Besides indulging in dairy and abstaining from sleep, Shavuot signifies the offering of the first fruits in the Land of Israel, the receiving of the Torah and the story of Ruth the Moabite. For Iraqi Jews, however, Shavuot also represents a time of personal commemoration of the Farhud, the “violent dispossession” that rocked the ancient Baghdadi community 64 years ago.
In 1941, in the context of widespread opposition to British involvement in the Middle East, the nationalist General Rashid Ali al-Gaylani led a two-month military coup in Iraq before the British ousted him. After al-Gaylani fled, and as British forces were about to enter Baghdad, a shocking attack befell the Jewish community.
On June 1 and 2, a small group of recently discharged soldiers and civilians assaulted a delegation of Jews who were on their way to welcome al-Gaylani’s successor, the Regent Abdullah. The mob swelled to include looters who vandalized Jewish businesses and attacked and slaughtered Jews. By the end of the second day, more than 180 Jews had been killed. During this time, the British forces stationed outside Baghdad chose not to intervene.
In recent years, the Farhud has politically become the paragon of anti-Jewish Muslim hostility. Now, Jewish organizations and the Israeli government deploy it frequently to support their claims for refugee recognition on behalf of Middle Eastern Jews.
But how familiar are American Jews with the Farhud?
Despite the attention given to the Farhud in academic circles, most American Jews have never heard of it because Judaism in America is still very much synonymous with “Europe” and Ashkenazi identity. Perhaps more problematically, those who are familiar with the Farhud have heard it described as an extension of the Holocaust in the Middle East. Indeed, archives of the Farhud in Israel are housed at Yad Vashem, while the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum includes the Farhud in its Holocaust Encyclopedia.
An attack against Jews, however, does not automatically constitute genocide. Rather than trying to force the Farhud into the historical framework of the Holocaust, a more worthwhile endeavor is to ask how Iraqi Jews themselves remember the event.
For Iraqi Jews, the Farhud marked a rupture in Arab-Jewish integration, a historical point at which Nazi ideology dangerously penetrated the social and political fabric of Iraq. But, still, following the attack, most Iraqi Jews tenaciously believed that Iraq was their homeland. They campaigned tirelessly against the influence of Nazism and fascism, and were often supported by Iraqi socialists and communists. During the Farhud, far from being passive victims, they threw stones and bricks at their attackers — as the well-known ophthalmologist and political activist Heskel Haddad recounts — and managed to escape their homes when necessary by leaping from rooftop to rooftop.
Life soon returned to normal, and many Jews hoped that the worst had passed. While the events of the Farhud were terrible, the Iraqi Jewish community nevertheless resumed its policy of integration. The return to normalcy is critical to the Iraqi Jewish story, since it has become common to interpret Iraqi Jewish history through the lens of this tragedy. Nevertheless, as the historian Orit Bashkin cautions, “The distinction should be made between an analysis of the Farhud and Farhudization of Jewish Iraqi history — viewing the Farhud as typifying the overall history of the relationship between Jews and Iraqi society.”
When Iraqi Jewish history becomes subsumed under the Farhud, we commit a historical injustice. Not only does this interpretation undermine Iraqi Jewish objectives prior and subsequent to the Farhud, but it also erases the efforts of non-Jewish Iraqis to protect their Jewish compatriots.
Most non-Jewish Iraqis did not participate in the Farhud, and many tried to safeguard their Jewish neighbors. Thanks to them, Jews living in mixed neighborhods escaped danger, as evidenced by memories of Iraqi Jews, Zionist emissaries and police reports. These brave gestures of kindness took many forms. Some Muslims sheltered their Jewish neighbors in their own homes, while others pretended to live in Jewish homes to protect the properties and families. Some Iraqis threatened the pillagers with violence, while others bribed rioters not to harm Jews. For many Iraqis, the Jews were friends, neighbors and compatriots who deserved protection.
But in retellings of the Farhud, which often serve policy interests rather than commemoration, these tales of heroism are too easily forgotten. In keeping with some of the themes of Shavuot, the Farhud should also remind us of the possibility of sharing a life with those we might call “other.”
Shayna Zamkanei is a graduate of the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago.