The forgotten pogrom

Suddenly the phones went dead in Baghdad.

The day was March 10, 1951. By the time the dial tone came back, within about 24 hours, some 120,000 middle class and affluent Jews in Iraq, nearly the whole of Iraqi Jewry, would discover they were paupers. Penniless, Iraq’s Jewish community would then be expelled en masse to Israel. They left behind property currently valued at a billion dollars by some, and many billions by others.

Today, as attorneys, Jewish organizations and individual claimants prepare to launch a massive claim against Iraqi assets held in Washington, the searing question remains: How did it happen and why?

For 2,600 years, the Jews of Iraq had dwelled successfully in the land of Babylon, achieving as much acceptance and financial success as any non-Muslim group could in an Islamic society that despised infidels. Iraqi Jews were well entrenched at all levels of farming, banking, commerce and the government bureaucracy.

But with the outbreak of World War II, it all began to change. On Oct. 13, 1939, just six weeks after the war began, the Mufti of Jerusalem slipped into Baghdad to make Iraq his new base. From Baghdad, the Mufti repeated his Palestine incitements, now launching a venomous and unrelenting campaign against Iraq’s Jewish community, accusing them of a Zionist plot to dominate Iraq and the wider Middle East.

At the same time, the Mufti sealed an alliance directly with Adolf Hitler personally, trading Iraqi oil for Germany’s help in destroying the Jews of Palestine and in Eastern Europe, from where the stream of emigrants were escaping. In return, the Mufti promised Iraq’s fabulous oil reserves, the fuel Hitler needed to conquer Russia and the entire East.

On April 1, 1941, just months before the long-anticipated Nazi invasion of Russia, the Mufti and a fascist cabal of pro-Nazi Iraqi officers, known as the Golden Square, staged a coup. Within two months, the British had ousted the Golden Square, whose leaders escaped to Iran.

But on June 1, in the last hours of the revolt, a frenzied Arab mob unleashed a two-day Kristallnacht-style pogrom against the Jews of Baghdad. Women were raped and infants crushed in front of their terrified families. Jewish shops were looted and torched. A synagogue was burned and its Torahs ceremoniously destroyed. Eventually British forces broke through, shot dozens of rioters and restored order. A government commission later reported that at least 180 Jews had been killed and 240 wounded, 586 Jewish businesses pillaged and 99 Jewish homes burned. The carnage of those 48 hours would be forever seared upon the collective Iraqi Jewish consciousness as the Farhud, best translated as “violent dispossession.”

From that moment, Iraq’s approximately 125,000 Jews were systematically targeted for violence, persecution, commercial boycott and confiscation. Everything escalated fiercely in February 1947, when the United Nations agreed to vote on the question of partitioning Palestine. The Arab regimes, including the Baghdad government, officially threatened that if the U.N. dared vote yes to partition, the Arabs would exact reprisals against the 700,000 Jews who had dwelled in countries throughout the Middle East. The day Israel declared its independence, the Arab League, including major units of the Iraqi army, invaded from all sides. The Arabs vowed an “extermination and a momentous massacre of the Jews.” It didn’t happen. Only Iraq refused to sign the armistice. Instead, it became very convenient to once again blame Iraq’s Jews and “Zionist gangs” for this latest Iraqi military disaster.

On July 19, 1948, Iraq amended penal code Law 51, making Zionism itself a crime punishable by up to seven years in prison. Hundreds of Jews were arrested, tortured until they confessed, and sentenced to long jail terms. By October 1948, all Jews — an estimated 1,500 — were summarily dismissed from their government positions. Soon the familiar sequence of Nazi-style pauperization began, with an organized boycott and systematic expulsion from Iraq’s commercial and cultural mainstream.

An estimated 130,000 Jews lived in the Iraq of 1949, half of them in Baghdad. The Baghdad Chamber of Commerce listed 2,430 member companies; a third were Jewish, and, in fact, a third of the chamber’s board and almost all its employees were Jewish. Over the centuries, Jews had become essential to the economy.

Now Jews began fleeing to anywhere: mainly neighboring Iran. In the process, they smuggled out whatever valuables they could to rebuild their lives. On March 3, 1950, to halt the uncontrolled flight of assets and people, Iraq passed a one-year amendment to Law 1, the Denaturalization Act. This statute revoked the citizenship of any Jew who willingly left the country. Upon exit, their assets were frozen but were still available to the emigrants for use within Iraq. Thousands of Jews seized the opportunity to leave, believing at least that their assets, while frozen, would still be viable within Iraq until a better day. But when the one-year law expired, a successor anti-Jewish statute was secretly enacted on March 10, 1951. That law permanently seized all the assets of Jews who had been denaturalized by the previous law, and any others who would be pressured to leave the country. The day the law was secretly passed, the phones went down all over Baghdad to prevent panicked Jews from swiftly transferring their assets to safety. What’s more, the banks were closed for three days.

With Jewish assets prone and vulnerable, another law empowered Iraq’s Custodian General “to lay hands on all property belonging to the person who has forfeited Iraqi Nationality and to administer, dispose of and liquidate it.”

From 1951 to 1952, approximately 120,000 desperate Jews were airlifted from Iraq to Israel in Operations Ezra and Nehemiah. The speed and heartlessness of the exodus was part of a calculated Iraqi government plan to flood the fledgling Israeli state with destitute Jews. The idea was to crack Israel’s already strained infrastructure. The forlorn airlifted emigrants all arrived at Lod airport bewildered, with little more than the clothes on their bodies. Israeli and Jewish officials vociferously vowed to one day seek justice and to hold their compensation of Palestinian claimants in the balance, a determination that faded over the years.

After Saddam Hussein was toppled, hopes of compensation revived, not only among the Jews, but also among many groups. Indeed, to address the compensation claims by any number of minorities, Iraq’s Governing Council created the Iraqi Property Claims Commission (IPCC), with offices in 10 cities. The IPCC intends to review claims by any Iraqi of any ethnicity or religion — Kurd, Assyrian, Christian or Shiite — unfairly deprived of property by the Ba’athist regimes.

However, the Ba’ath movement first came to power in 1968, more than 15 years after the 1951 law that rapidly liquidated 2,600 years of Jewish existence in Iraq. Hence, the massive confiscations inflicted on Iraqi Jewry will be unaddressed by the existing mechanism, a fact not lost upon those seeking alternative avenues of restitution.

Edwin Black is author of “IBM and the Holocaust.” This article is adapted from his just-released book, “Banking on Baghdad.”