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Remembering the Farhud

Dr Myer Samra
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Armed mob in Baghdad 1941

Published: 7 May 2016

Last updated: 4 March 2024

From a talk to a plenary meeting of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies on 26 April 2016 at the Sephardi Synagogue ‘Beth Yisrael’ in Sydney.

After the death of King Solomon (around 930 to 920 BCE), his dominion split into two Israelite kingdoms. The northern kingdom was known as Israel, and the southern as Judea. In 723-722 BCE, Israel was conquered by Assyria, and 27,000 people were taken captive to Assyria, the capital of which was Nineveh, next to today’s city of Mosul in northern Iraq. In 597 BCE Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem, the capital of Judea, and took a large proportion of its population as captives to Babylon, in southern Iraq, including King Yehoiakim, replacing him with King Zedekiah. When Zedekiah rebelled against Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar returned, destroyed the Temple, and took another 40,000 captives.

Over time, the Jews in Babylon came to be settled there and considerable Jewish creativity is associated with the country, including a number of books of the Bible, the creation of the Synagogue as a place of worship, and the writing of the Babylonian Talmud. Indeed, the Talmud states that if you live in the diaspora, you should endeavour to move to Israel – unless you happen to be in Babylon, with its abundance of Jewish institutions.

There has been a continuous presence of Jews in Iraq from that time till the mid 20th Century, with only a break of around 70 years in the written record after Tamerlane captured Baghdad and massacred 20,000 of its inhabitants in 1401.

Arabs did not invade Iraq until 633 CE and conquered it in 636 CE, bringing Islam and the Arabic language with them – more than 1200 years after Nebuchadnezzar had brought the Jews there. Under the Assyrians and Babylonians, the lingua franca, which was also the language spoken by the Jews, had been Aramaic, and it retained its position until the Arab conquests, when it was replaced by Arabic. However the Jews and Christians in the Kurdish regions of Northern Iraq continued to speak Aramaic dialects into the 20th Century.

Mediaeval writers commented on some of the distinctive features of the Arabic then spoken in Baghdad. The dialect of Arabic spoken by Jews up till the 20th Century retains many of these features. For instance, the Baghdadi name for Shabu’oth, ‘Id Ez-Zyagha, which translates as the festival of pilgrimage, has the sound “gh” for what in standard Arabic is an “r” sound, which would be ‘Id Ez-Zyara.

Muslims were slower than the Jews to return to Baghdad, and when they did do so, they were no longer using the city’s original dialect, but instead came in with a Bedouin dialect, suggesting that they were not simply the former inhabitants returning to the city but rather a new population group. This is the dominant dialect of Baghdad today.

At the beginning of the 20th Century the Jewish population of Iraq was estimated at around 250,000, though it had decreased to 150,000 by the middle of the Century.

In the 19th Century, as the Ottoman Empire was in decline, European powers claimed the right to protect various religious minorities there. The French were the protectors of Catholics, Russia of Orthodox Christians, while the British assumed the role of protector of the Jews and Protestants. Iraqi Jew in particular had a strong relationship with the British. Iraqi Jews were engaged extensively in international trade, and many had settled and prospered in port cities across Asia, under the British flag.

After WWI, Britain assumed a League of Nations mandate over Palestine with a view to preparing it as a Jewish homeland, and over Iraq to lead it into independence. Many Jews and Christians in Iraq, who were better educated than the Muslims, found positions in the colonial administration.

As the Sunni and Shia were regarded as distinct religious entities, Jews were the largest confessional group in Baghdad and made up around a third of its population. Many had prominent roles in the administration and other areas of influence. Between WWI and WWII, most of the members of the stock exchange were Jews, and the stock exchange closed for Yom Kippur. International trade was also largely a Jewish concern, while the Zilkha family were prominent bankers with an international reach; many entrepreneurs and many lawyers were Jewish. Jews were the chief exponents of traditional Iraqi music and the Baghdad Radio Orchestra was almost entirely comprised of Jews. No live music could be heard on Baghdad Radio on Yom Kippur. Significantly, in 1932, the Jewish Al-Kuwaiti brothers were awarded first prize in the First International Congress of Arabic Music in Cairo, receiving their award from King Farouq. Jews were also prominent in the literary field and journalism.

