Monday, January 27, 2014

45 Years Since the Public Execution of 9 Jews in Baghdad

Today marks 45 years since nine Iraqi Jews were hanged in Baghdad's central square. The murdered Jews were: Ezra Naji Zilkha, Fuad Gabay, Yakub Gorji Namordi, Daud Haskil Barukh Dalal, Daud Ghali, Haskil Saleh Haskil, Sabah Hayim, Naim Khaduri, and Charles Rafael Horesh. Their hanging was a nadir in the persecution of Iraqi Jews, but persecutions did not end with them, and in August 1969 two more Jews were hanged, and scores more were arrested and never seen again, presumed murdered. Today, few if any Jews remain in Iraq – remnants of an illustrious Jewish community that numbered more than 150,000 members in the middle of the 20th century.

The general background of the persecution of the Jews in Arab countries is intertwined with the creation of the state of Israel and Israel's war of Independence in 1948-9. Until the 20th century, Jews in Arab countries were usually treated as inferiors, in accordance with Laws of the Khalif Omar from the 7th century. The encroachment of Western powers to the Middle East brought with it an improvement in the status of the Jews. The resulting growing conflict between Jews and Arabs in Israel/Palestine from the 1920's onwards soon began to influence the condition of Jews in Arab countries. In July 1941, just after the British defeated the Nazi-influenced Iraqi government, an Arab mob (with many soldiers and policemen in its ranks) committed the "Farhud" – a pogrom against the Jews of Baghdad. Almost 200 Jews were murdered in this atrocity.

Israel's War of Independence worsened the conditions of Jewish communities in the Arab world, and Iraq was no exception. Iraq sent an expeditionary force to invade Israel on May 15, 1948, and an Iraqi general commanded the "Arab Liberation Army" (an Arab volunteer force, organized by the Arab League to prevent the creation of Israel). The Iraqi government started to implement discriminatory measures against Jews in accordance with a law drafted by the political department of the Arab League. Jewish civil servants were fired (Jews had served in senior government posts in Iraq; the first Minister of Finance of independent Iraq was Jewish), doctors could not receive their licenses, Jewish banks were not allowed to change foreign currency, and new and heavier taxes were imposed on the Jews. Jews were not allowed to leave Iraq for more than a year and those that left had their property confiscated and their citizenship nullified. In September 1948, a rich Jewish businessman, Shafiq Ades, was hanged under false accusations. The persecutions caused many Jews to secretly cross the border to Iran and from there escape to Israel. In December 1949, Tawfiq al-Suwaidi replaced Nuri el Said as Prime Minister, and conditions became easier for the Jews. After a secret negotiation with El-Suwaidi, Jews were allowed to leave Iraq without hindrance, and 120,000 of the Jews in Iraq chose to come on Aliyah to Israel in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.

The restrictions on those Jews who did not leave Iraq remained, and they could not leave the country to go to Israel, but could depart for other countries. The restrictions persisted until the military coup in 1958. During the rule of General Abd al-Karim Qasim (1958-1963) most of them were lifted, and Jews were treated better and some of their confiscated property was returned. Things changed for the worse after the military coup of 1963 and subsequent coups until the 1968 coup of the Baath party. All restrictions were reinstated and more were added – Jews were required to carry yellow identification cards, banned from leaving Iraq altogether, and subject to many more harsh laws.

The Six Day War made things even worse for the remaining Jews in Iraq. Iraq always described itself as a vanguard of Arab nationalism and declared continually its desire to destroy Israel. During the war, the Israeli air force attacked the H3 air base in western Iraq and the Iraqi expeditionary force sent to Jordan did not arrive in time to play a role in the war. One unit that did come close to the Jordan River was badly mauled by the Israeli air force and retreated. The Iraqis vented their frustration from the results of the war on the Jews of Iraq: Their telephones were disconnected, Jews were fired from their jobs, shops under Jewish ownership were closed, and Jews were barred from traveling from one city to another. Leaving Iraq, banned already before the war, was now impossible. The small Jewish community lived in constant fear.

