June 1-2 is the 75th Anniversary of the 1941 Farhud pogrom, the pro-Nazi Arab attempt to exterminate the Jews of Baghdad. Hundreds were murdered, raped, and many Jewish homes and business looted and burned during a two-day orgy of hate and violence orchestrated by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. This heinous rampage was the Farhud. In Arabic, it means “violent dispossession.” This forgotten Holocaust-era pogrom was the first step toward the extinguishing the 26 centuries of Jewish life in Iraq. It led to the eventual mass expulsion of some 850,000 Jews from Arab lands into Israel, penniless and stateless.
To mark the 75th anniversary of the Farhud, I will race across the time zones to lead ceremonies of commemoration with Jewish groups and senior Israeli diplomats in four cities spanning the continents. It was the next logical step after the inauguration of International Farhud Day, which was proclaimed in an official live global event at United Nations Headquarters on June 1, 2015.
To launch the multi-nation series, the first ceremony begins the morning of May 31 in the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington D.C. A program of sorrow—and a cry for recognition—will unfold in the presence of Congressional representatives and Deputy Ambassador to the United States Reuven Azar, who served in Arab capitals, as well as various American-Jewish and Iraqi-Jewish groups.
The Farhud pogrom in Iraq
Witness accounts reliving the 1941 massacre will be read by Maurice Shohet, president of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq. Special statements will be delivered by Jewish leaders, such as Alyza Lewin, president of the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, and Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in suburban Washington, D.C. Haim Ovadia, the Iraqi-Jewish rabbi of Magen David Sephardic Congregation, will reminiscently chant Iraqi songs. American Music Academy director and cantorial soloist Rachel Black will sing El Malei Rachamim. A Congressional letter will express solidarity with the victims and the surviving generations in Israel.
Then 27 candles will be lit by Afraim Katzir, Sephardic Heritage Center, one for each of the 27 centuries of Iraq Jewish existence abruptly terminated by the mass expulsion of Jews shortly after Israel was created. Hence, these 27 candles will be abruptly snuffed out. Then the wail of 8 and half plaintiff shofar blasts will symbolize the 850,000 Jews forcibly evicted from Arab lands, mainly into Israel. The event culminates with a declaration of the pivotal role of Israel eloquently offered by Ken Marcus of the Louis Brandeis Institute, the lighting of a sole candle representing remnant Israel by Josh Block of The Israel Project, and it concludes with the singing Jerusalem of Gold.
Several of the group will then take the next Acela to New York City, where the ceremony will be repeated that same afternoon with some variation at the famous Sephardic congregation, Edmond J. Safra Synagogue. Attending that second event will be Deputy Chief of Israel’s UN Mission David Roet, who is of Iraqi parentage, plus Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein, students from Rambam High School, and others. Leading the solemn gathering will be Justice for Jews from Arab Countries president Rabbi Elie Abadie and illustrious Safra Cantor Shemuel Levy.
After the conclusion of the New York City event, without pausing, we will race to the airport to fly to London where we will repeat the ceremony with variations on the theme of candle lighting, shofar blowing, and witness accounts at the prominent London Sephardic congregation Lauderdale Road Synagogue, under the leadership of Rabbi Joseph Dweck. Officiating will be Israel’s Ambassador to Great Britain, Mark Regev, and several other London notables.
To complete the effort, the group will fly to Jerusalem, meeting others from London to Los Angeles, where the ceremony will be repeated one final time in the Knesset on June 6 with the robust participation of Members of Knesset and Iraqi-Israeli organizations such as The Babylon Jewish Heritage Center.
Clearly, many groups in three countries, supported by many others from around the world, have come together to speak with a single voice to cry out in fugue for justice for the victims of the Farhud and its eventual consequence—the expulsion of 850,000 Jews from Arab countries, mainly into Israel. But when all the chants have been heard, the shofar blasts blown and the speeches presented, what does it all mean? Troubling and painful questions arise for the Jewish community and, indeed, for the international community.
