On Shavuot, the holiday which Jews around the globe begin celebrating this Tuesday night, Iraqi Jews mark 72 years since the Farhud -- the 1941 riots in which 137 people were slaughtered and hundreds more injured. The Babylonian (Iraqi) Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda has inscribed the victims' names, and Iraqi Jews worldwide recall the horrible disgrace of those events, which were so reminiscent of Kristallnacht in Germany. The Farhud riots were carried out by a mob that had been incited to violence, and resulted in the Iraqi Jewish community losing faith in the country they had called home for millennium; the community of some 140,000 Jewish people dwindled to just a sparse few today.
Iraqi Jews were harassed for no apparent reason. The Jews, who had lived in Iraq for 2,600 years, weren't subverting the country from within, like the Palestinian Arabs who fought against the Jewish settlements, and eventually the State of Israel. Actually, Jews were the targets of hostility in every Arab country in which they lived, not just in Iraq. One-hundred-and-thirty-three Jews were killed in Libya as anti-Jewish violence reached its peak in the North African country in November 1945; in Aden, Yemen, some 100 Jews were murdered in November 1947; in Egypt, the Jews were ejected from their homes and expelled from the state. And, despite all the international attention paid to the "Palestinian Nakba," little has been said about the great injustice that the Jews of Arabia suffered. It's true that history is not a competition of tragedies, but it's important to note the ethnic cleansing that spread throughout the Arab nations. The scope of this tragedy was quite extensive -- some 856,000 Jews were forced to flee their homes in Arab countries, compared to the 650,000 Palestinian refugees. And yet, for unknown reasons, the government in Israel still hasn't placed the catastrophe that befell Arab Jews high on its domestic, or international, agenda.
Jews were being harassed before Israel was declared a state. Historian Edwin Black, Prof. Shmuel Moreh and Dr. Zvi Yehuda have published research that uncovers the links between then-Iraqi Prime Minister Rashid Ali al-Gaylani's pro-Nazi government and the Third Reich in Germany. Iraq implemented discriminatory regulations against Jews that affected all aspects of their daily life, and afterward incited mobs to violence against the Jews. The Farhud riots of 1941 were the culmination of these efforts.
The fusion of xenophobic-tinged nationalism and a contagious anti-Jewish sentiment created a reality that was ripe with Jew hatred. Then-German Ambassador to Iraq, Dr. Fritz Grobba, readily fueled the attitude, and Haj Amin al-Husseini, who had fled from Palestine, found Iraq to be a convenient arena for anti-Jewish activities. The brutal, anti-Jewish environment culminated in the hanging of Shafiq Ades, a wealthy Jewish businessman, in Basra's central square, as inflammatory, anti-Jewish radio broadcasts and speeches at the U.N. podium filled the air.
Finally, with no other choice, the Jews of Iraq gathered their belongings and deserted their country, the Iraq that they had ushered into the modern age. Iraqi Jews left behind their private belongings and the ancient property of their communities, including the supposed burial sites of the prophets Ezekiel, Jonah, Nahum Alqoshi and Ezra the Scribe, which the Iraqi government proceeded to take over.
There were, of course, Iraqis who refused to condone attacks against the Jewish population, but they were mostly silenced. The Jews had become the scapegoat in the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, just as today Israel stands between Iran and the Arabs in their conflict. Were the Jews still residing in Arab countries, it's reasonable to assume that their communities would have been ravaged in the recent uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and Syria.
The number of Jews with a living history in Arab countries is getting progressively smaller. Now is the time to celebrate their heritage in Israel, to prevent the Arab propaganda, espoused by those who deny that the anti-Jewish riots ever took place, from taking over -- much like the threat posed by Holocaust deniers. The sooner Israel preserves those Arab Jews' heritage and officially recognizes the victims, the faster the government can improve its domestic and international standing.
By preserving this piece of Jewish history, Israel can also bolster moderate voices in the Arab world, especially those coming from intellectuals who have acknowledged a Middle Eastern catastrophe whose victims were Jews, and not just Palestinians. At the same time, Palestinian leaders must stop encouraging the right-of-return delusion in their people, so that the tragic wheel of history does not turn on itself.