The 1941 Farhud (Pogrom) and the Ethnic Cleansing of Jews from the Modern Iraq

By Mendes, Philip | Midstream, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview
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The 1941 Farhud (Pogrom) and the Ethnic Cleansing of Jews from the Modern Iraq


Mendes, Philip, Midstream


To date, international concern with Middle East refugees has focused primarily on the approximately 700,000 Palestinian Arabs who left Israel during the 194748 war. Far less attention has been paid to the nearly one million Jews--known as mizrahim--who left Arab countries in the decade or so following that war. Most moved to the newly created Jewish State of Israel where today they constitute the majority of the Jewish population, and often lean towards the hawkish side of the political spectrum.

As with the Palestinian Arab exodus, explanations of the causes of the Jewish exodus are highly contentious, given their links with contemporary political agendas. Historically, two polarized views have prevailed. The Zionist or Israeli position attributes the Jewish exodus almost solely to Arab violence or threats of violence, and the Arab or anti-Zionist position assigns responsibility to a malicious Zionist conspiracy.

In my opinion, the Jewish exodus is best explained as a complex combination of push and pull factors. The pull factor was the growing influence of Zionism, and the attraction of many Mizrahi Jews after 1948 to the idea of living in Israel. Another factor, which was not specifically about Arab-Jewish relations, was the general Arab post-colonialist resentment of non-Arab minorities which led to their gradual exclusion from social and economic life as the Arab countries attained their independence. For example, many Jews appear to have left Egypt because of economic factors such as loss of jobs and livelihood, rather than specific anti-Jewish persecution.

Nevertheless, a considerable number of Jews--perhaps the majority--seem to have exited as a result of either systematic harassment, or direct expulsion. Some communities felt obliged to leave over time due to ongoing government discrimination and popular hostility. Many experienced outbreaks of serious anti-Jewish violence. It can reasonably be concluded that Jews in the Arab world were driven out as a direct and unapologetic retaliation for Jewish actions in Israel/Palestine.

A 2004 film rifled The Forgotten Refugees by the David Project documented this sad destruction of a vibrant Jewish civilization. Many of these Jews were not newcomers or foreigners, but rather indigenous to the region for hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years. Jews had often experienced considerable tolerance in the Arab world, and some were prominent in the development of modern Arabic law and music. But all were nonetheless classified as dhimmi or second-class citizens, which required them to accept an inferior status. And too often, Jews faced threats and potential violence as a result of popular prejudice and government incitement. From 1945 onwards, there were vicious riots in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and other Arab countries which killed and injured many Jews. The Arabs were culturally unable to accept the establishment of an independent Jewish state in Israel, given that they were used to ruling over the Jews as a subordinate people.

The mass 1951 exodus of the previously large and prosperous Jewish community of Iraq seems to have been a particularly sad example of Arab intolerance. The Iraqi Jews were a well-integrated community who could date their heritage back to the destruction of the first temple in 586 BCE. Following the establishment of the modern Iraqi state in 1920, Jews were prominent in professional and commercial life utilizing both their knowledge of European languages and contacts with expatriate Iraqi Jews in the countries with which they traded. They dominated the professions of banking and money-lending known locally as the sairafah business. For example, a large proportion of members of the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce were Jewish. In addition, Jews contributed prominently to local arts and literature, were represented in the Iraqi parliament, and held significant positions in the bureaucracy. Overall, Iraqi Jews viewed themselves as Arabs of the Jewish faith, rather than as a separate race or nationality.

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The 1941 Farhud (Pogrom) and the Ethnic Cleansing of Jews from the Modern Iraq
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