The untold story of Jews expelled from Iraq

A new book sheds light on the scheme to make Jews flee, which was arranged by the Iraqis themselves, under the leadership of then-prime minister and notable antisemite, al-Said, currying favors from Hitler

Eliezer Hayun|
After 35 years of research, Dr. Tzvi Yehuda, 86, says he has finally managed to shed some light on the untold story of the expulsion of Jews from Iraq.
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  • In his new book, "In Torments of Salvation, the Expulsion of Jews from Iraq," Dr. Yehuda uncovers details about the treatment of the Iraqi Jewry in the early 20th century, shattering the myth of how some 125,000 Jews supposedly left Iraq because of a "Zionist plot," and shedding light on the Iraqi government's role in the affair.
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    כריכת הספר. בצילום: השלכת רימון יד על מסוף העלייה בבית הכנסת מסעודה שמטוב, בגדד, 14.1.1951. נרצחו 3 אנשים ונפצעו מעל ל-30
    כריכת הספר. בצילום: השלכת רימון יד על מסוף העלייה בבית הכנסת מסעודה שמטוב, בגדד, 14.1.1951. נרצחו 3 אנשים ונפצעו מעל ל-30
    The cover of Dr. Yehuda's book
    (Photo: Raphael Tzurani)
    Dr. Yehuda was born in Babylonian-Iraq in the 1930s, and made Aliyah with his parents when he was 13. He later became a notable historian and an expert on Arab Judaism, but the idea for the book actually came from Shlomo Hillel, an Iraqi-born Israeli diplomat and politician.
    "Shlomo wanted to see some research about Iraqi Jews back at the 80s," Yehuda says. "I told him the scope of the information available isn't enough to support one. But, the 35 years in which I've collected testimonies, certificates, documents and exhibits, shed a lot of light on the terrible treatment of the 125,000 Jews who lived in Iraq at the time."
    For about a century, both Iraqi Jews and the world at large were cascaded with misinformation about how the Zionists who were busy building the State of Israel, and required them to make Aliya.
    Evidence for this was bombing attacks on Iraqi synagogues and homes, in which several Jews were killed. Shortly after the attacks, a rumor began floating around that it was actually the Jews themselves who were responsible, supposedly terrorizing their own into leaving Iraq.
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    Iraqi Jews flown to Israel
    Iraqi Jews flown to Israel
    Iraqi Jews flown to Israel
    (Photo: Michaelberg)
    As a result, the Iraqi government began imprisoning and torturing Jews, exacting signed confessions and then executing the alleged culprits. Later on, Iraqi authorities would boast about their heroic exploit to uncover "the Zionist plot."
    In addition, they compelled some 105,000 Jews living in Iraq to sign a document saying they're leaving Iraq of their own free will. The subtext was clear: It was the Zionists who made all the Jews make Aliyah, using underhanded means, and the Iraqi government was innocent.
    One of the things that helped this lie get ingrained was the fact that many Jews failed to manage to construct a life for themselves in Israel, since the Zionists "imposed" the Aliyah on the Iraqi Jews, who they claimed were doing just fine living in Iraq.
    "Both the radio and press in Iraq flooded the consciousness with this narrative," Yehuda says. "After being translated worldwide, the propaganda became the accepted narrative of both the UN and the American State Department."
    Dr. Yehuda's book is his personal indictment against the Iraqi authorities over their treatment of the Jewish people. His research shows the persecution of Jews began in the 1930s with the ascendance of Nuri al-Said to prime minister chair. He disliked Jews intensely and even said to Jerusalem's Arab mayor at the time: "Jews are the source of evil. They're spies and we need to get rid of them post haste."
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    ד"ר צבי יהודה
    ד"ר צבי יהודה
    Dr. Tzvi Yehuda
    Words quickly became actions. Jewish property was vandalized and bombed, many were arrested, and anywhere between 200 to 1,000 Jews were murdered. It was a clear indication that the Nazi regime's narrative about the Jewish people was taking hold of the minds across the continents.
    The connection between Iraq and the Nazi regime also saw Fritz Grobba, a German diplomat active in Baghdad at the time, help Iraq spread anti-Jewish propaganda and secure weapons to that effect. "The Iraqis admired both him and Hitler," says Yehuda. "The Nazis encouraged that connection and even played gracious hosts to Iraqi officials."
    It wasn't just the Nazis who made Iraq hate the Jews. Being Hashemites, they dreamed of a massive territorial expansion to accommodate the oncoming Caliphate, which was supposed to include modern-day Israel. They asked the Jews in Iraq to sign a document saying they support the initiative, and holdouts were marked as enemies of the state. Even more bizarrely, Iraq was afraid Israel would become so strong that they would annex Iraq into its "Zionist empire."
    With religious, material and financial persecution raging all over Iraq, the 1950s saw a substantial influx of Jewish immigrants making their way to Israel to avoid the hostility and build a new life.
    Yehuda says documents he has collected show how the truth was subverted at the time. "One of the Jews who was hung in the 1950s had admitted that the Zionists were the ones who made him raid Jewish property, but documents show that the only reason he admitted to it was because he was promised smooth passage overseas.
    "There's also evidence that the Arab inmates made fun of his naivete, agreeing to a deal that wasn't worth the paper it was printed on. After they got the signature they needed from him, he was executed."
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    יהודה שאול עם משפחתו. סוחר בדים שהשלטונות סחטו אותו עד שנאלץ לחסל את חנותו ולעבוד כשכיר אצל סוחר מוסלמי, כיהודים רבים אחרים
    יהודה שאול עם משפחתו. סוחר בדים שהשלטונות סחטו אותו עד שנאלץ לחסל את חנותו ולעבוד כשכיר אצל סוחר מוסלמי, כיהודים רבים אחרים
    Yehuda Shaul and his family
    (Photo: Dr. Tzvi Yehuda)
    Other evidence collected shows that the freshly-minted State of Israel made little-to-no-effort to help Jews residing in Babylonian-Iraq at the time. It wasn't until later, when Prime Minister Ben-Gurion assigned a special committee to investigate the issue, that the matter came to light. It was established that it was Iraqi officials who threw explosives at Iraqi synagogues, not Zionists supposedly trying to force Iraqi Jews to make Aliyah.
    But, things then took a weird turn. An Iraqi Jew who served prison time in Iraq told Ben-Gurion that he heard that it was the Jews who vandalized their own property. As unbelievable as it sounds, Israel's first premier believed him over his own committee. He then decided to stay out of the events unfolding in Iraq.
    In 2014, the Knesset passed a law that November 30 would commemorate the expulsion of Iraqi Jews, and their torture and imprisonment by Iraqi authorities.
    Can your research have future implications?
    "Absolutely. Plenty of Jewish historical sites were ruined and rebuilt. They keep talking about the Palestinian Right of Return. What about the Right of Return for Jews forced out of Iraq?"
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