Remember the Farhud

By Aryeh Tepper
Monday, May 30, 2011

The end of 2,500 years of Jewish life in Iraq began during two days in June 1941. For 30 terrifying hours, mobs of marauding Iraqi Arabs, soldiers and civilians alike, killed 137 Jews and injured thousands more, pillaged scores of homes, and destroyed more than 600 Jewish-owned businesses. The event came to be known as the Farhud, a Kurdish term for the murderous breakdown of law and order. Within ten years, almost the entire Jewish community of Iraq was gone.

Its exotic name aside, the Farhud wasn't an isolated eruption of anti-Jewish violence in some far corner of the world. According to the historians Shmuel Moreh and Robert Wistrich, it was at least in part an extension of the Nazi war of extermination against the Jews. Moreh is the co-editor of a 1992 collection of essays on the Farhud, recently revised and updated in English translation. Marking the seventieth anniversary of the attack, he and Wistrich, the distinguished historian of anti-Semitism, recently chaired a provocatively titled symposium, "Nazism in Iraq," in the hope of raising public awareness of the event and combating "Farhud denial" among today's Iraqi Arabs.

At the symposium, Wistrich noted that in 1941, Iraqi Jews "found themselves in the crossfire of three converging forms of anti-Semitism": the anti-Semitism of Iraqi nationalists, the anti-Semitism of Palestinian exiles in Iraq, and the anti-Semitism of German Nazis. Both the Iraqi and the Palestinian versions were deeply influenced by Nazism.

Consider the case of Yunus al-Sabawi, an Iraqi journalist who became the country's minister of economics and governor of Baghdad. Al-Sabawi also happened to be the author of an Arabic-language translation of Hitler's Mein Kampf. In the work's preface, he celebrated the "great adventurer, the great German leader who rose from being a simple soldier to the leadership of . . . one of the culturally and scientifically most developed nations in the world." During the Farhud itself, paramilitary groups organized by al-Sabawi were ordered to participate in the attacks.

Or consider the role played by Palestinian exiles. Approximately 400 leading Palestinian families had moved to Iraq after the anti-Jewish riots in Palestine in 1936-39. The most prominent was the orchestrator of those riots: Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, whose connections to Nazism in general and Hitler in particular have been thoroughly documented. But the mufti wasn't alone in channeling Nazi ideals: in their own account of the events leading up to the Farhud, British officials—the British ruled Iraq off and on from 1914 until 1955—noted the electrifying effect on Iraqi youth groups of their pro-Nazi Palestinian teachers.

Then there is the role played by German Nazis themselves in the Farhud. Dr. Fritz Grobba was the German envoy stationed in Baghdad; fluent in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, he successfully tailored the Nazi message to local sensibilities.  Already in 1939 Grobba was predicting in a report to Berlin that "a day will come when the anger of the masses will erupt, and the result will be: a massacre of the Jews."

Nazism exercised a double appeal to Palestinian and Iraqi Arabs. Its anti-Semitism resonated with certain powerful streams in Arab and Islamic tradition, and its anti-British animus resonated with the anti-imperialism promoted by Arab nationalists who despised the British as occupiers bent on thwarting their aspirations. Ironically, many Jews in Palestine viewed the British in similar terms (which did not prevent them from throwing in their lot with the British in the struggle against Hitler). The Jews in Iraq, however, were naturally more sympathetic to Great Britain, and were accordingly regarded by Iraqi nationalists as a fifth column.

There were also deeper affinities between Nazism and Arab nationalism. Commenting on the Ba'athists, the nationalist group that would go on to dominate Iraq for the last four decades of the 20th century. Wistrich observed in an interview:

The kind of people who founded the Ba'athist movements . . . looked up to Nazi Germany. The German national rebirth, including its anti-Jewish ideology, really appealed to them. The Third Reich represented militarism, glory, obedience, national unity, a messianic political faith—and the removal of the Jews.

All of this history sheds light on contemporary understandings of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to the conventional narrative, the roots of that conflict lie in Israel's occupation of "Palestinian lands" beginning in 1967. A better and more accurate narrative, however, would place the issue in the context of the ongoing 100-year war waged by the dominant part of the Arab-Muslim world to rid the Middle East of its minorities, from the Berbers to the Kurds to the Jews to, of late, the Christians. In this perspective, the consecutive intifadas against Israel orchestrated by Yasir Arafat's PLO represent, as Moreh writes, "the continuation of the stones that struck the Jews of Iraq following the arrival in Baghdad of the Palestinian Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini and his associates."

Both Moreh and Wistrich argue that the Farhud should be seen as a part of the Shoah. That is a debatable proposition—at the symposium, the objection was voiced that unlike in Europe, the Jews of Iraq, for all practical purposes, were not targeted for extermination. But there is no question that the massacre itself, and the role of Nazism in promoting and abetting it, deserve a prominent place in the collective Jewish consciousness. Seventy years on, it is amazing and frightening to consider that Arab nationalists, pan-Arab nationalists, and Islamists, loudly seconded by their European supporters, still charge Israel with being an outpost of "Western imperialism" in the Middle East.

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