Last week was the 73rd anniversary of a cataclysmic event in the tragic annals of Iraq’s Jews: the outbreak, on June 1-2, 1941, of the Farhud.
The Farhud – a Kurdish word meaning “violent dispossession” – erupted at the peak of World War ll. During two days of rioting coinciding with the Jewish festival of Shavuot, a frenzied mob, including Arab neighbors and policemen, murdered approximately 180 Jews in Baghdad and other cities (the exact figure is not known); 242 children were orphaned, scores of women raped, hundreds wounded, 900 homes and 586 Jewish-owned shops were looted. Although some Arabs did heroically defend their Jewish neighbors, stories abound of pregnant women eviscerated, babies mutilated, and Jewish hospital patients refused treatment or poisoned. The dead were hurriedly buried in a mass grave.
Was this just another spasm of violence, as occurred from time to time throughout 14 centuries of Jewish-Muslim “coexistence”? Or should the Farhud be considered a Holocaust event?
In a fascinating development reported in Haaretz, three lawyers are fighting a case against the Israeli government. If they can prove that Nazi Germany was behind this particularly gruesome bout of bloodletting, then the Farhud’s survivors are entitled to claim compensation and state benefits under Israel’s Disabled Victims of Nazi Persecution Law.
The plaintiffs claim that the riots against the Jews in Iraq were “a direct result of incitement and deliberate, organized, German-Nazi propaganda whose purpose was to make the Jews hateful to the Arab inhabitants of Iraq and motivate them to strike at the Jews.” The historical evidence includes German and British army correspondence and minutes, and an investigative report into the Farhud, which Iraq made public in 1958.
The key player in the financing and dissemination of Nazi propaganda was Fritz Grobba, the German ambassador to Baghdad from 1932.
Among other activities, Grobba acquired the newspaper Al-Alam Al-Arabi, in which he published an Arabic translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. He sent Iraqi officers and intellectuals on trips to Germany as guests of the Nazi party. He also gave financial support to nationalist youth groups in Iraq and provided them with Nazi propaganda materials. A delegation from the Al-Futuwwa nationalist youth movement even visited Germany in May 1938, attended the Nazi party conference in Nuremberg, and returned to Iraq armed with anti-Semitic messages of Jewish power, corruption, and conspiracy.
The Farhud took place immediately after the defeat by British forces of Iraq’s short-lived pro-Nazi government, headed by Rashid Ali (al-Gaylani), and the flight of its main actors. Grobba funded Rashid Ali’s May 1941 coup by transferring him tens of thousands of gold ingots. At a meeting of the supreme German command on May 7, 1941, Hitler resolved “to assist Iraq in every possible way, including sending arms, ammunition, money, and military aid.”
Arguing the case for the defense (the Holocaust Survivors’ Rights Authority at the Israeli Finance ministry), historians claim that Iraq was way down the list of Germany’s priorities; that Grobba was not a “sworn” Nazi; that Nazi propaganda was marginal; that Arab nationalists enlisted Nazi support in order to defeat the British, which they failed to do; and that the Farhud was simply classic Arab anti-Semitism, without adding Nazism to the mix.
But as Edwin Black argues in his seminal book Farhud, Nazi Germany needed more and more Iraqi oil as the war progressed. Arab overtures to Hitler, initially rebuffed, were ultimately welcomed.
In its enthusiasm to indict Grobba, the case for the prosecution appears to downplay the role of the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, exiled to Baghdad between 1939 and 1941. Through the prosecution’s focus on Germany, the Arab supporters of Nazism become puppets, without agency.
The Mufti sought Nazi license to exterminate Jews in Arab countries as well as Palestine “in the same way as the problem was resolved in the Axis Countries.” He played a key role in inciting the Muslim population against the Jews in his two-year sojourn in Baghdad. With him were hundreds of Palestinian and Syrian teachers, spreading their noxious anti-Semitism. Fleeing Baghdad before advancing British forces a few days before the Farhud, and after the collapse of the pro-Nazi Rashid Ali government – which he had plotted to put into power, the Mufti nailed his colors firmly to the Nazi mast when he spent the rest of the war as Hitler’s guest in Berlin.
Even so, the case for the prosecution does not seek to prove intent on the part of Iraqi Nazis to bring the final solution to the Middle East.
But to Edwin Black, their purpose was clear. He writes:”The original plans for the anti-Jewish action of June 1st was intended to mimic Nazi extermination campaigns in Europe. ”
As in Poland, lists of Jews were compiled. In a chilling meeting on May 28 with the Chief Rabbi, Sassoon Kadoori, the self-styled pro-Nazi governor of Baghdad, Yunis al-Sabawi tells the Jews of Baghdad to lock themselves in their homes, cook enough food for three days’ travel, pack a small suitcase, and prepare to be transported to detention camps in the desert.
The next day, al-Sabawi was due to broadcast a call to military and Iraqi Nazi units to exterminate Baghdadi Jews in what Edwin Black calls a ‘massive murderous pogrom’. He even had his ‘victory’ speech ready.
In anticipation of certain slaughter, the Futuwwa youth movement went around marking red ‘hamsa’ handprints on the doors of Jewish homes.
Although al-Sabawi’s plans were thwarted at the last minute, the stage was set for the Farhud as Jews, in their Shavuot best clothes – thinking the danger had passed, ventured out of their homes.
“The perpetrators of the Farhud were not a gang nor a few errant officers,” continues Edwin Black. ” It was a mass movement unleashed, one that broadly adopted the Nazi desire to destroy the Jews.”
By focusing mainly on the activities of the ‘unlikely’ Nazi – Fritz Grobba – the prosecution fails to convey a sense of how deeply Nazi thinking had infected Iraq. Already in the 1930s, Nazi-style numerus clausus quotas were being applied to Jews in public service and education. Nazism inspired Arab nationalist movements, such as the Ba’ath Party, to marginalise and exclude Jews and non-Arabs. Independent Iraq’s first act was to massacre 600 Assyrians.
Shockingly, the legacy of Nazism endured after the end of the war when the Arab League drafted a raft of discriminatory laws reminiscent of Nuremberg. The mass exodus of the 140,000 Jews of Iraq, and the destruction of pre-Islamic, Jewish communities across the Arab world, followed a Nazi pattern of victimisation – dismantlement, dispossession, and expulsion – for which Arab states have never been called to account.
But the lawsuit is significant because, for the first time, it attempts formally to cast light on links between the Nazis and Arab countries. The plaintiffs’ claims have so far been rejected, but they are determined to pursue their case to the highest court in the land.