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27/08/2015
BBC Radio 4
The Radio 4 Blog

Hannah Marshall: "This is the picture of my grandfather and his family. It shows my grandfather, his mother
and three brothers. The picture was taken in Basra in 1918. My grandfather is the boy
standing at the back of the picture, with the black jacket and tie."

My grandfather was an Iraqi Jew, who ended up living in a North Wales seaside town. I never met him, but I've always been fascinated by this side of the family. A couple of years ago, I decided to find out more. I got in touch with distant cousins, and cousins of cousins, and friends of cousins - everyone in the Iraqi-Jewish community is linked to everyone else, somehow. The stories they shared were shocking, and revealed a deep-rooted history.

In 1917, a third of the population of Baghdad was Jewish.

Today just seven Jewish people live incognito in the city, their lives under constant threat. You're probably more surprised by the old figure than the new one. A third of the population? In fact Iraqi Jews thrived - they ran successful businesses, dominated the civil service and lived in relative peace and friendship with their Muslim neighbours. Then everything changed.

In the 1940s Arab nationalism, Nazi propaganda and anti-Zionism fuelled by the formation of Israel combined to create a wave of often violent anti-Jewish feeling. By 1951 nearly 120,000 Jews had fled, most evacuated to tent cities in Israel in a huge airlift. They left everything behind.

Today ancient Jewish shrines remain across Iraq, but the synagogues are empty and most Iraqis know nothing about the Jewish history which surrounds them. We're used to hearing accounts of Jewish exile, and tales of violence in Iraq, but this is the untold story.

The people I spoke to explained that Jewish history in Iraq goes back 1,600 years. In 597BC King Nebuchadnezzar captured the Jewish homeland of Jerusalem and brought them as slaves to Babylon, as it was then known. They flourished between two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates.

I heard stories of parties on sailing boats and of sleeping on the roof in the summer heat. They talked about Muslim friends and business partners, about feeling proud to be Iraqis. They described a Baghdad in which so much of the trade was in Jewish ownership that on a Saturday the souks would go quiet and banks would close.

And, of course, they talked about food - everywhere I went plates of chewy Iraqi macaroons were pressed upon me until I could barely move. The Iraqi Jews in the diaspora have retained their proud tradition of Arabic hospitality.

Alan Yentob, creative director of the BBC, is himself the child of Iraqi-Jewish immigrants. He has never been to Iraq, the dangers are too great, but he grew up in Manchester feeling part of Judeo-Arabic culture - eating Iraqi food, hearing Baghdadi songs and speaking Arabic with his grandmother. He, too, wanted to find out more about his community's history.

For this programme, The Last Jews of Iraq, we talked again to people who remember life in Baghdad, including members of Alan's own family. We found recordings of Judeo-Arabic mvusic from the 1920s, when Jewish musicians dominated Baghdad's music scene.

But we also heard about Jews thrown out of their jobs, people attacked in the street, and young Jewish girls burnt with acid. People remembered their shock when in 1941 Arab neighbours and friends turned on them in a pogrom known as the Farhud.

One man recalled his mother breaking down when she saw the hanging of nine suspected Zionist spies, all relatives or friends of the family, live on Baghdad TV.

The stories of persecution and terror were many but the common sentiment was astonishment that a country in which Jewish people had for centuries been proud citizens could turn on them so suddenly.

And then, just as we finished making the programme, came news of a fresh threat to the seven Jews who remain in Baghdad. An American embassy memo, published by Wikileaks, has revealed their names and identities, which have been reprinted in local Iraqi newspapers. One is now trying to leave the country, the others are determined to stay in the land of their ancestors, despite the dangers.

It all brought home to us the urgency of telling this story now, before it disappears completely. With the news dominated by Middle Eastern tension, it feels so important to hear the tales of my grandfather's world, in which Jews and Arabs lived side by side, sharing their lives, their music, their food and their country.

Hannah Marshall is the producer of the Last Jews of Iraq, a Loftus Audio production for BBC Radio 4.

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  • Comment number 21. Posted by deMontety

    on 12 Dec 2011 16:05

    Interesting article.

    Even more amazing to see that when Saddam was there (and he was not so gentle), the other communities could remain in peace in Iraq (Tarek Aziz is not muslim).

    Now they must leave to the neighbor countries.

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  • Comment number 20. Posted by mikeetg

    on 10 Dec 2011 23:27

    It seems many on this forum are upset because if we are talking about Jews being thrown out we should also talk about the Palestinians.

    They have nothing to do with one another. Aside from the fact that we are discussing Jews. The Iraqi Jews did not threaten the Iraqi people. The problem here was the Jews. Jews were seen as a problem in Palestine and therefore Jews were a problem, period. Those who are claiming this programme is unbalanced are stating in effect, that all Jews are to blame for the fate of the Palestinian Arabs. They say that to show the two sides of this story, we should discuss the Palestinian Arabs who suffered because of Jews. This is Racism.

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  • Comment number 19. Posted by bru

    on 9 Dec 2011 01:52

    davka,

    The truth about Deir Yassin
    http://www.palestinefacts.org/pf_independence_war_diryassin.php
    There are several examples of Arab atrocities against Jews, but the Jews did not flee.

    Exactly. Atrocities and mass ethnic cleansing took place on both sides. A tragedy for all. But Yentobs' programme did not mention the other side at all. It's as if the evil Arabs suddenly chose to drive out all Jews for no apparent reason. Which I find very one-sided.

