When King Faisal I came to Iraq in 1925, Shashou, an Iraqi Jew, invited him to stay in his palace until the King would be ready.
“My homeland is not a suitcase; And I am not a passenger.”
With this quotation from the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish, I started my testimony regarding my personal nakba (catastrophe, in Arabic) at a UN conference marking the plight of Jewish refugees in NY, last November. To the dismay of some members of Jewish organizations, I identified with the narrative of Palestinian refugees. As someone who experienced being a refugee from Iraq, it came out naturally, even though I am a Jewish Israeli. Unfortunately the cause of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries is not known in Israel, let alone in the wider world.
For the last decade, I have lent my face to this issue, which has been cut out from the Israeli narrative (and from the international one as well). While the UN has adopted more than 170 resolutions mentioning Palestinian Refugees, not one single resolution mentions the Jewish refugees from Arab countries. This Jewish suffering has not been acknowledged even by the Israeli government because acknowledging “olim”, who came because they had no other choice, (as refugees), undermines the mystique of Zionism. Additionally problematic, those in power also fear that raising the issue of compensation rights for 850,000 Jews from Arab countries would create precedence for compensating the similar demands from Palestinian refugees. So justice for Jewish refugees from Arab countries is ignored, even though their average assets were several times bigger than Palestinian assets, and the size of the land Jewish Arab refugees owned collectively is 4 times greater than the size of Israel.
I believe that Jewish refugee status from Arab countries, like the Palestinian one, fits into the bigger picture of displaced people and shifting populations, resulting from the upheaval of World War II. We know about the tremendous suffering of Ashkenazi Jews. I would like Israel, the Arab world, and the world at large to also acknowledge that 850,000 Jews from Arab countries were stripped of their citizenships, threatened and persecuted. The majority ended up as refugees to Israel not without leaving behind deadly casualties.
“Jewish Refugee Day”, like Yom HaShoah, can provide a corrective. Accordingly, a couple of weeks ago I attended a special meeting organized by the Knesset Lobby for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries to vote for the draft of a bill calling on the Israeli government to designate a special day in the calendar to mark “Jewish Refugee Day” from Arab countries.
I welcome the concerted efforts by senior US envoy Martin Indyk, who has told US Jewish leaders that Secretary of State John Kerry is considering including in his framework peace agreement, compensation for the thousands of Jews forced to abandon Arab lands. Knowing the truth serves not only for justice, but also, and more importantly, might build empathy among 2 people who have equally suffered in this region: Palestinians and Arab Jews.
Because the Wexner network may not be aware of this history, I want to share with you my personal story, not just the political journey I have been on. Perhaps in the wake of Purim, you will be interested to learn what has been going on in Shushan since then.
In the early 1920’s, Jews of Baghdad accounted for 25% of the population. Iraqi Jews were behind the British modernizing apparatus in all fields of life in Iraq. They were members of Parliament, government ministers, and also maintained good relations with the Monarchy. When King Faisal I came to Iraq in 1925, Shashou, an Iraqi Jew, invited him to stay in his palace until the King’s would be ready.
Following a pogrom in 1941 and the establishment of the state of Israel, Jews who registered to leave to Israel were stripped of their citizenship. By 1951, only around 6000 Jews were left. The amount of Jewish property and assets frozen amounted to 3 billion dollars.
I was born in Baghdad in 1950 and, despite the dwindling of the population and its influence, there remained a highly structured Jewish community, with institutions and organizations, and I was privileged to enjoy excellent Jewish education.
While Jews worldwide were reveling in the magic of Israel’s triumph following the ’67 war, we Iraqi Jews, at that time numbering around 3,500, became defenseless targets. Close to 100 Jews were arrested, 20 were killed and 9 more hanged in 1969. Atrocities went on and severe restrictions were imposed on Jews.
In 1970, I decided to flee the country with my brother regardless of the dangerous route, believing that there was no future for me in Iraq, but my father, Jacob Abdul Aziz, who loved Iraq, stayed behind, expecting to be granted a legal way to leave. As a lawyer, he wouldn’t entertain the thought of sneaking out.
Sadly, on the eve of Yom Kippur in 1972 he failed to show up to synagogue and was never heard from again.
Like many Israelis who lost people and witnessed the silent suffering of fellow Jews who had to leave everything they owned behind to save their lives, our family in Israel tried to face present day challenges and build a life here. I became a journalist.
With the raging wars in the Gulf, Iraq started to pay me visits on a daily basis, while serving as a news anchor and reporter in Arabic. I slowly started to want to tell my family’s story. When US troops entered Iraq in 2003, I was between jobs which enabled me to face my past and commit to the cause launched by JJAC (Justice for Jews from Arab Countries). I felt (and broadcast repeatedly) that only by placing the truth on the table will a just peace and reconciliation in the Middle East be forged.
Along the way I met with the filmmaker Duki Dror, who eventually produced a documentary “Shadow in Baghdad” which finally told my story, the story of my father’s disappearance, and the untold stories of Jews in Iraq that, after a 2,700 year history, completely disappeared.
Making the film “Shadow in Baghdad” is a story in and of itself: using skype to communicate with Iraqis in Baghdad, building relationships despite enmity between Iraq and Israel with people who tried to help me to go after my father footsteps to his tragic end. I hope it educates the world about the Jewish community’s bitter end in Iraq, and serves as a bridge for understanding and justice in the Middle East.
“Shadow in Baghdad” will be screening in NY, Washington, and Miami, Florida in the coming months. If you are interested in learning the dates, or possibly meeting with me at various screenings, please let me know.
Linda Menuhin-Abdul Aziz, a Wexner Israel Fellowship Alumna from Class 6, serves as a senior consultant to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Linda works as an expert on Arab culture and the Middle East, a senior journalist, blogger, and often influences public policy. Having positioned herself on the seam line between Israel and the Arab world, she provides a new perspective, often ignored by the media, yet indispensable for understanding the misconception between Arabs and Israelis. For more Information on Shadow in Baghdad click here or like her Facebook page here. Linda can be reached at email@example.com.