There were generally 5 to 7 Jewish members of the Iraqi parliament (the Majlis), with seats reserved for them in both houses. Sir Sassoon Eskell was a prominent politician and the country’s first finance Minister. He negotiated the price for the sale of Iraqi oil, insisting on payment in gold. He had also been a member of the Ottoman parliament before WWI.

A number of Jews held judicial positions, the highest being David Samra, who held the title of Deputy President of the Court of Cassation. He was effectively Iraq’s chief justice, the presidency being reserved for an Englishman under the treaty negotiated by Britain with Iraq. The President would only be involved where cases included a litigant who was not Iraqi.

The Jews of Iraq were an integral part of the nation, in a land where they had deep roots that went back thousands of years. They were content, even proud to be Iraqis. As a whole, they were not particularly attracted to Zionism, though as Jews they were interested in what was happening in Palestine and concerned for their coreligionists around the world. Nevertheless, their Arab neighbours invariably associated them with what was happening in Palestine.

While Jews had welcomed Britain’s role in the country and Iraq gained its independence in 1932, many Arab Iraqis had resented British domination during the mandate, and the influence it continued to exert after independence. Antipathy to Britain and likewise to Jews also grew out of events in Palestine, as Jewish strength there increased, and the administration wrestled with the dilemma of trying to balance Jewish and Arab aspirations.

Into this climate, from 1933 Germany’s Nazi propaganda gained a sympathetic audience. Various groups sought to build parties modelled on the German Nazi Party and emulated its authoritarian and antisemitic ideology. Fritz Grobba, the German diplomatic head in Baghdad, bought ownership of an Arabic language newspaper, Al-‘Alam Al-‘Arabi, the Arab World, and serialised Hitler’s Mein Kampf. He was careful to edit out the Fuhrer’s views about the Arabs as a race, and replaced the term “antisemitic” with “anti-Jewish”, to avoid any sense that Hitler meant any harm to the Semitic Arabs. Arabic language broadcasts from Radio Berlin regularly reported on fictitious Jewish massacres of Arabs in Palestine, helping to create a climate hostile to Jews.

Meanwhile, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini, had been busy fomenting anti-Jewish and Anti-British feeling in Palestine, leading to riots and massacres. One of his tactics, which riled many across the Muslim world, was a claim, familiar to us today, that the Jews were seeking to encroach on the Haram Al-Sharif, the holy sanctuary, otherwise known as the Temple Mount. Husseini had long voiced his admiration for Hitler and sought the Fuhrer’s support to deal with the Arab world’s “Jewish Problem” in the same way as the Nazis were dealing with it in Europe. Visiting Hitler, he was treated with an honour guard, as an important dignitary.

In 1937, as the British sought to arrest him, Husseini fled to French controlled Syria and Lebanon, making his way to Iraq in October 1939, where he openly preached hatred of the Jews and the British to a large and receptive audience.

In April 1941, a coup brought to power a pro-Nazi, Arab nationalist regime, strongly influenced by the Grand Mufti. It was led by four Lieutenant Colonels, who appointed Nazi sympathiser Rashid ‘Ali Al-Gaylani Prime Minister, and he in turn appointed Yunis Al-Sab’awi, a fervent antisemite, as Minister for the Economy. Al-Sab’awi had translated Mein Kampf into Arabic and co-founded a group modelled on the Hitler Youth. Another fervent antisemite, Saib Shawkat, was appointed Director-General of Education.

Rashid ‘Ali had been Prime Minister in 1940 and courted German support for his anti-British regime, sending his Justice Minister, Naji Shawkat, brother of Saib Shawkat, to meet Franz von Papen, then German ambassador to Turkey. He carried a letter of introduction from the Grand Mufti that proposed “a treaty of friendship and collaboration”.

