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The Last Jews of Iraq

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Hannah Marshall Hannah Marshall 17:00, Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Basra, 1918

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    No mention of the Bombings of 1950-1951? Do those events not fit with the program maker's agenda.

    The Israelis/Zionists encouraged the Jews of Iraq to leave with methods including a bombing campaign.

    Anyone interested in that part of the history can find it here.


  • Comment number 2.

    A very moving and tragic story and a tale that needs to be told, but would the BBC broadcast such a one-sided account of such a sensitive subject from the other side? I think we all know the answer to that.

    Alan Yentob tells us "During the 20th Century, 850,000 Jews fled from Arab countries." Yes they did, but didn't Alan think it worth mentioning the other huge population transfer which preceded the majority of it i.e. the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians from their homes?

    He goes on "Until that point, they'd lived side by side with their Arab neighbours, contributing to and benefiting from the culture of the Middle East. There must be something we can learn from that experience."

    And then one of the contributers to the programme told us "I am totally obsessed with finding a reason why Jews lived in Arabia for thousands of years, and they got on in more or less harmony, and therefore if that happened for the last 1400 years, what went wrong in the last 60 or 70 years?"

    What went wrong which caused such awful transfers of Jewish and Muslim populations is blindingly obvious. Why are Alan Yentob and/or the BBC so reluctant to say it?

    Very moving, very interesting and very biased.

  • Comment number 3.

    Dear Alan Yentob:
    Over the past few days I have been so looking forward to your Radio-4 programme about Iraqi Jews, as I myself come from Iraq, and as my first ever love (when I was still a young teenager in 1950) was a Jewish girl from the Khalaschi family.
    However, I regret to say that I was very disappointed with your programme, not because of what it contained but because of what it ignored. In particular the programme repeated the factual historical claim that Jews had lived happily and flourished in Iraq for over two millenia. But when the rhetorical question was paused near the end of the programme as to what happened over the past sixty or so years to change all that, the question was left muted and unanswered when in fact the answer was all too clear.
    You, Mr Yentob, more than most people, should know that what happened in the area over the past sixty or so years was the imposition of Zionism by a predominately Western European culture whose racial discrimination is not confined towards Palestinians, Arabs or Muslims, but also encompassed iraqi Jews of whom you are but one of many fine examples.
    Do you not think it was an aberration to leave this question unanswered? Do you not feel it was a disservice to Iraqi Jews?

    Ramez J Ghazoul

  • Comment number 4.

    Response to Ramez Ghazoul. Actually, the Jews lived happily and flourished over two millenia IN SPITE of the wholesale discrimination against the Jews. You see the Jews did not expect much concerning freedom, jobs, buying or selling property or seeking justice in the courts. So when they were left alone for a while or were not hanged or tortured, they considered that a good period. Beyond the institutionalized discrimination which the Jews accepted as a part of life, they also always lived at the whims of those in power. It is true that the Jews in the Arab world did not enjoy the incessant pogroms of the European Jews but they were subjected to it from time to time depending on the political winds in the Arab world and of course the whims of those in power. Concerning Zionism, again, the Farhood (pogrom) of 1941 had nothing to do with Zionism. There were many lesser attacks against the Jews even before 1941. So to claim that Zionism is the root cause of antisemitism is self serving and disingenuous, your love for a Jewish girl from the Khalaschi family notwithstanding.

  • Comment number 5.

    I know muslims and jews lived in Iraq for centuries in a great harmony. This is what my grandmother told me (she died in the late 1980s in the town of Hilla / Babylon at an age of 95 years). This is the feeling I took from reading the books of Dr Sosa (a great Iraqi historian and a stateman) and his Daughter Dr Alia Sosa. This the feeling I had myself when I studied medicine in Iraq between 1982-1988; taught haemato physiology on the hand of Dr Jerome. With all of these expectations, the program left me with great bitterness to the amount of lies and one sided stories Mr Yentob was telling. I felt so disappointed in front of my children whom I forced to switch their TV and listen to the program with . It is so sad that we lost another opportunity to understand each other. .

  • Comment number 6.

    Dear Hayder Ewad: Presumably you are a physician who deals with specificity and proven science. Other than Mr Yentob painting a rosy picture of the life of Jews in Iraq, what SPECIFICALLY is it that you found "one sided" and what specifically are the "amount of lies" and the nature of those "one sided stories"?
    Thank you.

  • Comment number 7.

    KBBB's comment refers to Naieem Giladi's pack of lies
    The so-called Zionist bombs are a propaganda argument to deflect the responsibility for the Jewish exodus off Arab shoulders. They can never explain how come 1,000 Jews a month were fleeing Iraq BEFORE March 1950.
    There were five incidents in all but only one resulted in loss of life. By then 80 percent of Jews had registered to leave Iraq. No one knows for certain who perpretrated this bombing but there is evidence that Iraqi nationalists were responsible.

  • Comment number 8.

    davka, I agree. Giladi's story is all bunk. He was just trying to make a buck selling fiction!

  • Comment number 9.

    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.

  • Comment number 10.

    'The Last Jews of Iraq' was profoundly moving. Baghdad circa 1914 must have been a fascinating place with the cross-currents of races, cultures and creeds creating an intellectual hothouse where conversation bubbled and broiled. Is there any chance of Alan Yentoub doing an 'Imagine' version of this radio documentary?

  • Comment number 11.

    Davka: even your second link provides evidence that a Zionist was behind some of the bombings. Bombings aside, here are some quotes taken from Wikipedia

    "By 1949, the Iraqi Zionist underground had become well-established... were smuggling Iraqi Jews out of the country illegally at a rate of 1,000 a month... Israel... mounted an airlift... and sent agents to Iraq to urge the Jews to register for immigration as soon as possible."


    " about 130,000 Jews immigrated to Israel from Iraq, thanks largely to the efforts of emissaries from Israel and activists of the Halutz Movement... This mass movement stunned the Iraqi Government, which had not expected the number of immigrants to exceed 8,000... At the same time, the Zionist movement issued a manifesto calling on the Jews to sign up for immigration. It started with the following: "O, Zion, flee, daughter of Babylon," and concluded thus: "Jews! Israel is calling you — come out of Babylon!"


    This program gave an impression that the Jews of Iraq left soley due to the push of anti-semitism: whereas the Zionists did all they could to engineer it. And it even left us with a hanging mystery as to why the exodus really happened.

    We can argue over where to apportion responsibility. Push vs pull - discrimination vs Zionist efforts. But there is no mystery here. The mass exodus happened after the creation of the Israeli state. The timing isn't co-incidence. To argue that "Zionism had nothing to do with their exodus" is absurd.

  • Comment number 12.

    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.

  • Comment number 13.

    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."


    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.


    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.

  • Comment number 14.

    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.

  • Comment number 15.

    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'.

  • Comment number 16.

    "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.

  • Comment number 17.

    The truth about Deir Yassin
    There are several examples of Arab atrocities against Jews, but the Jews did not flee.

  • Comment number 18.

    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.

  • Comment number 19.


    The truth about Deir Yassin
    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.

  • Comment number 20.

    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.

  • Comment number 21.

    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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