Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

The Zionist Underground in Iraq

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

The Zionist Underground in Iraq

Article excerpt

The following article is the personal testimony of an Iraqi Jew regarding the last days of his community and their preparations for emigration to Israel. It is an extract from Emil Murad's book, The Quagmire (London: Freund Publishing, 1998).

Editor's Note: This article differs quite significantly from the usual material published by MERIA. The story of the immigration of Middle Eastern and North African Jewish communities to Israel, and their expulsion from their host nations, remains a severely under-treated subject both in the field of research on the Middle East and in the English-speaking world more generally. I recently visited the old Jewish neighborhoods of Baghdad and was struck, although not surprised, by the utter absence of any physical evidence that a Jewish community had thrived in that city for many centuries. MERIA is thus keen to do what it can to help ensure that this subject, vital to an understanding of the modern Middle East, begins to receive the attention that it deserves.

-Dr. Jonathan Spyer

Editor, MERIA

Strange, is it not? that of the myriads who

Before us pass'd the door of Darkness through,

Not one returning to tell us of the Road,

Which to discover we must travel too.

Omar ElKhayyam

According to the official census of 1947, the Iraqi Jewish population numbered one hundred and thirty-five thousand. This included Jews living in the area from Basra in the south to Rawanduz in the mountains of Kurdistan. In Baghdad alone there were seventy-seven thousand Jews, one-fourth of the city's population.

Throughout Iraq, Jews began to secretly organize and talk of self-defence. An upsurge of clandestine Zionist activity precluded the establishment of the Chalutzim, or pioneer movement, by young people who were conscious of their indispensable role in the continuation of the Iraqi Jewish community. Underground branches of the "Chalutzim" were established in every city and town where Jews lived. Delegates and representatives were sent from Israel to establish secret connections with Jewish representatives. One of the Israeli delegates to come to Iraq in 1949 was Mordechai Ben Porat, a native Iraqi whose mother had been kidnapped in Baghdad in January 1941. Ben Porat was a young boy at this time, and he had remained in the capital under Jewish protection. As an adolescent, he rented a dairy shop where he could preach Zionism. "If you don't see me, " he informed his friends one day, "Don't look for me!"

The Jews of Kurdistan, for whom transport and communication with their Iraqi brethren was cumbersome due to their remote location, bridged distances by means of the Chalutzic Movement. The Zionist revival fed a spark which could not be extinguished, and it found it found its way to every Jewish home.

Throughout 1946, 1947 and 1948 the mob attacks continued. Hundreds of Jews were wounded. After the pogroms many Jews sought to leave Iraq, but were refused exit permits. The Jews were prepared to pay any price to immigrate to Israel, even if it meant losing property, imprisonment, torture or even death. Many who fled through the mountains, deserts and sea perished before reaching the Holy Land. We heard about a convoy of forty escapees who left Baghdad for Israel. The Arab who had agreed to smuggle them out never showed up at the agreed rendezvous point. With no guide, the group became lost in the desert. The truck overturned in rough terrain, killing two boys and seriously wounding several others. They buried the dead in the desert and continued on with the wounded. After eight days of wandering in the desert without water, they eventually made their way back to their departure point in Baghdad. Some were captured, tortured and hanged. Many such tales of blockade-running and illegal immigration to Palestine circulated. Some made it, others did not.

The year 1947 was a strange one. I was sixteen years old at this time. I spent summer evenings with my friends strolling down city streets and going to clubs and hotels. …

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