June 1-2 is the 75th anniversary of the Farhud, the 1941 pogrom by pro-Nazi Arabs attempting to exterminate the Jews of Baghdad. Hundreds were murdered and raped, and many Jewish homes and business looted and burned during a two-day orgy of hate and violence orchestrated by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini.
In Arabic, Farhud means “violent dispossession.” This forgotten Holocaust-era pogrom was the first step toward the extinguishing the 27 centuries of Jewish life in Iraq. It led to the eventual mass expulsion of some 850,000 Jews from Arab lands into Israel, penniless and stateless.
To mark the anniversary, I will be helping to lead commemoration ceremonies with Jewish groups and senior Israeli diplomats in four cities spanning three continents. It was the next logical step after the inauguration of International Farhud Day, which was proclaimed in an official event at the United Nations last year.
The first ceremony begins the morning of May 31 in the U.S. House of Representatives. A program of sorrow—and a cry for recognition—will unfold in the presence of members of Congress, Israeli diplomats, and American-Jewish and Iraqi-Jewish groups. Witness accounts reliving the 1941 massacre will be read by Maurice Shohet, president of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq. Special statements will be delivered by Jewish leaders. Haim Ovadia, the Iraqi-Jewish rabbi of Magen David Sephardic Congregation, will chant Iraqi songs. A congressional letter will express solidarity with the victims and the surviving generations in Israel.
Then 27 candles will be lit, one for each of the centuries of Iraqi Jewish existence abruptly terminated by the mass expulsion of Jews shortly after Israel was created. Then the candles will be abruptly snuffed out. Eight and a half shofar blasts will follow, symbolizing the 850,000 Jews forcibly evicted from Arab lands, mainly into Israel. The event culminates with a declaration of the pivotal role of Israel eloquently offered by Ken Marcus of the Louis Brandeis Institute, the lighting of a sole candle representing Israel by Josh Block of The Israel Project (which publishes The Tower), and concluding with the singing of “Jerusalem of Gold.”
Several of the group will then head to New York City, where the ceremony will be repeated that same afternoon with some variation at the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue. Attending that second event will be David Roet, the deputy chief of Israel’s UN mission, and Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein, among others.
After the conclusion of the New York City event, without pausing, we will race to the airport to fly to London where we will repeat the ceremony at the Lauderdale Road Synagogue, under the leadership of Rabbi Joseph Dweck. Officiating will be Israeli Ambassador to Great Britain Mark Regev and several other London notables.
To complete the effort, the group will fly to Jerusalem, where the ceremony will be repeated one final time in the Knesset on June 6.
Clearly, many groups in three countries, supported by many others from around the world, have come together to cry out for justice for the victims of the Farhud. But when all the chants have been heard, the shofar blasts blown and the speeches presented, what will it all mean? Troubling and painful questions arise for the Jewish community and, indeed, for the international community.
Why did it take so many decades and the works of an Ashkenazi author (writing first in my 2005 book, Banking on Baghdad, and then later in my 2010 book, The Farhud—Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust), for the tragic plight of such a multitude spread across so many countries to be recognized? At a time when the tearful details of every Holocaust-era city, village and concentration camp continue to be illuminated, the Farhud and the subsequent creation of 850,000 Jewish refugees struggles for acknowledgement. Explanation: The victims were Sephardic.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which has accomplished so much in the field of Holocaust memory, ignored the Farhud for years. The very topic conflicted with the museum’s mission statement, which defined the Holocaust as the attempt by the Nazis and their allies to destroy European Jewry. That injected a geographic test into the memory process that redlined the torment of Jewish victims residing just to the south and east. Sephardic victims had a right to be recognized, but only now are they are finding a molecule of recognition. Inertia has been overcome only after vigorous challenges by many in the Jewish community to evoke recognition by scholars, historians, and our communal leadership that Hitler’s war against the Jews was a global one, not one confined to the European continent.
A second inescapable reality arises. After the creation of the State of Israel, two types of refugees were created by the international community. The first were Jews from Arab countries, who were barely accommodated by existing international law governing refugee status and were forgotten almost as quickly as they were moved out of their tents into permanent housing and absorbed into Israel. The second was a sort of uber-refugee, Palestinian Arabs, who were granted generation-to-generation refugee status as a birthright, creating a mushrooming class today of some five million. Whereas Israel moved its Jewish brethren out of camps as quickly as the tiny state could muster resources, the Palestinians have maintained an almost eternal status of enhanced victimhood wherein hundreds of thousands still dwell in camps in cities completely controlled by the Palestinian Authority. The questions looms: Why is there a refugee camp in Ramallah, among many other Palestinian-controlled locations? As the son of Polish refugees now living in Washington, D.C., I am not considered—nor do I consider myself—a refugee. But a Palestinian neighbor who may have been born and raised down the street from me is given a special victim status and entitlement that theoretically lives on in perpetuity enforced by the world body. Not even the millions of Syrian, Iraqi or other Middle Eastern refugees now making their way to Europe enjoy the same status as a Palestinian born in the United States.
Every hour of the day we hear claims for Palestinian property. Yet, at no hour of any day is anyone reminded that some $300 million in Iraqi-Jewish assets were summarily seized through bigoted Nazi-style confiscatory legislation. The Iraqi totals can be multiplied by 10 or more to surmise the value of Jewish property seized across the Arab and Muslim world during the expulsions.
The word “justice” aptly appears in the name of many of the organizations participating in this 75th anniversary commemoration. But there can be no justice without recognition, without knowledge, without basic understanding. Therefore, the candles, shofars, and enunciations of the memorials in Washington, New York, London, and Jerusalem are just a small step along the long-obstructed road to recognition and understanding. Eventually, if the road is persistently traveled, it can lead to some measure of justice and compensation. But the final destination—a quantum of justice—will not emerge until all can be certain that the brutal experience suffered by Jews in Arab countries will occur never again.
Edwin Black is the New York Times bestselling author of IBM and the Holocaust and The Farhud—Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust. For further information, go to www.thefarhud.com.
[Photo: Jewish Museum London]