Why did it take so many decades and the works of an Ashkenazi author (writing first in my 2005 book, Banking on Baghdad, and then later in my 2010 book, The Farhud—Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust), for the tragic plight of such a multitude spread across so many countries to be recognized. At a time when the tearful details of every Holocaust-era city, village and concentration camp continue to be illuminated, the Farhud and the subsequent creation of 850,000 Jewish refugees struggle for oxygen and moments of light. Explanation: The victims were Sephardic.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which has accomplished so much in the field of Holocaust memory, ignored the Farhud for years. The very topic conflicted with the USHMM’s mission statement, which defined the Holocaust as the attempt by the Nazis and their allies to destroy European Jewry. That injected a geographic map test into the memory process that virtually redlined the torment of Jewish victims residing just to the south and just to the east. Sephardic victims had a right to be recognized and only now they are finding a molecule of recognition. But inertia has been overcome only after vigorous challenges by many in the Jewish community to evoke recognition by scholars, historians, and our communal leadership that Hitler’s war against the Jews was a global one, not one confined to the European continent.
A second inescapable reality arises. After the creation of the State of Israel, two types of refugees were created by the international community. The first were Jews from Arab countries, who were barely accommodated by existing international law governing refugee status and were forgotten beneath a shroud almost as quickly as they were moved out of their tents into permanent housing and absorbed into Israel. The second was a sort of uber-refugee, Palestinian Arabs, who were granted a generation-to-generation refugee status as a birthright, creating a mushrooming class today of some 5 million so-called “refugees.”
Whereas Israel moved its Jewish brethren out of camps as quickly as the tiny state could muster resources, the Palestinians have maintained an almost eternal status of enhanced victimhood wherein hundreds of thousands still dwell in so-called refugee camps in cities completely controlled by the Palestinian Authority. The questions looms: Why is there a refugee camp in Ramallah and many other locations in Palestinian controlled territory. As the son of Polish refugees now living in Washington, D.C., I am not considered—nor do I consider myself—a refugee. But a Palestinian neighbor who may have been born and raised down the street from me, is given a special victim status and entitlement that theoretically lives on in perpetuity enforced by the world body. Not even the millions of Syrian, Iraqi or other Middle Eastern refugees now flooding Europe’s beaches and barricades enjoy the same status as a Palestinian born in the United States, yet is somehow still classed as a refugee.
Every hour of the day we hear claims for Palestinian property. Yet, at no hour of any day is anyone reminded that some $300 million in Iraqi-Jewish assets were summarily seized through bigoted Nazi-style confiscatory legislation. The Iraqi totals can be multiplied by 10 or more to surmise the value of Jewish property seized across the Arab and Muslim world during the expulsions.
While the commemorative program formats were privately conceived, a number of organizations aided in the program development in various cities. Heading the list was StandWithUs internationally. In the United States, StandWithUs was joined by the Israeli Embassy, Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, the World Organization of Jews from Iraq, the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, various synagogues, and many others. In London, lead assistance was rendered by HARIF and the Embassy of Israel, in association with StandWithUs-UK, the Association of Jewish Refugees, the Board of Deputies, B'nai B'rith, Ohel David Iraqi Synagogue, S&P Sephardi Community, Sephardi Voices, Spiro Ark and WeBelieveinIsrael. In Israel, StandWithUs-Israel was joined in the effort by the Babylonian Jewish Heritage Center, the Federation of Jews from Arab Countries, and the Knesset Caucus for the Preservation of the Culture of Jews from Islamic Countries.
The word “justice” aptly appears in the name of many of the organizations participating in this 75th anniversary commemoration. But there can be no justice without recognition, without knowledge, without basic understanding. Therefore, the candles, shofars and enunciations of the memorials in Washington, D.C., New York City, London and Jerusalem are just a small step along the long-obstructed road to recognition and understanding. Eventually, if the road is persistently traveled, it can lead to some measure of justice and compensation. But the final destination — a quantum of justice — will not emerge until all can be certain that the brutal experience suffered by Jews in Arab countries will occur NEVER AGAIN.