Lost history: understanding the unseen story of Iraqi Jews

Lost history: understanding the unseen story of Iraqi Jews An Iraqi boy plays in front of a closed synagogue in Baghdad.
Hannah Harn learns about the history of the Jews of Iraq

 

As of 2016, Ireland was home to fewer than 3,000 Jews. “In the region of Munster, we have about 95 people on a day to day basis and we’ll meet up occasionally,” said Aida Phelops of West Cork.

Ms Phelops is a speaker on the history of the persecution of the Jews of Iraq. She is an Iraqi Jew, born in Baghdad, and has been giving talks on the history of her people since 2014.

“Growing up I didn’t really visit it,” she said of her history. “Logically, I knew this is my history, but emotionally I couldn’t go there. It’s literally only in the last five or six or seven years that I have really been entrenched in it.”

The Iraqi Jews are one of the world’s oldest and most historically significant Jewish communities. At present, they have strong communities in Israel that maintain their religious and cultural traditions. Smaller communities uphold Iraqi Jewish traditions after their 1940s and ‘50s diaspora in Britain, Australia, Singapore, Canada, the United States, and some countries in Europe.

Mob attack

In 1941, the Farhud pogrom, a mob attack against the Jewish communities in Iraq during the Jewish festival of Shavuot, killed more than 180 Jewish citizens of Iraq and wounded 240 more.

Later, in the 1950s, the Iraqi government decided to allow Iraqi Jews to leave the country if they surrendered their citizenship. During Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, hundreds of thousands of Jews were airlifted out of Iraq to immigrant camps outside Tel Aviv, with only 7,000 deciding to stay behind in Baghdad.

In 1958, the overthrow of the monarchy and the declaration of Iraq as a republic brought an end to British influence and control in the country. Things seemed to calm down, with around 4,000 Jews living in Baghdad in peace. However, in 1963, Saddam Hussein staged a Ba’athist coup. Jewish citizens had their passports taken, and in 1967 Iraq joined the Six Day War against Israel. Their loss increased repercussions against the Iraqi Jewish community.

Thirteen men were hanged in 1969, accused of being spies for Israel. In 1970, a route out of the country reopened, and more Jewish families began leaving for Israel and other countries to escape persecution. With the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Jewish Agency for Israel launched efforts to present the remaining Iraqi Jews with the opportunity to go to Israel. Today, only around 500 Iraqi Jews remain in Baghdad and Basra.

Ms Phelops, who left Baghdad with her family at just two years old, has lived in the UK as well as Israel and has now been living in West Cork for over 11 years. In the last couple of years, she became an Irish Citizen and sees herself as an Irish Iraqi Jew.

“Growing up in the UK as an Iraqi Jew was very frustrating,” Ms Phelops said. “People would know I was Jewish and then, when they would hear where I was born, the question I always got was, ‘well, how can you be an Arab and a Jew?’”

“I wasn’t Aida anymore,” she explained. “I became a political subject. It became so annoying that I used to lie.”

However, nearly 80 years after the Farhud pogrom, she still feels justice has eluded her people. “The older I’ve gotten the more I’ve wanted justice, not just for the Iraqi Jews but for all the Arab Jews.”

Throughout history, the story of the Iraqi and Arab Jews has gone mainly untold, and while parts of the timeline align with the Holocaust, Ms Phelops feels there is rarely a balanced representation of the persecution of the Jews in Arab states and their unique, long-term struggles.

“Just because it happened that long ago doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be addressed. It does need to be addressed,” said Ms Phelops. “They need to honour both histories, equally and separately.”

One of the biggest divides between the two histories is the inability of Iraqi and Arab Jews to return to their birthplaces. Around 856,000 Arab Jews had to leave their homes, escaping to Israel, Canada, the UK, France and the Netherlands. Many had their citizenship and their passports revoked. Others were given new citizenships when moving to other countries.

