For more than 50 years, the plight of Palestinian refugees has remained at center stage of discussions of Middle East politics. The United Nations has passed dozens of resolutions deploring the status of refugees in that region and Arab representatives continue to insist on the Palestinians’ “right of return” as a prerequisite to lasting peace between Arabs and Israelis.
Lost in this discussion, however, has been the memory of another flood of refugees created for the most part at the same time as the original Palestinian refugees left their home. This “forgotten exodus” of Jews from Arab lands involved just as many displaced people, and in some cases resulted in the virtual extinction of historic communities.
This is an interview from July 10, 2003 where Carole Basri, adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and author of a case study of the “ethnic cleansing” of Iraqi Jews, spoke with Vincent Carroll, editor of the editorial pages at the Rocky Mountain News.
Carroll: Why do you say there was an ethnic cleansing of Jews from Iraq?
Basri: It was an ethnic cleansing because out of 150,000 Jews who lived in Iraq in 1948 about 35 to 39 Jews remain. Through various kinds of persecution under the color of law all these people have left.
Carroll: It began in the 1930s?
Basri: Yes, there was a lot of playing out of European politics in the Middle East then. You had the British and French there and you had the counterweight of the Germans, who had been allies of the Ottoman Empire at the close of World War I. So in 1933, with the coming of Hitler, the German Embassy became stocked with advocates of Nazi ideology, in particular the German ambassador. Iraq promulgated anti-Jewish laws as early as 1934. By 1939 there was a pro-Nazi curriculum in the schools in Iraq, also pro-Nazi youth groups. The German Embassy bought one of the newspapers so they could make sure the propaganda circulated. So you have this whole confluence of things finally leading to the pro- Nazi uprising in 1941 of Rashid Ali. It goes on for several months before it’s put down by the British, but there’s a pogrom against the
Jews, and they kill a couple hundred Jews and thousands are injured and much property destroyed.
Later, in 1947 with the partition of Palestine, there again is a flurry of anti-Jewish laws and these laws deal with restrictions on attending the university, sale of land and the ability to teach your children. There were also restrictions on travel.
Carroll: Isn’t this the period when Jews were banned from certain professions?
Basri: Exactly. So now you’ve got a population that’s captive; they can’t travel, they can’t properly operate their businesses. They are losing their ability to function. Even sanitation to Jewish areas is cut off so that they have to resort to private sanitation.
There had been a Jewish press, but that was repressed as well. In March 1950 the Iraqi Parliament passed an Ordinance for the Cancellation of Iraqi Nationality for Jews. It required that Jews of their own free will and choice divest themselves of citizenship. In fact, because they couldn’t travel and couldn’t practice a profession, what ended up
happening is that almost 120,000 Jews did register to leave. And 10,000 Jews ended up actually escaping. So you had all these people who felt they really couldn’t live in Iraq any more. They didn’t leave of their free will. It was coercion.
Carroll: I take it that some Jews did not sign up for this revocation of citizenship. What did that imply for them?
Basri: You could stay on but no one knew what it meant since you couldn’t go to a university, practice a profession, take money out of the bank, and so on. You were going to probably be forced out of working for the government too because Jews were thrown out of government positions between 1947 and 1950.
Carroll: But if you did sign, you had crossed the Rubicon. You were committed in some fashion to leaving, right?
Basri: You lost your passport. But you hadn’t lost your money, I mean the bank accounts were still there; your property was still there. But that’s the next piece of legislation. On March 10, 1951, the Iraqi Parliament in an extraordinary session passed a law depriving all stateless Jews of their property. The Jews who had signed up had not realized that they were also going to be destitute. They thought they just had a one-way ticket out of the country. But now they lost all of their property, meaning they became homeless in their own country. At that time there was talk among the diplomatic corps of setting up concentration camps.
Carroll: They were saved by an airlift. How was that organized?
Basri: President Truman organized it. Israel in 1948 had 650,000 people. By 1951, three years later, it had 1,350,000 people. At first the Israelis basically said, we cannot absorb all these (Iraqi) people, and not only that, we don’t have the money to even bring them here. They said if the Iraqi Jews could come with their money, because it was a wealthy community, fine, let them come, if they can’t come with their money, we don’t want them. But when the Israelis realized the dire straits these people were in then they concluded they would just have to take them in. And Truman said he would help at least to get the airlift going. The Israelis in fact put restrictions on Moroccan Jewish immigration in that period – unless they had a job waiting and money, they weren’t going to be allowed in – because the situation with the Iraqi Jews was so desperate.