The Iraqi expeditionary force remained in Jordan and participated in the "War of Attrition" (1968-70) by bombarding Israeli Kibbutzim and villages in the Jordan valley and helping Palestinian terrorists attack Israel. In retaliation, the Iraqi expeditionary force was attacked by the Israeli air force on December 1968 for 4 consecutive days, which inflicted heavy casualties. The bodies of the dead soldiers were brought to Baghdad in a mass funeral. The popular call for revenge was exploited by the newly formed Baath regime (The Baath party overthrew the government in July 17 1968), and it put a group of Jews, arrested on bogus counts of espionage in October, on trial before a military kangaroo court. The military court found them guilty of espionage for Israel and sentenced them to death. On January 27, 1969, 14 defendants (9 of them Jews) were executed in Baghdad and in Basra. The Baath regime called on the public to celebrate the execution, and half a million people celebrated under the hanging bodies in Baghdad's central square.

After the arrest of the Jews in Iraq, their relatives turned to Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs for help in receiving information on their fate and to try and organize their release. Israel turned to different states and international organizations in order to save the detainees, while emphasizing the fact that they were innocent and that it was clear that the Jews could not be spies due to the isolation and segregation of Jews from the other parts of Iraqi society. Appeals were made to the Secretary General of the UN, U-Thant, The Red Cross and to different governments, friendly to Iraq, such as Turkey. These appeals did not help.

The public hangings came as a painful shock in Israel and its Iraqi citizens (Babylonian Jews as they are traditionally known). Prayer and memorial services were organized, such as the one in this newsreel, showing the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (then the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv) speaking from a podium. Rabbi Yosef was himself of Iraqi descent. A special mourning session was held in the Knesset, and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in one of his last public appearances--Eshkol passed away on 26 February 1969--said in his speech: "The hangings have illuminated the fate of the remnants of the Babylonian Jewry with nightmarish light. The land of Iraq has become one great prison for its Jewish remnants. Our brethren are prey to terror in the hands of villains….If there is a conscience in this world, let it voice awaken to immediate need to rescue the remnants of the Jewish communities in Arab countries".
Minister Without Portfolio Menachem Begin addressing a student's protest rally against the Iraqi hanging of Jews, at the campus of the Tel Aviv University (GPO - Fritz Cohen)

Part of a crowd attending a protest rally in Ramat Gan against the execution of Jews in Iraq (GPO - Fritz Cohen)
The Israel State Archives holds many documents regarding the hangings in Iraq. The state of Israel tried to help Jews in Arab states, especially after the Six Day War. The defeated Arab countries saw the remnants of the Jewish communities in their countries as easy scapegoats for their military, political and social failure. Jews were jailed, persecuted, tortured, murdered and hanged (especially in Iraq). The coordinator of the efforts to help Arab Jewry was Deputy General Manager of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – Middle Eastern affairs, Shlomo Hillel (later Minister of Police and Speaker of the Knesset). Hillel had a personal stake in this matter – he was formerly an aliyah operative from Iraq who participated in many clandestine aliyah operations.

As mentioned, appeals were made to the UN and International organizations. Appeals were made to governments and rulers by Jewish communities and organizations – Indian Jews met the Indian Foreign minister, for instance, which proved fruitless due to India's pro-Arab stance. A similar appeal was made to the Shah of Iran. Another approach was demonstrations and other forms of public protest. These actions prompted different governments to agree to accept Jews from Iraq. Another country that lent a hand to save the Jews of Iraq, although it was not approached to do so, was France. Relations between Israel and France were strained, ever since France imposed an embargo on exporting weapons to Israel just weeks before (not to mention the French attitude towards Israel before, during and after the Six Day War), after Israel raided the Beirut National Airport in retaliation of an attack for an El Al airliner in Athens in December 1968. The French government pressured the Iraqi government to release Jewish detainees and allow Jews to leave Iraq. At a government meeting in early February 1969, Foreign Minister Abba Eban estimated that the French action was meant to stop the wave of protests and anti-French denunciations in the USA, initiated by Jewish organizations.

According to different sources, such as Israeli journalist and researcher Shlomo Nakdimon, Israel used the Mossad's covert operation in Iraqi Kurdistan (which was helping the forces of Mullah Mustapha Barazani fight the Iraqi army) to smuggle Jews from Iraq to Iran and from there to Israel.

