On 1 June 1941, a Nazi-inspired pogrom erupted in Baghdad, bringing to an end more than two millennia of peaceful existence for the city’s Jewish minority. Immediately following the British victory in the Anglo-Iraqi War. The riots occurred in a power vacuum following the collapse of the pro-Nazi government of Rashid Ali, while the city was in a state of instability.
The rise of this pro-German government threatened the Jews in Iraq. Nazi influence and antisemitism already were widespread in Iraq, due in large part to the German legation’s presence in Baghdad as well as influential Nazi propaganda, which took the form of Arabic-language radio broadcasts from Berlin.
The violence came immediately after the rapid defeat by the British of Rashid Ali, whose earlier coup had generated a short period of national euphoria, and was charged by allegations that Iraqi Jews had aided the British.Over 180 Jews were killed and 1,000 injured, and up to 300-400 non-Jewish rioters were killed in the attempt to quell the violence.Looting of Jewish property took place and 900 Jewish homes were destroyed.
In the 1940s about 135,000 Jews lived in Iraq (nearly 3 percent of the total population), with about 90,000 in Baghdad, 10,000 in Basra, and the remainder scattered throughout many small towns and villages. Jewish communities had existed in this region since the 6th century BCE, hundreds of years before Muslim communities established a presence in Iraq during the 7th century. The Jews shared the Arab culture with their Muslim and Christian neighbors, but they lived in separate communities. Jewish assimilation into Muslim society was rare.
The two days of violence that followed have become known as the Farhud (Arabic for “violent dispossession”). It spelt the end for a Jewish community that dated from the time of Babylon.
According to Iraqi government and British historical sources violence started when a delegation of Jewish Iraqis arrived at the Palace of Flowers (Qasr al Zuhur) to meet with the Regent Abdullah, and were attacked en route by an Iraqi Arabic mob as they crossed Al Khurr Bridge. Iraqi Arab civil disorder and violence then swiftly spread to the Al Rusafa and Abu Sifyan districts, and got worse the next day when elements of the Iraqi police began joining in with the attacks upon the Jewish population, involving shops belonging to it being set on fire and a synagogue being destroyed.
However, Prof. Zvi Yehuda has suggested that the event that set off the rioting was anti-Jewish preaching in the Jami-Al-Gaylani mosque, and that the violence was premeditated rather than a spontaneous outburst.
Mordechai Ben-Porat, who later became the leader of the Iraqi Zionists, described his experience as follows:
We were mostly cut off from the center of the Jewish community and our Muslim neighbors became our friends. It was because of one Muslim neighbor, in fact, that we survived the Farhoud. We had no weapons to defend ourselves and were utterly helpless. We put furniture up against the doors and windows to prevent the rioters from breaking in. Then, Colonel Arif’s wife came rushing out of her house with a grenade and a pistol and shouted at the rioters, ‘If you don’t leave, I will explode this grenade right here!’ Her husband was apparently not home and she had either been instructed by him to defend us or decided on her own to help. They dispersed, and that was that – she saved our lives.
The dean of Midrash Bet Zilkha Yaakov Mutzafi raced to open up the gates of the yeshiva to shelter the victims of the Farhud who were displaced from their homes, and secured money for their upkeep from philanthropists in the community.
Civil order was restored after two days of violence in the afternoon of June 2, when British troops imposed a curfew and shot violators on sight. An investigation conducted by the journalist Tony Rocca of the Sunday Times attributes the delay to a personal decision by Kinahan Cornwallis, the British Ambassador to Iraq,
who failed to immediately carry out orders he received from the Foreign Office in the matter, and initially denied requests from British Imperial military and civil officers on the scene for permission to act against the attacking Arab mobs.
Other testimonies suggest the possibility that the British delayed their entry into Baghdad for 48 hours because they had an ulterior motive in allowing a clash between the sectarian populations within the capital city
The exact number of victims is uncertain. With respect to Jewish victims, some sources say that about 180 Jewish Iraqis were killed and about 240 were wounded, 586 Jewish-owned businesses were looted and 99 Jewish houses were destroyed. Other accounts state that nearly 200 were killed and over 2,000 injured, while 900 Jewish homes and hundreds of Jewish-owned shops destroyed and looted.The Israeli-based Babylonian Heritage Museum maintains that in addition to 180 identified victims, around another 600 unidentified ones were buried in a mass grave. An estimate published in Haaretz newspaper cites 180 killed and 700 wounded.Bashkin writes that “a constant element that appears in most accounts of the Farhud is a narrative relating to a good neighbour… Judging by the lists of the Jewish dead, it seems that Jews in mixed neighborhoods stood a better chance of surviving the riots than those in uniformly Jewish areas.”
When the forces loyal to the regent entered to restore order, many rioters were killed.The Iraqi Commission Report noted that: “After some delay the Regent… arranged for the dispatch of troops to take control… There was no more aimless firing into the air; their machine guns swept the streets clear of people and quickly put a stop to looting and rioting.”The British Ambassador noted that second day was more violent than the first, and that “Iraqi troops killed as many rioters as the rioters killed Jews.” The Iraqi Commission Report estimated the total number of Jews and Muslims killed at 130.Eliahu Eilat, a Jewish agent estimated 1000 as the total number of Jews and Muslims who died, with other similar accounts estimating 300–400 rioters killed by the Regent’s army.
Within a week of the riots, on 7 June, the reinstated Monarchist Iraqi government set up a Committee of Enquiry to investigate the events.
The monarchist government acted quickly to suppress supporters of Rashid Ali. Many Iraqis were exiled as a result, and hundreds were jailed. Eight men, included amongst them Iraqi Army officers and policemen, were legally sentenced to death in consequence of the violence by the newly established pro-British Iraqi government
By 1951, ten years after the Farhud, most of the Iraqi Jewish community (about 124,000 Jews out of 135,000) had immigrated to the State of Israel.