The Jews who fled the Muslim world left many things behind. They left behind their homes and their possessions. Their synagogues, their neighborhoods, and much of their history remained in the alleys of Aleppo, the neighborhoods of Cairo and the streets of Baghdad.
Today when their history isn’t being ignored, while that of the Arabs who fled Israel after their failed attempts at genocide of the country’s Jewish population in 1948 and 1967 is lionized, it’s being lied about.
Every Muslim country constructs its own myths of a “Golden Age” where Jews were taken care of by their Muslim masters. Even when, like Al-Andalus, they are countries that no longer exist.
Confederate apologists defend slavery by claiming that the slaves were happy until the abolitionists disrupted the status quo. Apologists for the treatment of Jews in the Arab world sing the same song. Everyone was united, everyone was happily Syrian, Iraqi or Egyptian, until the creation of Israel ruined everything.
In response to a David Horowitz Freedom Center ad in the GW Hatchet, an email came in from an Iraqi student claiming that “long before Israel was even a thought, Iraq (my home country), had been a shining example of unity while simultaneously celebrating the diversity of cultures” and that “Jewish populations began to leave Iraq; not because of religious discrimination but because they felt obligated to support a country of their faith.”
This narrative blames the treatment of the Jewish minority in the Arab world on the Jews, by claiming that there was a Zionist conspiracy to drive them out, e.g. the Lavon Affair. These conspiracy theories allow Muslims to avoid coming to terms with their national persecution of Jewish minorities by blaming Jews for their own ethnic cleansing.
The Arab world prior to 1949 was not a tolerant multicultural paradise. Iraq certainly wasn’t. After the Ottoman Empire it was in a state of conflict, torn by ethnic and religious divisions. The current tensions between Shiite and Sunni, and between Arab and Kurd did not begin yesterday. And Jews were often the targets.
After Iraqi Jews were freed from Ottoman rule and its Islamic law that branded them “Dhimmis,” legal and social inferiors, they gained new opportunities under British rule and a measure of equality. But the rights they gained were not only eroded under succeeding Iraqi governments, but their achievements made them the targets of bigotry and hate.
This is the process that turned the community of over a 100,000 Jews in Baghdad into a series of empty houses and distant memories. When Iraqi Arabs chose to listen to the incitement of hate, rather than to their common humanity, and chose to use violence against the Jews of Baghdad— that marked the beginning of the end for Jewish life in Iraq.
The Iraqi letter writer speaks of a “shining example of unity,” but that is generally code for a time when everyone knew their place. When the Jews forgot their place as Dhimmis, they broke that unity and as the Caliphate shifted to Pan-Arabism, the Jews of Iraq found themselves once again on the outside. They had not been Muslims and they were not Arabs. Once again they were outsiders, and to the newspapers that promoted the unity of Pan-Arabism, they were ripe targets to be denounced as outsiders, enemies and spies.
Anti-Semitic mob violence had existed in Baghdad throughout the 20th century, with Jews being assaulted in 1908 as supporters of the Young Turks and then as British spies, in the 1940s as supporters of the Iraqi monarchy and then finally as supporters of Israel. But the issue was always the need for a minority to transform into the scapegoat. A role that Israel still plays in the Muslim Middle East.
What began with anti-Semitism in the Iraqi press in the 1920s turned into overt discrimination and violence in the 1930s. As in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, Jews were purged from the civil service, Jewish businesses were ransacked, and Jewish homes looted. Restrictions on traveling abroad were imposed, as well as educational quotas.
Anti-Semitism in the school system came down from the director general of education and the growing collaboration between Arab nationalists and the Nazis turned Iraq into a haven for Third Reich ideology, especially when it came to the Jews.
The Nazi-backed coup and its aftermath brought on the Farhud massacre of Jews during the holiday of Shavuot and began the exodus of Iraqi Jews. The attackers were Iraqi soldiers and police in an exact duplicate of what was taking place in Europe.
No matter how much Iraqi Jews tried to claim that they had nothing to do with Zionism, they went on being persecuted, attacked and murdered. The establishment of Israel gave Iraqi Jews a place to go to escape the violence and the hate. Those who didn’t or couldn’t get out experienced even worse abuse, torment and terror in the decades to come.
This is the “shining example of unity” in Iraq. And the story is not too different from the shining examples in Egypt and Syria and throughout the Arab world. The problem with so much of the Muslim world is that its unity only exists under tyranny.
Christians who attempted to join in Pan-Arabism could only do so by excluding non-Arabs which made their unity into another narrow exclusionary coalition. But Pan-Arabism was always doomed to give way to Pan-Islamism and exclude the Christians. And Pan-Islamism divides down into sects, Sunni and Shiite, and internally into subgroups such as the Salafis and the Alawites. The endless divisions mean that even Pan-Islamism could always be disrupted through Takfir.
If Muslims cannot even grant equal rights and find national unity with other Muslims, what hope was there for the Jews?
Today the Muslim world is more Judenrein than post-war Europe because the Muslim world made it clear that Jews had no future there. Baghdad is a reminder of the history that the Jews have left behind and the continuing denial and deception of the Muslim world about the fate of their Jewish neighbors.