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Quagmire That Was the Fertile Crescent

Murad family photo Baghdad, 1949. Standing: siblings, Zaki, Doris (15), Emil (18). Seated: parents Simha and Ovadia with little brother Sami (10)

This is the story of citizens who were proud of their country of origin, served it well and drew much enjoyment and satisfaction from the fruits of the Paradise of Eden. But they were betrayed and deceived by the country of their birth, the country that turned itself into a quagmire and spewed the Jewish population out of its midst.
When pains subside, memories take over. Here are some of these pains and memories.
For over 2,500 years the Jewish community in Babylonia, modern-day Iraq, the oldest Diaspora in the Jewish world, maintained its own mores and way of life under successive Persian, Islamic, Mongolian and Arab conquerors.
1931-1940 Baghdad, population 500,000, for generations an Arab capital along the banks of the Tigris river, a magical city, rich in history, a "home" where old and new enjoyed an amicable coexistence, the national center for economic, educational and cultural activity. Here the Jewish population was an astute and deep-seated community which had organized its own institutions of education, welfare and health. Out of a total population of 4 million in Iraq, the Jews numbered 120,000. They had traditionally kept to themselves. That was the key to their survival. They minded their own affairs, pursuing knowledge and seeking to provide education for their offspring. They were far from illiterate. In ancient times they interpreted the Torah, wrote the Talmud, and were well-versed in precepts of the Jewish faith.
In the years mentioned above, the influx of western culture encouraged many Jews to combine Jewish cultural pursuits with modern knowledge. They became well versed in world affairs, and they excelled in every field. Most of them were merchants, physicians, bank managers, and they held important positions in the British administration and civil service.
Every minister had a British adviser, and every adviser was dependent on a senior Jewish clerk. My father was one. Iraqi Jews were prominent in the Ministries of Treasury, Railways, Telegraphs, and Meteorological stations, and directed banks and foreign trade firms. Retail trade and import, which had been in Jewish hands for centuries, were buttressed as commercial endeavors. Jews were the first to enter liberal professions, to become lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, engineers and accountants. They attained economic security and respectable social standing. The Jewish minority became one of the most important bulwarks of the national economy, commerce and administration, and left an indelible imprint on Iraqi life.
Jewish-Arab relationships were sincere, honest and mutual. Arabs respected Jews as men of learning and culture, and Jews responded with loyalty and fair play.
The rise of Hitler changed the picture. Aggrandized hostilities against the Jews received extensive news coverage. The Arab population changed its attitude and followed the leaders' instructions. Jewish banks were closed or taken over by Arabs, senior clerks were ousted from key positions … the fatal change came! Even teaching Hebrew was forbidden in private homes. Nazi influence accentuated Jewish persecution, and in 1941 came the worst of all: the Pogrom (known in Arabic as Farhud). It was the most horrible period the Jews of Baghdad had ever known throughout their long history in Babylonia. The Moslems went from door to door beating Jews, searching houses for gold and silver, arresting innocent men. They were brutal and had no mercy. Thousands of Jews were taken to prison. As for girls and women, the marauders had to satisfy the demands of their crotches, their animal sexual desires in the presence of husbands and fathers.
That was on the eve of Shavuot, May 30, 1941. The synagogues were full and the Jews who had lived in fearful seclusion for a month opened their homes. Synagogues were warned that Jews should not be seen rejoicing in the streets. It was customary for Iraqi Jews to celebrate Shavuot by visiting the graves of the Tzadikim on the outskirts of Baghdad or the grave of Joshua across town, but they dared not go out.
June 1, 1941 Jews were dragged out of buses and murdered in the street. The savage throngs and trigger-happy soldiers, egged on by the armed police, regarded the assault on Jews as sport and amusement. The defenseless Jewish Quarter became a battlefield pitted by murder, looting and rape.
The Pogrom had a devastating effect on the Jewish community - The Feast of Shavuot of 1941. Since that very date the Jewish community in Iraq has felt unwanted - a despoiled community which sought ways to leave the country. In the world's eyes it was the rise and fall of an intelligent, wealthy, highly educated community. 



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