When Iraq Expelled the Jews

April 24, 2017
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In this series of articles, I endeavor to tell the story of how, in the last century, Christians in the Middle East have gone from being small but substantial minorities to a set of tiny communities on the edge of destruction – and the role of the United States in this story. The mandate of In All Things is “to explore the concrete implications of Christ’s presence in all facets of life.” It is my hope that in telling the story of the body of Christ – the church – in the Middle East, we can shed some light on this confusing and tortured region, and better understand the contradiction between America’s noble goals in the Middle East, and the terrible wreckage it has created there.

According to ambassador Peter Galbraith, President George W. Bush learned about Islam’s two major sects in January 2003, two months before he ordered the invasion of Iraq. Upon hearing some Iraqi guests talk about “Sunnis” and “Shiʿites” around that time, the president exclaimed, “I thought the Iraqis were Muslims!”

Like many stories about the Middle East, this tale may be true or false. When it was first published in 2006, President Bush’s opponents used it to hammer him for not knowing that Sunnis and Shiʿites are Muslims. But another aspect of the story is significant: it is not true that all Iraqis are Muslims. In 2003, there were over a million Christians in Iraq. There were also hundreds of thousands of Yazidis—who practice an ancient polytheistic religion—and Mandaeans—who follow John the Baptist.

Not so long ago, Iraq was also home to a large community of Jews. Jews had lived in Iraq for over 2,500 years, since the Babylonian exile that we read about in Scripture. As late as 1917, Jews were the single largest religious group in the capital city, Baghdad.1 Iraqi Jews were famous actors, singers, teachers, bankers, merchants, and prominent politicians. Compared to Jews in other countries, Iraqi Jews believed that they had it good. In 1924, one Iraqi Jewish newspaper, in writing about attacks on Jews by the Ku Klux Klan, called the United States “the evil society.”2

The story of how all this changed is worth retelling. It strikes to the heart of today’s Middle Eastern conflict, including the role of the United States in it.

Last month, I wrote about how, in the 1920s, Britain created Iraq as an independent country after the fall of the last Islamic Empire. Rather than turn Iraq into a permanent colony, Britain decided to make their ally, Faysal (who was a Muslim prince from Mecca), into Iraq’s first king. One might wonder how a prince from a thousand miles away could expect to be welcomed as king in Iraq. But Faysal and his supporters were Arab nationalists. They believed that Arabic speakers—including themselves and most Iraqis—were a “nation,” with a distinct history and distinct interests, which should by rights be united and independent. Through the efforts of Faysal, the British believed that they could use the ideology of Arab nationalism to keep Iraq under control. (Now imagine, if you will, the Prime Minister of New Zealand moving into the Oval Office and telling Americans, “It is time for the English nation to unite! Under my leadership, of course.”)

But declaring the existence of a “nation” does not make it so. “King” Faysal had as difficult a start in Baghdad as President English would have had in DC.3 To convince Iraqis that they belonged to an “Arab nation” in need of an Arab king, the nationalist government would have to define who was in and who was out in this new nation, in addition to making an example of the people who were out. Thus, beginning in 1936, the Iraqi government began instigating attacks on Jews in Baghdad, and the trouble only got worse as power changed hands over and over again. A change in government that year did bring a pause to the violence for a while; however, in April 1941, a pro-Hitler army colonel, Rashid al-Kaylani, overthrew Iraq’s pro-British government and began broadcasting Nazi propaganda on state radio.

About two months later, on June 1, 1941, British troops from Palestine drove Kaylani out of Baghdad. That night, at least 180 Jews, perhaps many more, were killed in a farhud, a massacre carried out in Baghdad by soldiers and policemen loyal to Kaylani, while British troops remained outside the city with orders not to intervene. Steve Acre, a 9-year-old Jewish boy, was one of the survivors. When he heard voices from the street shouting, “Kill the Jews!,” he quickly ran from his house and climbed a tree in the courtyard to hide. From there, he watched as a group of armed men broke into his best friend’s home. He had to listen to the sounds of screams that followed the invasion, too.

Around that time, many Muslim Iraqis hid their Jewish neighbors from the killers, and the city government moved to stop the murders with a curfew, but the toll that the killings took on the society there was immense, and Acre was not the only one with a story to tell.