The persecution of the Jewish community in Iraq came again to public attention last year. After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, American troops found in the flooded basement of the building of the Iraqi secret police a large collection of Jewish Torah scrolls and holy books, as well as the Jewish communal archive, confiscated by the Iraqi government. The books were transferred to the U.S. for restoration. Now the Iraqi government demands the return of the collection to Iraq, arguing that it is an Iraqi cultural property. At the same time, Jews from Iraq living in the U.S. demand that the collection remain, as Iraq has no right to demand the collection, given that it was stolen from the Jewish community.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Golda Meir and Anwar Sadar Exchange Messages, January 1974

"When I made my [political] initiative in 1971, I meant it; when I threatened war, I meant it; when I now talk of permanent peace between us, I mean it." This was the message from President Anwar Sadat given to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger shortly before the signing of the Disengagement Agreement between Israel and Egypt (Sinai I) on January 18, 1974. You can see it on our website in a short publication of 6 documents in English to mark the 40th anniversary of the agreement.

The next day Golda replied that she hoped that their contact through Kissinger would prove to be a turning point in their relations, and repeated Sadat's words: "When I talk of permanent peace between us I mean it." Only three months after the Yom Kippur War, when they had led their countries in a bloody and costly conflict, the two leaders exchanged messages expressing goodwill and the desire for peace between them.

Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was the first person to propose a separation of forces in a government meeting on October 27, 1973. The war had just ended, but sporadic firing continued and continued to bring casualties. The smoke still lingered on the battlefields and a grieving Israel was anxious for a ceasefire and a political solution which would allow the IDF to withdraw from its dangerously overextended lines on the western bank of the Suez Canal. Over the coming weeks, the plan underwent a series of changes in talks with the Egyptians at the 101 Kilometer talks and through Secretary Kissinger, until it reached its final form in a shuttle by Kissinger between Cairo and Jerusalem. The signing of the agreement marked a historic change in the relations between Israel and Egypt and the first withdrawal from territories occupied in the Six Day War.

Ten days later Sadat and Golda again exchanged messages on the need to advance a disengagement agreement with Syria. These messages also appear in the publication together with the text of the Sinai I agreement and its secret annexes, and the memorandum of understanding between the US and Israel. We've already talked here about the negotiations with Syria and the opposition to them in Israel. On May 31, the agreement with Syria was signed, the last act of Golda Meir's government following her resignation.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Ariel Sharon, 1928-2014, Israel's Eleventh Prime Minister: Three Recordings from his Military Career

On January 11, 2014, Ariel "Arik" Sharon passed away, after being in a coma for eight years. Sharon was Israel's eleventh prime minister, a government minister, a Knesset member representing the Likud, and the founder and leader of the Kadima party, Before entering politics he was a general in the IDF, one of the commanders of the paratroopers unit, founder of the 101 special unit and OC Southern Command.
OC Southern Command Sharon gives an explanation to former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion on a visit to the lines near the Suez Canal, 27 January 1971. (Photograph: IDF Spokesman, Government Press Office)
In memory of Sharon, the Israel State Archives presents here two video clips and one audio recording from the period of his service in the Southern Command. In December 1969, Sharon was appointed to command Israel's southern front, at the height of the War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt on the Suez Canal. Sharon introduced more dynamic defensive methods, rather than the static approach represented by the Bar Lev line of outposts along the Canal. In August 1970, a ceasefire was reached between Israel and Egypt. In 1971, Sharon carried out a major operation against terrorism in the Gaza Strip, using aggressive methods and harsh measures which aroused considerable criticism. He succeeded in almost entirely eradicating the terrorists and bringing peace and quiet to the Strip. Sharon remained in Southern Command until July 1973, when he was replaced by Shmuel Gorodish Gonen.

The first films shows a visit to an outpost on the Suez Canal by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan accompanied by Maj. General Sharon in August 1971:

The second clip is an audio recording in Hebrew of commanders in the Six Day War talking about their experiences and the reasons for the victory, among them Arik Sharon, then a division commander (June 1967):

The final recording shows OC Southern Command Sharon visiting a Bedouin encampment, accompanied by Gorodish and other officers, and awarding a war ribbon to one of the inhabitants (November 1972):