless. Many decided to leave Iraq. Hundreds fled to Iran, others went to Beirut, Lebanon, and some even obtained temporary visas for India. A few hundred Jews tried to reach Palestine, but most of them were forced to stop at some point on the way, either by the Iraqi police, which did not allow Jews to immigrate to Palestine, or by Palestinian police, enforcing strict immigration quotas (the White Paper of 1939). Most of the refugees, however, returned to Baghdad after the political situation had stabilized and the Iraqi economy had begun to prosper again.
The Jewish community in Baghdad experienced a rapid return to economic prosperity under British occupation during the remainder of the war years. Wealthy Baghdad Jews and the remittances of Iraqi Jewish émigrés contributed significantly to the reestablishment of commerce and restoration of property. As a further incentive to returning refugees, the Iraqi government paid compensation to the victims of the community in the sum of 20,000 dinars. The emotional and psychological wounds following the Farhud, however, were not so easily healed. Many members of the community remained in a state of profound shock that undermined their sense of security and stability, eventually prompting them to question their place within Baghdad’s society.
Following the Farhud, Jewish leaders also faced a difficult political dilemma. The Farhud had demonstrated that Jews were perceived by many in the Arab nationalist movement and the religious and conservative right as collaborators with and beneficiaries of British colonialism and its alleged Iraqi puppets. On the other hand, Jewish leaders were in fact well-integrated in urban society in Baghdad. Some held public office, others were prominent in economic life, and many had friendly relations with politicians and leaders. Moreover, the hostility of the Arab nationalists toward the Jews only increased their dependence on the pro-British regime. Jewish leaders therefore chose to downplay the potential for danger and tended to dissuade community activists from steps that might have incited an Arab nationalist response. Jewish leaders preferred quiet, personal, indirect diplomacy to overt political activism. The Jews in Parliament adopted the same policy: they never voted against the Iraqi government and never publicly defended the rights of the Jewish minority.
The middle-class intelligentsia in the Jewish community also faced a profound political and cultural crisis. Educated, generally well-to-do, and active as journalists, authors, and poets, Jewish intellectuals in Baghdad had perceived themselves as partners in creating Iraqi culture; they now felt rejected and betrayed. Their faith in the prospect of Jewish integration in Iraqi society had suffered a severe shock. More profound still was the sense of disillusionment among the youth. The bloodshed prompted many of them to reject the cautious policies of the traditional leadership and to respond in a radical fashion. The nationalists among them were attracted to the Zionist movement; young Jewish socialists sought meaning in the Communist party. While the former envisioned the future in Palestine, the latter imagined a just and socialist order for all people with the triumph of socialism in Iraq. Young people who did not identify with either camp sought to emigrate to the United States, England, France, Canada, and elsewhere in the West. In Iraq itself, a few groups of young people formed self-defense organizations and sought to arm themselves. These organizations had been the basis of the ‘Haganah’ (defense) Organization in Iraq, which functioned until 1951.
The Farhud ultimately intensified anxiety among Baghdad’s Jews, who now worried about Axis victories in the war, escalating violence in Palestine, growing Iraqi nationalist opposition, and the departure of the British from Iraq. The Farhud also marked a new era of Muslim-Jewish relations in Iraq when discrimination and humiliation became further compounded by concerns about a direct physical threat to Jews’ survival.
Among Arabs the whole event was repressed and nearly forgotten. Arab writers of the time mentioned the Farhud only vaguely, and explained it as a consequence of Zionist activity in the Middle East. In contrast, Iraq’s Jews now perceived that threats to Jewish lives existed not only in Europe but also in the Middle East. In 1943, because of both the ongoing murder of European Jewry as well as anti-Semitism in Arab countries, Iraq’s Jewish communities were included in Zionist plans for immigration and establishing the Jewish state.
By 1951, ten years after the Farhud, most of the Iraqi Jewish community (about 124,000 Jews out of 135,000) had immigrated to the State of Israel.