Next, in 1947, war broke out in all of British Palestine between the Zionists (Jewish nationalists) and Palestinian Arab nationalists, both of whom wanted to establish a state for their people. In Iraq, the government responded by persecuting Iraqi Jews. Jews were fired from their jobs, expelled from universities, forbidden to travel, and imprisoned on flimsy charges of “supporting Zionism.” Nationalist newspapers printed lists of names of Iraqi Jews accused of Zionist activities. The Ford Motor Company’s principal agent in Iraq, a Jewish man, was hanged at the entrance to his home after a military show trial. It came as no surprise that when the State of Israel was created in 1948, thousands of Iraqi Jews began illegally fleeing there.4

In 1950, the Iraqi parliament passed a law allowing Jews to register for emigration—if they would give up their Iraqi citizenship. Over 100,000 Jews did so, faster than Israel could take them in. But in March 1951, the new Prime Minister, Nuri al-Sa’id, let the other shoe drop. He passed a law confiscating all the property of Jews who had registered for emigration. The tens of thousands of Jews still waiting to leave the country lost everything overnight. Even Jews who did not want to emigrate had their property frozen until they could prove citizenship. Police began harassing Jews in the street, stripping them of cash and valuables, and the Jewish flight out of Iraq snowballed.

“By the end of the mass migration to Israel,” historian Orit Baskhin concludes, “Iraq had lost 130,000 of its Jews. One of the largest Jewish communities in the Arab world had been destroyed.”5 By 1952, there were just 6,000 Jews left in Iraq. As recently as 2008, there were only 7.

In those years, from 1950-51, the U.S. was not as involved in the Middle East as it is today. But the U.S. wanted Iraq as an ally against communism, and it had supported the creation of Israel in 1948. Now, it found itself playing mediator for Israel and Iraq, two countries that were still officially at war. Reading the documents of American diplomats from this time, one is struck by how coldly they discussed the purging, and how eager they were to make excuses for it, just five years after the Holocaust.

In meetings with the American First Secretary in Baghdad, Prime Minister al-Saʿid ranted that “he determined to get these people out of Iraq at the earliest possible moment.” The Secretary in turn asked al-Saʿid to be “realistic” about the time it would take to rid his country of Jews, and gently suggested that the “matter could probably be settled more equitably and with less dislocation by steady outflow of emigres rather than by forced mass exodus.”6

To the outside world, the U.S. State Department was at pains to assure all concerned that Jews were not being mistreated in Iraq. When a grenade was thrown at a synagogue on January 14, 1951, killing at least three people, the State Department reassured the American Jewish Committee that although Iraqi Jews were suffering “various annoyances,” “we had never received any information to indicate that the Iraqi Government was indulging in a deliberate policy of mistreatment of its Jewish residents.”7 When that government froze all the property of its Jewish citizens, the same State Department official told the same (probably stupefied) representative of the AJC that “there was no evidence to indicate that actual confiscation of Jewish assets was contemplated by the Iraqi government.”8 (That is, of course, exactly what the Iraqi government was contemplating).

As a whole, the United States’ attitude was once summed up by John Barrow, an officer at the State Department’s Office of Near Eastern Affairs: “If the immigration program is accelerated as now seem likely, the back of the problem might soon be broken.”9 The “problem” was not that Iraqi Jews were being persecuted. It was that Jews were living in Iraq at all. This was the problem American diplomats devoted their energies to solving, trying to raise funds to resettle Iraqi Jews in Israel,10 and exploring various options for faster plane flights for the emigres.11 When a Jewish congressman wrote to Secretary of State Dean Acheson, pleading with him to instead use U.S. aid to Iraq as leverage to convince Iraq to stop mistreating Jews,12 one perturbed State Department officer wrote that the letter “create a somewhat difficult situation.”13

Abraham Kuyper once declared “uniformity” to be the “curse of modern life.” The sinful world, he said, strives to set up kingdoms to rival the kingdom of God, whose glorious unity the world can only imitate with a forced uniformity. And in the modern age, Kuyper said, “attempts to blend all shades into the blank darkness of the grave are becoming ever more obvious. Ever more shrilly it cries out that in our modern society, everything, however distinctive in nature, must be shaped by one model, cut to a single pattern, or poured into one fixed mold.” In politics, that meant rendering the peoples “homogenous.” And in this statement, Kuyper was more correct than he knew. He certainly did not anticipate that in the 20th century, this homogeneity would be most often achieved, not by blending, but by destroying whatever was different.

