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Under the British Mandate, in 1921, one month before his coronation, King Faysal I emphasised the equality of all Iraqis:
There is no meaning in the words Jews, Muslims, and Christians in the terminology of patriotism, there is simply a country called Iraq, and all are Iraqis.
… we all belong to one stock, the stock of our ancestor Shem; we all belong to that noble race…
(Ireland 1937:466, quoted Stillman 1991:260)
Faysal’s insistence on equality was welcomed by the Jews, but opposed by the strong Arab nationalist movement, who as early as 1921 objected to the employment of foreigners and non-Muslims (Stillman 1991:56).
A Jewish social club and cultural society were founded. Newspapers were launched—the Hebrew-Arabic weekly, Yeshurun, in November 1920, and the Arabic al-Misbah in 1924. Jewish writers fluent in Arabic began publishing in that language, becoming pioneers of Arabic literature and journalism. European dress gradually replaced the traditional “oriental” costume, mainly in the large cities of Baghdad and Basra, and “emancipated” Jewish women no longer covered their faces in the street (Shohet 1982:27).
The Zionist Movement acquired legal status in Iraq. Links were established with the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem and a branch of the Palestine Foundation Fund, (Keren Hayesod) was established in 1923 in Baghdad. Free evening classes in Hebrew were organised, and a public library with Hebrew books was opened. Hebrew teachers from Palestine were invited to teach Hebrew and Jewish history (Ben-Yaacob and Cohen 1996:1450). At the time, Zionism was not considered by many to be an anti-Arab movement. However, Zionist activities were not supported by prominent members of the Jewish community, who warned against openly identifying with the Zionist cause. From the end of 1929 Zionism was officially banned and the government began to persecute Zionists for their beliefs.
King Faysal died in September 1933, succeeded by his eighteen year old son, Ghazi, who was inexperienced, and gave a free hand to the country’s extremists. During Hitler’s rise to power, there was much Nazi activity in Baghdad, which together with Arab nationalism culminated in extreme anti-Jewish feeling, and during the festival of shabu’oth, in 1941, the farhud, the horrific anti-Jewish pogrom in Baghdad.
King Faysal died in September 1933, succeeded by his eighteen year old son, Ghazi, who was inexperienced, and gave a free hand to the country’s extremists. During Hitler’s rise to power, there was much Nazi activity in Baghdad, which together with Arab nationalism culminated in extreme anti-Jewish feeling, and during the festival of shavu’ot, in 1941, the farhud, the horrific anti-Jewish pogrom in Baghdad. This was carried out during a period of political instability, in the absence of a proper government. Many Muslim families provided shelter to their Jewish neighbours, and the spiritual leader of the Shicites forbade his followers to take part in the killing and looting, and refused to issue a call for a ‘Jihad’ (holy war). Despite this, during the farh?d, 179 Jews were killed, 242 children were left orphans, hundreds of businesses and buildings were looted, and the total property loss estimated by the Jewish community’s own investigating committee was equivalent to approximately £680,000. The Commission’s figure of the numbers killed was considerably less. However, as later acknowledged by one of its members, the government wished to underplay the statistics; many Iraqi writers have chosen to gloss over, or ignore the farh?d entirely (Stillman 1991:119).
Following the farhud, a number of Jewish youth joined the Zionist underground movement, aided by Jewish emissaries from Palestine. The aims of the movement included spreading the knowledge of the Hebrew language and culture, Jewish defence both in Palestine and the Diaspora, immigration to Palestine, and the liberation of Jewish women from social restrictions in all aspects of life. The movement held an attraction for many youth, including young women whose profile within the group was as prominent as that of young men.
With the establishment of the state of Israel in May 1948 martial law was declared throughout Iraq. In September 1948, ShafÅq cAdas, a Jewish businessman with no political affiliations, was condemned to death on the unlikely charge of having supplied British army scrap to Israel; he was also charged with Zionism and Communism. cAdas was fined five million pounds, publicly hanged in front of his palatial home in Basra, and his business and property confiscated. Though many saw the injustice of the hanging, Shohet (1982:80) writes: “His execution was a festive event, celebrated by approximately 12,000 spectators from all parts of Iraq. … It was a day of mourning for Iraqi Jewry.” Jewish persecution continued and illegal emigration to Israel via Iran increased.
Eventually, in 1950, Iraqi Jews were allowed to leave the country legally, provided they did so permanently, within a year, and on surrender of their Iraqi nationality. Each Jew was allowed 50 dinars and 30 pounds of baggage. Consequently, all valuables including gold and jewellery had to be left behind, and all assets of emigrating Jews were frozen. Estimates of the total value of the frozen Jewish assets at the time ranged from as low as the Iraqi government’s figure of $50 million to as high as $436 million put forward by the Israelis. Overnight nearly 80,000 Jews waiting to be airlifted to Israel were rendered penniless.
Under the Republic of Iraq (from 1958), all Iraqis were promised equality, but following the Six-Day War against Israel in June 1967, Jewish persecution increased. With the emergence of the Bacth regime in 1969, the hangings of Jews in public squares caused international outrage, and approximately ten per cent of Jews were imprisoned. In the years 1972-73, at least twenty-three Jews were murdered by the secret police. By the mid 1980s, few Jews remained.
Before we leave Iraq, I would like to mention aspects of musical life in Baghdad. Perhaps because of the low status of instrumental music within Islam, the situation at the beginning of the twentieth century was that Jewish musicians were the country’s foremost instrumentalists and represented Iraq at official events, such as the Congress of Arabic music in Cairo, 1932. A number of recordings of this period exist.
With regard to women, however, it was considered shameful for any woman to be a professional musician, in the public eye. An exception was the daqqaqa [OHP], a professional woman musician, who sang and accompanied herself on drums, particularly at henna ceremonies (preceding the wedding); she was assisted by a small group of women who sang responses and also played percussion. The henna ceremony was originally an occasion for women only, and perhaps this is why their profession, which was even approved by the chief rabbinate, was considered to be respectable.
Another occasion when it was not considered shameful for a woman to sing, even in the presence of men, was in the home, when she put her child to sleep.