Journal of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center
No.15, Winter 2005/2006


 

BABYLONIAN JEWS IN RECENT GENERATIONS

THE OUTBREAK OF THE POGROM (FARHUD) OF JUNE 1941 IN BAGHDAD Dr. Zvi Yehuda

The government Committee for Investigating the Events of June 1-2, 1941, and in consequence Jews from Iraq and researchers who have dealt with them, paid particular attention to the question of their outbreak. They wished to determine the place, the time, and the manner in which the pogrom started, to find out the political and organizational membership of its initiators, and to define the immediate causes of its eruption.

The Committee's report states that the riots broke out on the morning of Sunday, 1 June 1941 (the first day of the Pentecost festival), next to the al-Khirr bridge situated in al-Karkh, the western part of Baghdad, on the main road to the tomb of Joshua the High Priest. Soldiers of the Iraqi army together with civilians fell on Jews making their way to visit the tomb, as was their custom in celebrating the Pentecost holy day. The writers of the report believed that this onslaught, which was not put down right at the start by the army and police authorities, was the direct cause of the riots at al-Rusafa, the district in Baghdad where concentrations of Jews were located. However, local Jewish sources, who agree with what the report contains as to details of the incident, in which soldiers and Muslim civilians injured the Jews, diverge from its contents regarding the background to its onset. These sources maintain that this was not the Jews' setting off to celebrate the Pentecost festival by visiting the tomb of Joshua the High Priest but their participation at a reception held for the Regent and his entourage on their return to Baghdad. These different versions show, in our opinion, the essential difference in the definition of the direct cause of the riots. The local Jewish sources regarded Jewish identification in Baghdad with the Regent and his British supporters as the immediate cause. By contrast, the authors of the report preferred to disregard these facts so as to free the Regent from responsibility for the harm done to the Jews close to his palace, and to downgrade the gravity of the pogrom and belittle its effect on rocking the foundations of Jewish existence in Iraq. We shall try to explain the difference between the version in the report and the version of the Jewish sources by examining the complex of events that occurred at al-Karkh on the morning of Sunday, 1 June 1941, relying on new documentation that we have obtained.

 

From the evidence of local Jews we learn that a delegation of Jewish notables indeed attended the Regent's reception. However, this was not held at the Baghdad airport or on the main road from Habbaniyya, as some sources assert, but at the Palace of Flowers (Qasr al-Zuhur), where delegations arrived representing the population of Baghdad, as witnessed by Freya Stark (Dust in the Lion's Paw, London 1961, pp. 113-114) who was present. Some Jewish sources are hard pressed to settle the question of whether, on returning from the reception, the delegation from the Jewish community came under attack at the al-Khirr bridge, which was near the Palace of Flowers and on the main road from it to al-Rusafa. It seems that the assault was against a different group of Jews, defined as young people, who were on their way to the festivities at the tomb of Joshua the High Priest and crossed the bridge after the deputation of Jewish notables had returned. The version in the report on the attack on the Jews at a place close to the palace where the Regent and his retinue resided and operated, and on the main road connecting the Palace of Flowers to the Baghdad international airport and the British Embassy, raises a question. How did it happen that at a place so sensitive to the security of the British and the rulers who supported them, riots could erupt, and a bloody incident could occur in which Jews were injured and killed? Had the British neglected the security of the road connecting their Embassy with the residence of the Regent and allowed the assembly of armed soldiers and civilians who opposed them and their supporters among the domestic rulers? The report of the Committee and the British sources did not trouble to address these questions.

 

The great importance ascribed by the report to the incident at al-Karkh did not stem from the ferocity of the assault against the Jews but from its being the spark which, in the opinion of the report's authors, ignited the atrocities at al-Rusafa. The authors thereby linked two events, and exempted themselves from considering the subject of the background to the riots at al-Rusafa. Researchers of the Farhud have done likewise, evading a discussion of what it was that caused the rioters to begin their frenzy precisely in the Muslim Bab al-Shaykh quarter, and not in the Jewish neighborhoods nearby.

 

These matters become apparent from the evidence we possess on the mode of operation of the rioters in the old Jewish quarter and in the adjacent neighborhoods in al-Rusafa. From this mode of operation we learn that the riots were not accidental, but a hand was present that guided and organized the attacks of the rioters against the Jews, their homes, and their institutions. Also, as with other occurrences of injury to Jews in Iraq, the Farhud began after incitement against the Jews had been initiated. According to the witness Ya'qub Peres: 'On Sunday, June 1, 1941, when the crowd left the mosque named Jami' al-Gaylani, at about 10.30 a.m., there was anti-Jewish incitement among those who were leaving. At 5.30 p.m. a crowd gathered again in the same mosque. Anti-Jewish speeches were given. At 6 p.m. the crowd left the mosque and went on the rampage.' (Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, S25/5290).

 

We learn that the outbreak of the riots in the morning and afternoon of 1 June was preceded by incitement among the crowd of Muslims who had assembled at the al-Gaylani mosque, one of the biggest and oldest mosques in Baghdad, known for its sanctity for Muslims. It is located in the Bab al-Shaykh neighborhood, where the riots began. The witness does not mention the identity of the inciters or to which organization they were attached. But it is certain that they belonged to the nationalist circle, which goaded the Muslim mob to riot in order to deter the Jews from rejoicing at their defeat and from raising their heads. The nationalists wished to show that even after the victory of the British they still had it in their power to uphold the superiority of Islam over the Jews, to harm them, to humiliate them.

 

 

From the information we possess we can discover the way in which the rioters were organized. The organizers assembled the mob at a certain place, divided them into groups and gave them specially-defined tasks. These facts were certainly known to the pro-British Iraqi authorities and to the members of the government Committee for Investigating the Events of June 1-2, 1941. Yet these chose to determine that the riots were spontaneous in order not to embarrass the new government, which had been formed under British auspices, in opposition to Islamic national-religious circles of great influence at the grass-roots level. As may be learned from similar sources on incitement and attacks against the Jews, these circles habitually fanned the flames of hatred against the Jews in Iraq and urged that harm be done to the Jews as long as it seemed to them that the Jews were infringing the rules of 'protection' (the dhimma) and the inferior status that Islam decreed for them as a condition for their existence in a Muslim state.

 

[Excerpt from the article: The Pogrom (Farhud) of 1941 in light of New Sources, which will be published in an English edition of a coming book on the Farhud].