In the Middle East, players from King Faysal to ISIS have used the “uniformity” strategy to secure their power. But world powers involved in the Middle East see homogeneity as an asset, too. Countries that fit into neat, easy-to-understand categories, like “Arab,” “Muslim,” and “Jew,” are easier to manage. And when reality doesn’t fit into the categories of the powerful, the powerful tend to try to change reality to match. In the minds of American diplomats, Iraqi Jews were reduced to their Jewishness; instead of human beings with lives and families and businesses and neighbors and schools, they became merely Jews, who would be better off in refugee camps, as long as those camps were in the Jewish state.

This attitude persists to this day.  The first version of President Trump’s currently-blocked executive order on immigration temporarily banned any visitors from Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen, and indefinitely banned all Syrians. But it also directed agencies to “prioritize” accepting refugees who belonged to “a minority religion.”

Once again, the powers attempt to force narrow categories onto millions of people, with life-and-death consequences. If the United States opens its doors to Christians from the Middle East, and bans everyone else, we could well see a repeat of 1951. With little safety at home, thousands of Christians will leap at the chance to escape, making it ever harder for the rest to stay.

The point is not that the United States should not take in persecuted Christian refugees. We absolutely should. But it is one thing to welcome them here. It is quite another to leave them no choice—to offer emigration as the only solution to the destruction we have helped wrought in their country. It is a terrible thing for people to be exiled from their homeland, houses, churches, language, friends, and extended families.

As we can see, since World War I, Great Britain and the U.S. have been interfering in Iraq on the assumption that “Iraqis are Muslims”—with terrible consequences for those Iraqis who aren’t. If we are to avoid turning that assumption into a self-fulfilling prophecy, great care must be taken: a care that recognizes that human beings are not transplantable puzzle pieces, but image-bearers of the Most High God, with all the beauty, freedom and diversity that title brings.

Dig Deeper

For further reading, check out these books:
Elie Kedourie, The Chatham House Version and Other Middle Eastern Studies
Orit Bashkin, The New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq
Itamar Levin, Locked Doors: The Seizure of Jewish Property in Arab Countries

About the Author
  • Joel Veldkamp is a PhD student in history at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. He lived in Syria from September 2010-May 2011, and has worked for Christian Solidarity International since September 2011. His views are his own.

  1. Elie Kedourie, The Chatham House Version and Other Middle Eastern Studies, (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004, originally published 1970), 437, fn 65 

  2. Orit Bashkin, The New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq, (Stanford University Press, 2012), 62 

  3. This crazy analogy is not meant to disparage New Zealand’s Prime Minister Bill English (yes, that really is his name) in any way. As far as I know, he has no designs on the White House. 

  4. Orit Bashkin, The New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq, (Stanford University Press, 2012),187-190, 194 

  5. Orit Bashkin, The New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq, (Stanford University Press, 2012), 192 

  6. Tenney to SecState, EMBTEL 193, September 29, 1950, CDF 887.411/9-2950, USNA  

  7. J. R. Barrow, Memorandum of Conversation, February 2, 1951, CDF 887.411/12-850, USNA  

  8. J. R. Barrow, Memorandum of Conversation, March 21, 1951, CDF 887.411/3-2151, USNA  

  9. J. R. Barrow, Memorandum of Conversation, February 2, 1951, CDF 887.411/12-850, USNA  

  10. J. R. Barrow, Memorandum of Conversation, February 2, 1951, CDF 887.411/12-850, USNA  

  11. DepState to AMEMBASSY, October 3, 1950, CDF 887.411/9-2950, USNA  

  12. Celler to Acheson, March 27, 1951, CDF 887.411/3-2751, USNA 

  13. Claxton to McFall, Office Memorandum, April 6, 1951, CDF 887.411/3-2751, USNA  

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