Trauma

“They were absorbed into those countries and had to recreate their lives,” she explained. “And when you’re actually the surviving generation, you have no room to visit the pain and trauma you’ve been through. You’ve got to get on with it, which is why it takes the next generation or even the next generation like myself…to tell the story.

“Survivors and descendants of Holocaust survivors are all able to go back to their birthplace, to their ancestral birthplace. Arab Jews are not. And it was a history that has been silenced and nobody knew about, and only lately has it been spoken about.”

On Sunday, March 10, 2019, the Supreme Court of Israel found that Iraqi victims of the two-day 1941 Farhud pogrom would no longer be eligible for the same compensation or recognition as Nazi survivors. It was only in May of 2016 that Israel’s Arab Jews were originally granted recognition as Holocaust survivors.

However, some members of the Iraqi Jewish community have their sights set on returning to their birthplace. In 2018, Vice President of the European Jewish Congress Edwin Shuker and others said they would be petitioning the Federal Supreme Court in Baghdad to request the reinstatement of thousands of Iraqi Jews’ citizenship. 2018 also marked the 70th anniversary of the start of the transplanting of the Iraqi Jews to Israel and beyond.

I suppose personally if I were to go back [to Iraq] it would be to see how I would feel…I do feel I have a hole that is my birthplace…”

“Not only has he gone back [to Baghdad], but he’s also actually bought property there,” said Ms Phelops. “In his head, he believes that one day he can actually go back there.

“I suppose, for me, I’m scared,” she continued. “I think Shuker is fascinating and he goes back all the time. When I heard him speak I just sat there, and I wanted to say, ‘Take me with you. Keep me safe and bring me back safely.’”

“I am not brave, but if I was told I had a limited amount of time to live, I’d do it,” said Ms Phelops when asked if she herself has thought about returning. “Because if I’ve got a limited amount of time to live, I’m going to die anyhow so I would.”

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The separation Ms Phelops has felt from her birthplace has made it difficult for her to truly feel at home, regardless of where she has lived. “I suppose personally if I were to go back [to Iraq] it would be to see how I would feel,” she said. “I do feel I have a hole that is my birthplace, and it’s hard.”

“I can’t connect [to my countries of residence],” Ms Phelops explained. “At the end of the day, what am I? I’ve never seen myself as British even though I grew up there. I used to put ‘British’ because it was on my passport. Am I Irish? I feel more Irish than I did British. And Israeli? I felt more Israeli than I did any of them.

“Israel was the best country I could live in. On some level, organically, it was as near to my country of birth as I could ever be. But it is hard not being able to go back,” she said. “Arab Jews can’t go back. Iraqi Jews can’t go back. And it’s dangerous. It’s a different kind of danger than it used to be.”

According to Ms Phelops, Arab states are still dangerous for Jewish people, but in a new way.

“Back when I was growing up, Iraq was literally targeting the Jews, whereas now it’s targeting everybody,” she said. “It’s still not safe but at least you’re not standing out as a Jew.”

Fantasy

Because of this, Ms Phelops generally feels that the Iraq people dream of returning does not truly exist anymore. “If they return there with the fantasy of returning to the Iraq that they left, I think that is a fantasy and they’re not going to gain that,” she said. “I don’t know what they’re looking for, apart from some kind of closure. I don’t know what they’re looking for.

“I can’t speak for those people who want to go back and what they’re expecting from it,” she said. “I have no idea. I suppose each person’s agenda is different. Whether they can create an Iraq that includes the Jews again, I think that’s far away if it can ever happen, because the Iraq that’s there is such a mess. It would be a lovely idea if they could. But Iraqis do miss Iraq. Iraqi Jews miss it.”

Ms Phelops first began to explore this side of her personal history later in her life, after a friend had sent her books on the subject. “I had a friend in Dublin who was more obsessed with my history than I was, and he just kept sending me books,” she explained.

“One day I picked up one of the books and I read it and it was stuff I didn’t know about. I mean, my parents didn’t talk about it. Yes, we were Iraqis. Yes, we mixed with Iraqis, but it was never talked about. What happened back then was never talked about.”