Rashid ‘Ali re-established diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany, severed by the previous regime, and Fritz Grobba returned as Ambassador, bringing with him a large entourage of military and diplomatic personnel. This regime was popular among the army and Arab nationalists, who felt offended that their country had been occupied by the British infidels, who still retained considerable influence over the former government of Prince Regent ‘Abd Al-Illah.

In May 1941, Rashid ‘Ali sought to evict British troops from two air force bases inside Iraq, which led to warfare between Iraq and Britain. Jews were assumed to be sympathetic to the British and were therefore treated with suspicion by many of their compatriots. Gourji Bekhor writes “Whenever British war-planes bombarded Baghdad, Jews walking on the streets, who were lifting their eyes upwards or scratching their heads or straightening their head-gear … were (seized) by the hostile mobs, on false charges of giving signals to the British war-planes and were taken to the police stations for investigation” 1

Rioters broke into a Jewish hospital on 6 May, believing that two British pilots were hiding there. They destroyed an X-ray machine, assuming it was a device to signal the British warplanes.

Around this time, my mother, who had been a student in an American run school, was seized, along with a schoolmate, in a horse-drawn cab and taken to prison. My mother was terrified by the experience although her father was able to have her released the same day. Believing it was because of the use of the English language, my mother developed an anxiety about using English, which she maintained for the rest of her life, even while she lived in Australia.

While the British were the main focus of antipathy, Jews were not far behind. The Futuwa, the Hitler-Youth clone, daubed the front of Jewish homes in Baghdad with red paint, making them easier to identify, while Muslim business owners painted a sign on their premises in green, to avoid being mistaken for Jews.

By 28 May, the Iraqi army had been routed and Yunis Al-Sab’awi, who assumed the role of governor, summoned the Chief Rabbi, Sasson Khedhoori, and directed him to inform the Jews to pack their suitcases and take food for a three days’ journey. The Chief Rabbi was disturbed by this and went to see Arshad Al-'Umari, mayor of Baghdad, who had signed an armistice with the British. The Rabbi flung his turban to the floor in front of Al-'Umari and expressed his apprehensions as to what Al-Sab’awi might be planning. Al-'Umari retrieved the turban, urged the Rabbi to wear it, and assured him that he would make sure nothing would happen to the Jews. Al-'Umari then went to Al-Sab’awi and persuaded him to flee the country.2

The Grand Mufti and the coup leaders had fled by 31 May while the British surrounded Baghdad, infuriating the masses. The Jews were dressed in their fine clothes for the ‘Id Ez-Zyagha, but they were believed by the masses to be celebrating the return of the British. Jews did understand that the Regent, ‘Abd Al-Illah, had returned, and a group of them sought to greet him, crossing the Russafa Bridge to where he was thought to be stationed.

Soldiers who were bitter at their defeat by the British and were fleeing back to Baghdad, were upset to see the Jews and began attacking them, with cries of Idhbahu Al-Iyhud, slaughter the Jews. Soon, the cry was taken up by mobs of locals. The Futuwa Youth went on the rampage with the soldiers, attacking Jews on the streets and breaking into Jewish homes and businesses. A conservative estimate of the number of Jews murdered in Baghdad on 1 June 1941 and the following day has been put at 180, but claims go up to around 900 Jews losing their lives, with a mass grave said to hold up to 600 bodies. Thousands more were injured and women were raped. The properties destroyed and plundered also numbered in their thousands. On the second day, tribesmen from beyond the city, hearing of the treasures that people were seizing, came to join in the looting.

Many Jews however acknowledge that they and their properties had been saved thanks to Muslim friends and neighbours who defended them and warned off the rioters. All the while, the British who were stationed just outside the city, stood by and watched, and did not lift a finger to support or defend the Jews being massacred. Ambassador Cornwallis preferred not to infuriate the masses further by appearing to favour the Jews: So much for the special relationship between the Jews and the British.

