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)|
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.