Farhud Day marks forgotten pogrom of Jews in Arab lands

On June 1, I addressed a packed room at the United Nations in New York at a ceremony marking the first International Farhud Day. “Farhud” is Arabic dialect for “violent dispossession.” Among Jews from Arab lands, it refers to the blood-curdling pogrom by Nazi-allied Arabs against Baghdad’s peaceful Jewish community on June 1-2, 1941. The ensuing mass rape, beheading, murder, burning and looting spree were the first steps in a process that effectively ended 2,600 years of Jewish life throughout the Arab world. Ultimately, some 850,000 to 900,000 Jews were systemically pauperized and made stateless in a coordinated forced exodus from Arab lands.

After I described in detail how the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, leader of the Arab community in Mandate Palestine, organized the brutal two-day massacre, a tear-stained woman I did not know, who turned out to be of Iraqi Jewish descent, slowly shook her head in disbelief and muttered softly, “I never thought I would hear these words in this building.”

Many Sephardic Jews consider the 1941 Farhud to be their Kristallnacht. However, for the past 74 years, neither the facts about the massacre, nor the culpability of the Nazified Iraqi and Palestinian Arab perpetrators, nor the expulsion of 850,000 Jewish refugees from the Arab world that followed, were topics the United Nations wanted to discuss. Nor were this bloodletting and its aftermath commemorated in the vast chronicles of organized Holocaust remembrances or spoken of within the Jewish community. In fact, it took years of highly acrimonious, sometimes public debate and pressure on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum — only recently successful — for that institution to recognize either the atrocity that occurred or the Mufti’s role in the killing as a Holocaust-era persecution.

Indeed, the Farhud is most often referred to as the “forgotten pogrom.” In his remarks at the June 1 conference, Conference of Presidents vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein asked, “I must wonder why it took 74 years for the world to recognize the tragedy of the Farhud.”

Why indeed?

First, persecution of Jewish victims in Arab countries did not conform to the classic Holocaust definition, as expressed by the museum’s mission statement: “The Holocaust was the state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945.” This geographic qualifier left out the Jews of Iraq as well as their persecuted co-religionists in North Africa, where some 17 concentration camps were established by Vichy-allied and Nazi influenced Arab regimes.

Second, the type of well-financed and skilled scholarship that has riveted world attention on the Holocaust in Europe has generally bypassed the Sephardic experience.

Third, much of the Jewish media did not devote sufficient space and informed knowledge to the topic. Critics suggest that in recent years, the Jewish press has marginalized the atrocity as a political discussion. “When former [Israeli] Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon was doing his 2012 campaign for Jewish refugees from Arab lands,” asserts Lyn Julius of the British organization HARIF–Association of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East, “hardly a day went by when certain Jewish or Israeli newspapers did not politicize the matter, or suggest Israel was exploiting the issue for political gain.”

The day before the United Nations proclamation, one prominent Jewish newspaper published an article on the Farhud, writing, “Now, Jewish organizations and the Israeli government deploy it [memory of the Farhud] frequently to support their claims for refugee recognition on behalf of Middle Eastern Jews.” A Sephardic gentleman   in the audience showed me the article in disbelief, saying, “ ‘Deploy it frequently to support their claims for refugee recognition on behalf of Middle Eastern Jews?’ They would never say such a thing about the European Kristallnacht!”

On June 1, 74 years late, International Farhud Day was finally created, to honor the victims of the June 1941 Baghdad massacre, recognize the participation of Palestinian Arab leaders like the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and commemorate the forced expulsion of nearly a million Jews from Arab lands. “We recognize this date as a lamented day of history that should not be forgotten,” the U.N. proclamation stated. 

Seven parchment copies were signed by the key organizers: Rabbi Elie Abadie of Jews for Justice in Arab Lands, Alyza D. Lewin for both the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists and the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, Maurice Shohet of the World Organization of Jews in Iraq, Avi Posnick for StandWithUs, and myself as historian. Numerous Jewish and non-Jewish organizations added their voices as co-sponsors.

Not on the list of signatories was Israel’s permanent mission to the United Nations, but its efforts bored through tunnels of U.N. bureaucracy and secured the space and broadcast slot for the ceremony. The Israeli Foreign Ministry devoted a page to International Farhud Day, and Google added it to their online calendar cites.

Going forward, memories of the day Baghdad burned in 1941 will no longer be invisible, muffled or parenthesized.

Edwin Black is the author of “IBM and the Holocaust” and “The Farhud — Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust.” He began the initiative to proclaim International Farhud Day at the United Nations.