On 2 June 1941, the Regent took control of the city and brought order back to Baghdad with the aid of loyal Kurdish soldiers who had orders to shoot and kill the rioters. Around three to four hundred rioters are believed to have lost their lives in this assault, and some of the ringleaders were subsequently hanged, as the Regent sought to reassure the city’s Jews that everything was back to normal and such an aberration would never be repeated.

The events that I have described occurred in Baghdad, but riots also broke out in other cities. Rivka Goldman recalls:

In Basra, my birthplace, the mob moved from one street to another, from one house to the next,     shouting “Mal elYehud halal” (“The taking of Jewish property is permitted by God”), leaving nothing behind. Death was everywhere. When they came to our street and wanted to enter our home, a sheikh, our neighbor, stood on our roof and fired his revolver. The mob was stunned and quieted for a brief moment, long enough for them to hear the sheikh shouting: “If you enter this home, you will pass through me.” Fearing the authority of the sheikh, the Iraqis did not dare disobey him and spared my parents’ home. Thus the devotion of a friend saved my family, as well as many other people who were hidden in our home; because the sheikh considered my father a friend, he was ready to defend him with his life.3

The trauma caused by this incident could not be easily forgotten. My mother’s cousin Saleh Aslan, a typewriter repairman, was murdered on the street. His mother had her abdomen ripped open but she managed to survive. Clearly my mother was deeply affected by these events. When my youngest brother was born almost 18 years later to the day in Sydney, Australia, my mother insists that Saleh appeared, standing at the foot of the bed, as large as life, and she spoke to him. My parents had another name planned for their new son, but because of her cousin’s appearance at the bedside, he was also given the name Saleh, which the Iraqi Jews anglicise as “Charles”.

While previously Iraqi Jews had shown little interest in Zionism and felt fully at home in Iraq, this experience certainly shook their certainty. Some members of the community fled the country, particularly to link up with kinsmen in India. Many of the adolescents and young adults displayed a new-found interest in the Jewish presence in Palestine and joined an underground Zionist movement, where they learned modern Hebrew, trained in the use of weapons and prepared for the day when they might have to use them, or dreamt of becoming pioneers in the Yishuv, the organised Jewish community establishing itself in Palestine. Within the space of just 10 years, and particularly after Israel’s Declaration of Independence, when the Arab masses in virtually every country turned against their Jewish minorities, less than 10,000 Jews remained in Iraq. Jews fled the country illegally when their departure was prohibited, or they accepted the stripping of their citizenship and property rights when given an opportunity to leave legally over a limited period of time in 1950-1951, just to escape from a situation where they had become a despised minority, suspected of collaboration with Israel – the Zionist enemy.

As for the special relationship between the British and the Jews, the British turned out to be fickle partners. Other interests took precedence over any concern for human decency, or for the lives and property of a relatively small and powerless community.


  1. Page 89 in Gourji C. Bekhor, Fascinating Life and Sensational Death 1990 (published by the author).

  2. Page 298 in Edwin Black’s The Farhud, 2010, Dialog Press: Washington DC

  3. Page 95 in Rivka Goldman’s Mama Nazima’s Jewish-Iraqi Cuisine, 2006, Hippocrene Books Inc., New York, NY.

This The Jewish Independent article may be republished if acknowledged thus: “This article first appeared on www.thejewishindependent.com.au and is reprinted with permission."


About the author

Dr Myer Samra

Dr Myer Samra is a legal officer with the NSW Department of Family and Community Services in the field of child protection and an Accredited Specialist in children’s law. His doctoral dissertation, in Anthropology, was on constructions of identity among Iraqi Jews in Sydney. As a Golda Meir Post-Doctoral fellow at the Hebrew University he taught a course on Australian ethnic immigrant groups. His main areas of anthropological research are on Sephardi Jews in Australia and the Benei Menashe of North East India. He is an occasional lecturer in the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies at Sydney University, on the Bene Israel and Cochini Jewish communities of India, and the Jews of Kaifeng in China. He is the editor of the Australian Journal of Jewish Studies.


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