Avoidance of this traumatic history was not just present at home with her parents. Ms Phelops has seen the same experience with many other Jewish people, and even her family in Israel seemed reluctant to discuss it.

“We just had to get on with it, and so did the Holocaust survivors,” she said. “In Israel, the Holocaust survivors that landed in Israel were told, ‘Right, get on with it. We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves, we’re Jews, we have to survive, we’re not going to be crying.’ And that is kind of a Jewish ethos that I find quite tough, actually. That’s the way it was.”

The first time she ever gave a talk on the subject, she found that even a friend from the UK, who spoke on the Holocaust, was unfamiliar with the history of Iraqi Jews. When she was asked to fill in for him at a talk, she agreed on the condition that she would be allowed to include the history of her own people alongside the history of the Holocaust.

“I said I would do it if they don’t mind me giving the history of the persecution of the Iraqi Jews, as well,” she said. “To which his reply was, ‘What Iraqi Jews?’ He’d never heard of the Iraqi Jews, let alone the persecution. And when I went to give that talk, he had tears.

“I’m just one person going around Ireland telling this story,” she said. Ms Phelops hopes to see more representation in education on the history of the Arab and Iraqi Jews. “It needs to be heard more on a government level. The powers that be here need to be educated …on the true history of what happened to the Jews.”

Beyond education, however, Ms Phelops believes that those who engage and seek to learn more are the ones who will carry the history with them and prevent future dismissal of her people

“The people I meet at these events, they are going to be the people who know the story, they don’t need the education,” she said. “They know we existed. And that’s the other thing! We existed! I’ve had people dismiss that I existed, say ‘oh don’t be so ridiculous there’s no such thing’, and I’m standing in front of them.”

She believes that those who engage and seek to learn more are the ones who will carry the history with them and prevent future dismissal of her people”

One issue that has held back the story of the Iraqi Jews for so many decades has been, per Ms Phelops, a desire not to clash with Arab countries who had control over the oil industry. “Back in those days, the Arab world was globally powerful in regards to oil, so the world could not be seen to be upsetting the Arabs,” she explained. “Everything is political at the end of the day. Everything is kind of a political game.

Growing up, Ms Phelops remembered feeling frustration and confusion as to why nothing was ever done or said about it. “I forgot that I thought that,” she said. “In those days, it was important not to upset the Arab nations because they had the monopoly on the oil. Now, they’re still important but not as important as they used to be.”

But the shift in power has not helped to bring any increased recognition to the Iraqi Jews. Even in Israel, which today is home to around 450,000 Iraqi Jews, focuses its Jewish history education on European Jewish history.

“The history lessons are all about the Holocaust, the European Holocaust, not even what happened with the Nazi influence,” Ms Phelops said. “The Farhud was Nazi influenced. Only recently have they started to bring that into the school curriculum. Even in Israel, with over half the population consisting of descendants of those Arab Jews, the history still revolves around the Holocaust.”

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The divide reaches into cultural education as well. “All the songs and poems all come from the European Jewish culture,” she explained. “There was a wealth of songs and poems that came from the Arab Jewish culture that’s not really taught in Israeli schools.”

For Ms Phelops, the biggest help non-Arab Jews can give to Iraqi Jews is to support them in telling their stories. “Non-Arab Jews can help by recognising our history,” she said. “Get people like myself to get that story out. More than that I don’t know if they can do. Get that story out and acknowledge us.

“They could not forget us,” she continued. “They could not go and do a documentary about the Holocaust and introduce all these peoples going through atrocities and then forget a whole group of their own people who went through atrocities. Make it as important as the Holocaust. There’s no better or worse. They’re equally horrific in their own ways.”

Now, she feels that what is needed is not just recognition, but accountability. “This history should have been remembered from day one,” she said. “In the last few years, this history has been brought out to kind of make the world realise that there need to be reparations, but the Arab states need to be held accountable for what happened to their non-combatant Jews. The fact that it was silenced was wrong.”

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