Now It Can Be Told

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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Tom Segev
Tom Segev

On January 14, 1951, at about seven in the evening, a bomb - or perhaps it was a hand grenade - was tossed into the open courtyard of the Masuda Shemtov synagogue in Baghdad. The courtyard served as a gathering place for Jews, prior to their departure for the airport, on their way to Israel. At the time of the terror attack, the place was filled with several hundred people. Four of them, including a 12-year-old boy, were killed; about 10 were wounded. The Iraqi authorities blamed two activists from the Zionist underground, and had them executed.

The British embassy in Baghdad relayed to London its own assessment of the motives behind the attack: Activists of the Zionist movement wanted to highlight the danger for the Jews of Iraq, in order to spur the State of Israel to accelerate the pace of their immigration. At the time, there was serious debate in Israel on this issue and some wished to slow down the rate of emigration from Iraq. The British embassy's appraisal is quoted in a book by Esther Meir of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The embassy also offered a second possible explanation: The bombs were meant to influence well-off Jews in Iraq who wished to stay there, to get them to change their minds and come to Israel, too.

Compared to the terror currently raging in Baghdad, the 1951 bombing barely rates a footnote, but in the history of immigration to Israel, it still has significance, some of it political - because the bombing at the synagogue fueled a whole host of rumors and accusations. Some claimed that it was carried out by Mossad agents, with the objective of frightening the Jews and encouraging them to move to Israel. This claim is also accepted by several Mizrahi scholars and activists, and is sometimes cited as one of the arguments against Zionism.

The rumor particularly haunted former minister Mordechai Ben-Porat, the Mossad's man in Baghdad: Ben-Porat even sued for slander, and won an apology. In the Haganah archives, correspondence between Mossad agents in Baghdad and their handlers in Tel Aviv is preserved, and includes their reports on the synagogue bombing. The impression that arises from the exchange of telegrams is that the Mossad agents in Baghdad and their superiors in Tel Aviv did not know who was responsible for the attack.

Nonetheless, the issue has remained a mystery - for one thing because the state continues to conceal information related to the episode. I am referring to information David Ben-Gurion wrote in his journal on October 10, 1960. On that day, nearly 10 years after the incident, the prime minister received a detailed report about it from Isser Harel, then head of the Shin Bet. A few lines of what Ben-Gurion wrote are classified. Some time after Harel reported on the incident to Ben-Gurion, the Mossad established a commission of inquiry that "did not find any factual proof that the bombs were hurled by any Jewish organization or individual." The commission's conclusions were made public in a book written by Ben-Porat.

Now, a recent publication is shedding new light on the mystery. The revelations come from Yehuda Tager, an Israeli agent who operated in Baghdad, was exposed and spent about 10 years in prison there. According to Tager, the bombing of the Masuda Shemtov synagogue was not carried out by Israelis, but by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, at least one activist from the Zionist underground, Yosef Beit-Halahmi, did apparently carry out several terror attacks after the arrest of his comrades, in the hope of proving to the Iraqi authorities that the detainees were not involved in these actions. This is the first time someone involved in the episode is confirming that members of the Zionist underground did commit bombings in Baghdad.

The interview with Tager, now 83, appears in a new book by the British journalist Arthur Neslen, titled "Occupied Minds." Tager quoted a conversation he had with Beit-Halahmi's widow: "She said she had asked him (if he had thrown the bombs) and he had replied that if a bomb was thrown while we were in prison, it would have proved that it was not us who bombed the Masuda Shemtov. She implied that he, on his own initiative, without orders from Israel, did it in order to save us."

Ehud Ein-Gil, deputy editor of Haaretz Magazine, who came across this information, called up Tager and the latter confirmed the version of events depicted in Neslen's book. But when he appeared before the Mossad's commission of inquiry in 1960, Tager did not tell this part of the story. Ein-Gil asked him why.

Tager: "There is a time and a place for everything. At that time, saying something like that would have been greatly frowned upon by the community. The conditions have changed since then, and here in Israel the true story is already known, at least among former Iraqis."

Some time ago, Be'er Sheva Mayor Yaakov Terner received a call from the head of the delegation of the European Commission to the State of Israel, Ramiro Cibrian-Uzal. "The representative invited himself to come see me," Terner said this week. "I had no idea what he wanted from me, but he also asked that I arrange a tour for him of the Israel Air Force Museum, and of course I was glad to do so. I would have gone with him myself, but I had an important firefighting convention to attend at the same time."

A few days later, Terner learned that the European diplomat had come to town to open a photograph exhibition organized by the women of Machsom Watch; the European Union supports them and the exhibition, too, which was going to be presented at the local teachers' center. The center's director had given her approval, and the Machsom Watch women had sent out invitations and organized a panel discussion to accompany the opening.

Terner received a number of protests, including some from bereaved parents, and then barred the opening of the exhibition. "I'm not against the presentation of the exhibition," Terner said this week. "But not in a municipal educational institution."

The photographs reflect five years of daily, routine harassment and humiliation. I remarked to Terner that actually nothing would be more suitable than to have these photos presented to youths who are soon to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces - in other words, to hang them in an educational institution - as they ought to learn as soon as possible how to abuse Palestinians.

Terner answered that when he was the police commander, he inculcated proper rules of conduct toward the Palestinians. He also said he had joined Kadima because he was in favor of Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan, and now he was in favor of Ehud Olmert. But if he allowed the Machsom Watch exhibition to proceed, the next thing you know, the Amona people would show up and want to present photos showing how the police beat them up, and what would he tell them? They wouldn't have let the Machsom Watch people exhibit their photographs in the Knesset either, said Terner, and suggested that the exhibition be mounted at Kay College or Ben-Gurion University.

The women of Machsom Watch petitioned the administrative court in the city. Attorney Gabi Lasky argued on their behalf that the mayor's decision infringed on their freedom of expression and also caused them financial losses. In court, the women were astounded to see the mayor himself, and to hear the explanation of why they must not be allowed to display their photographs: This is political propaganda whose aim is "to undermine the moral right of the State of Israel to exist as a Jewish state in the land of Israel," argued the city's attorney, Elisha Peleg. Terner did not try to stop him.

The volunteers of Machsom Watch sometimes manage to dispel the tension at the checkpoints and to solve humanitarian problems on the spot; their organization is highly regarded abroad and does much to preserve what little is left of Israel's good name. But endangering the state's existence - well, naturally, this is something that must be absolutely prohibited. It certainly cannot be allowed in an educational institution, at least not in Be'er Sheva, and Judge Neil Hendel understood this and immediately justified the ban on the exhibit. "We also considered the issue of the public institution's freedom of expression," he wrote.

The expectation in Jerusalem is that if Avigdor Lieberman is brought into the coalition, the Austrian government will recall its ambassador from Israel, just as Israel recalled its ambassador from Vienna in the wake of Joerg Haider's rise to power. Hey, just kidding. How can one even compare the two?