Carroll: Although the vast majority of Jews left Iraq, the persecutions didn’t stop. There was a rather gruesome public hanging in 1969, for example.
Basri: Nine Jews were hung in the public square. Actually, Saddam Hussein was behind that hanging. In 1968 there was a coup by the Baathists, with al-Bakr, who is the uncle of Saddam Hussein, installed as president. He tells Saddam to put together a security force that was similar to the Gestapo and to start the torture chambers. As the first group of victims he picks the Jews; they were the most defenseless. At this point, the Jews were not allowed to have telephones in their homes or offices, and they were not permitted to travel more than three- quarters of a mile from their home – there were 3,500 Jewish people left at that point, and this was after the 1967 Six Day War.
Yet in a community under that kind of repression they were charged with being American spies. So under this situation Saddam brought to trial nine Jews, who are hung in the public square. Now what this does for Saddam is it gives him a way to test out how much repression he can allow in the country and whether anyone will speak out. He also hung a few other people, who were not Jewish. But there was an outcry after this incident, as well as after some hangings in August 1969 of Jews in Basra. After that, the Arab world said “We’re looking barbaric to the world, we can’t do this anymore.” So then Saddam had his agents pull people who were Jewish off the streets and they were never seen again.
Carroll: You point out that there have been 101 U.N. resolutions involving the Palestinian refugees who came about at the creation of the state of Israel, but not a single U.N. resolution has mentioned specifically the refugee flood of Jews from Arab countries into Israel and elsewhere – some went to the United States, others to Canada and
Basri: Out of almost 900,000 Jews who lived in the Arab world (before the creation of Israel), there are only about 5,000 remaining. The sort of things that happened in Iraq occurred elsewhere, leading to a general feeling among Jews that you couldn’t raise your children properly and safely and so had to leave.
Carroll: There were other famous airlifts too – out of Yemen, for example.
Basri: Right. And you had people who were given one month to leave Egypt. It was a very dire situation because the resources in Israel were not that great. When the Iraqi Jews left, they went to live in 10 refugee camps for almost 12 years. Yet those people didn’t keep a refugee mentality and I think that’s a very important piece to this
whole picture, not to mention what it says about the human spirit. You can have very little if you to decide you’re going to make something of yourself. So many of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries have never received any support from the U.N. or any of the relief agencies, and yet they have been incredibly successful as a group. I think it’s unfair to the Palestinians that they were kept political refugees and that the U.N. defines them as generational refugees so that now you have millions of Palestinian refugees. You know, I would be considered a refugee because my parents came from Iraq.
Carroll: Israel never attempted to use them as political pawns in the fashion that the Palestinian refugees have been used.
Basri: They didn’t and I think that was to the benefit of these people.
Carroll: Do Iraqi Jewish refugees share a basis for legal claims under international treaties?
Basri: There are certain remedies that can be pursued and I talk about some of those remedies. But to tell you the truth, I’m not sure what will come out of that. We’re dealing with countries in the Middle East with negative gross domestic products for the past 10 years. I’ve had the privilege of knowing a number of people who had parents who were hung, who were tortured or whose husbands or brothers were hung, and they’ve had no sense of closure on this issue; they felt as if their culture was taken from them. They spoke Arabic when they got to Israel, but people didn’t want to hear Arabic, they didn’t want to talk about the Middle Eastern culture these refugees had left behind, with the music, food and all of the other things that were very important to them. So right now it’s important to talk about the refugees in the context of what happened and what was lost.
Carroll: You’ve suggested a “truth and reconciliation” commission.
Basri: That’s what I spend my time on, truth and reconciliation, because I believe that with more than 50 percent of Israelis made up of Jews from Arab countries we need to talk about what happened to these people. Without such talk, I don’t think you can ask the Palestinians, who’ve also suffered, to understand that there are other people who suffered just as deeply, just as dramatically, and that this didn’t happen in a period of war.
These people were living in these countries and had everything taken from them that made life beautiful and precious. They were part of a culture that went back 2,700 years. To me that’s the issue. To talk about money in this context as if you’re ever going to replace all of that, right now I don’t think that makes sense.