    And there is absolutely no way the BBC could put out such a radio programme from the other side. They would not dare to tell the equally true story of Arabs being forced from their lands at gunpoint without mentioning the equal ethnic cleansing of Jews.

    When they do it I'll change my mind.

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  • Comment number 18. Posted by FaroukS

    on 4 Dec 2011 21:20

    Two aspects of the program need clarifying.

    The very wealthy Jews paint a rosy picture. Life was tolerable for Jews but only just.

    There was speculation concerning the route Iraqi Jews took to escape. Most of the time Iraq did not allow them to fly directly to Israel. The Shah had friendly relations with Israel and established transit camps for Jews who wanted to move on to Israel. My poorer relatives did so and lived in tented camps - Maabarot - for a few years. Subsequently they were given plots of land and plans and building materials to build their own homes.

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  • Comment number 17. Posted by davka

    on 3 Dec 2011 19:16

    The truth about Deir Yassin
    http://www.palestinefacts.org/pf_independence_war_diryassin.php
    There are several examples of Arab atrocities against Jews, but the Jews did not flee.

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  • Comment number 16. Posted by davka

    on 3 Dec 2011 19:07

    "The people in this documentary make it quite clear that they had lived their lives in peace and harmony with their neighbours"

    The people interviewed remember the 'golden age' of Iraqi under the British mandate. Things started to go wrong as soon as Iraq became independent in 1932.

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  • Comment number 15. Posted by davka

    on 3 Dec 2011 19:04

    Bru_wales:
    In fact there was not much Zionist activity in Iraq prior to the Farhud pogrom. Iraqi Jews were mostly non, or anti-Zionist, quite a few were communists. Yet all were singled out for persecution and abuse.

    It is not accurate to say that only US and European Jews were Zionists. Yemenite Jews desperate to escape terrible conditions immigrated to Israel in the 1880s, and there had always been a small community of mainly Sephardi Jews in Palestine since time immemorial.

    If there is one flaw in the programme - and by and large it was a good overview and I congratulate the makers - it is that the question of 'dhimmitude' was not explored. Under Islam, Jews are institutionally inferior or 'dhimmis' and the relationship between Jews and Muslims was NOT coexistence on equal terms. There were periods when Jews thrived under Muslim rule but, as Jimmy Soffer says, it was despite the restrictions and humilations of 'dhimmitude'.

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  • Comment number 14. Posted by bru

    on 3 Dec 2011 04:31

    Jimmy Soffer,

    How interesting that what you claim is not backed up by anything at all in this documentary by the people who actually contributed. The people in this documentary make it quite clear that they had lived their lives in peace and harmony with their neighbours. Until everything went wrong, when Europeans and Americans decided they wanted to create a Jewish homeland in the Middle east.

    The people in this this documentary enjoyed their lives until Zionism started to take over a nearby country. No mention of bother at all. Please give us evidence of how they are wrong. And please understand me listening to people who were actually there instead someone like you, who wasn't.

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  • Comment number 13. Posted by bru

    on 3 Dec 2011 03:49

    Bru_wales: you mention the flight of 750,000 Palestinians from Israel, but not a single Palestinian would have become a refugee had the Arab states not rejected the Partition Plan and declared war - a war they lost.
    The Jews in Arab countries were singled out for collective punishment although they were non-combattants and miles away from the battlefield.
    "Yentob's programme shows clearly that antisemitism in Iraq predated Israel's creation by at least seven years. In fact all minorities were targeted for oppression by the rise of Arab nationalism and Islamism. Thousands of Iraqi Christians have also fled as refugees. More proof that Zionism had nothing to do with their exodus."

    davka,

    Zionism had been going on well before the creation of Isreal, as you well know. For decades the Arabs had been watching millions of European and American Jews moving into Palestine with the sole intention of creating a Jewish state. To say Zionism didn't cause the problems for the Yentob family is laughable. Zionism destroyed the Yentobs' life in Iraq. What is amazing is that Alan Yentob is not allowed to say it.

    davka,

    The innocent victims of Deir Yassin were non combatants. Which was one of the main reasons the Palestinians left, when they were slaughtered by the Irgun and the Stern Gang. As you know.

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  • Comment number 12. Posted by davka

    on 1 Dec 2011 09:49

    KBBB:
    Whoever it was who planted the May and June 1951 bombs (which caused no casualties), they are IRRELEVANT to the great exodus. The deadline for registering to leave Iraqi had already closed in March 1951.
    You misread my comment 'Zionism had nothing to do with their exodus': I was talking about the Iraqi Christian refugees. Antisemitism is part and parcel of the bigotry shown towards all non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities at the time.
    It is true that the Zionist underground was well organised in Iraq, but so what? That in itself is not a 'push factor'. The emissaries made sure that the airlift to Israel operated smoothly. Even they were taken by surprise by the numbers of Jews who wanted to leave - the Zionist leader Mordechai Ben Porat in his book 'Back to Baghdad' estimated that no more than 14,000 would go. The exodus generated its own momentum, with relatives joining Jews who had already registered to go because they did not want to be left behind.
    The reason why the exodus took place when it did and not before is that no country was willing to take oppressed and destitute Jews before Israel was established. After the 1941 Farhud, a small number of Jews did leave Iraq for India, Persia and the West, but these were the wealthy and well-connected families who could afford the prohibitive travel taxes. The great mass of Jews had no choice but to stay put.

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