The Jews Who Survived Baghdad's 'Kristallnacht' and Their Struggle to Be Recognized as Nazi Victims

Survivors are appealing a decision not to recognize connection between Nazi incitement and the 1941 pogrom that killed 179

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Rioting in the streets of Baghdad, Iraq, circa 1930, from the 2016 documentary "Remember Baghdad."
Rioting in the streets of Baghdad, circa 1930. No monetary compensation has been granted by Israeli courts, in the context of the Victims of Nazi Persecution Law, to victims of the Farhud.Credit: From "Remember Baghdad" (2016)
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The Kristallnacht of the Iraqi Jews” is what the Jews of Baghdad call the pogrom that swept their city 77 years ago, during the festival of Shavuot.

It took place on the first two days of June, 1941, taking the lives of 179 Jews and injuring thousands. The violence included abuse of infants, the rape of women and desecration of bodies, along with looting and damage to synagogues.

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Some members of the communities in Iraq compare what they call the Farhud (Arabic for "pogrom" or "violent dispossession") to the pogrom carried out by the Nazis three years earlier throughout Germany – Kristallnacht – claiming that the violence in Baghdad was preceded by anti-Semitic incitement that originated in Nazi Germany, which metastasized and reached their city.

Until now, however, the Israeli government has refused to recognize any ostensible connection between the Farhud and the Nazi regime, and as a result has not granted monetary compensation to its victims in the context of the Victims of Nazi Persecution Law. In February a panel of judges in the Haifa District Court rejected a lawsuit filed by about 2,000 survivors of the Farhud, who demanded legal recognition as Nazi victims. The judges sided with the government, ruling that the Farhud was not a pogrom whose roots lay in Nazi Germany.

Iraqi Jews fleeing to Palestine after the 1941 pogrom in Baghdad. Debate over the Farhud began in 2011, when thousands of victims began to demand compensation from the Israeli government.Credit: Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beth Hatefutsoth

“Nazi Germany’s responsibility for the Holocaust of the Jewish people is not under discussion,” wrote Judge Ron Shapira in his ruling, although he also noted that Nazi Germany should receive “all the blame for pogroms against Jews everywhere.”

He added: “Anti-Semitism, in its various forms, existed prior to the rise of the Nazi regime, and didn’t disappear from the world after Nazi Germany was defeated. There are many causes for the phenomenon of anti-Semitism and some change from one period to the next.”

The judge criticized the attempt to blame the Nazis for the Farhud, and said that anyone who does so “is missing the mark and removing responsibility from any others who championed anti-Semitism and racist theories and xenophobia – and do so to this day.”

Shapira also wrote that, “We should not allow rioters and those fomenting anti-Semitism and xenophobia to claim their innocence either, and impose responsibility for their acts and their behavior on the Nazis and others of their ilk.”

Doron Atzmon of the David Yadid law firm, who was among those filing the compensation lawsuit on behalf of the Iraqi Israelis, reads the course of history differently. “We claim that there is a causal connection between the Nazi incitement and the Farhud,” the lawyer explains.

The appeal submitted by Atzmon's firm in March to the Supreme Court included the following text: “Thank God, the Jews of Arab countries were not caught in the claws of the Nazi beast of prey, but the waves of hatred, evil and cruelty that emerged from Berlin during the years of Nazi rule reached up to the banks of the Euphrates and the edge of the Tigris, and caused the murder of Jews there too.”

The authors of the document claimed that, “The Jews of Iraq are also victims of Nazi persecution, and the time has come to recognize that and their entitlement to compensation for the suffering caused them due to the Nazi anti-Semitic hate propaganda, among other things.”

Other precedents

Debate over the Farhud began in 2011, when thousands of victims demanded that the Finance Ministry's Holocaust Survivors Rights Authority recognize them as entitled to compensation according to the Victims of Nazi Persecution Law. They based their demand on the fact that several years earlier, the government had recognized the Jews of Tunisia and Libya who suffered from Nazi persecution as eligible for such compensation.

In their lawsuits the survivors of the Farhud claimed that the 1941 pogrom in Baghdad was carried out under the aegis of a government that was supported and guided by the Nazi regime, and therefore they deserved financial compensation as victims of that same regime. But the lawsuits were rejected; moreover, in the last year, two Magistrates Courts’ appellant panels also rejected their claim.

Jews lining up at a Baghdad synagogue, waiting to sign their waiver of Iraqi citizenship in order to emigrate to Israel, in March 1950.Credit: Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beth Hatefotsoth

Discourse has centered around the extent of Nazi Germany’s influence and involvement in events in Iraq in 1941. The government has claimed that, “Iraq was an independent country at the time of the Farhud itself,” and its lawyers convinced the courts that “there is absolutely no proof that at any relevant time Germany controlled Iraq or was able to deny the Iraqi institutions their ability to exercise free choice.”

But the plaintiffs presented a different assessment, as laid out in their recent appeal to the Supreme Court. It describes a pro-Nazi Iraqi regime that rose to power following a military coup carried out with the encouragement of Jerusalem Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, who is described in the appeal as “an agent of Nazi Germany.”

According to this version of events, individuals who were outright Nazi sympathizers served in the new government, and senior officials, including the commander of the army and the mufti himself, even received German funding for their activities. At the same time, Nazi propaganda was disseminated in Iraq, broadcast directly from Berlin via radio, and also penetrated deep into Iraq by means of a German representative on its soil, it is argued in the appeal.

The opinions of historians that were cited in the victims' appeal included a lengthy description of the connection between this propaganda and the Farhud. Dr. Nissim Kazaz, an expert on Iraq, wrote, “For many years German propaganda introduced the poison of Jew hatred into the minds and hearts of broad circles and strata of the Iraqi population. This hatred erupted full force in the Farhud.”

Dr. Edy Cohen, an expert on Nazi propaganda in Arab countries, noted that, “Nazi propaganda in Arabic helped to introduce radical anti-Semitism to the Middle East and tried to acquire the affection of the Arab population for the Nazis and the Fuehrer.” He said that it “strengthened and fanned the flames of Jew hatred, to the point where it caused it to erupt in a fatal and horrifying manner in the events of the Farhud.”

Michael Eppel, a professor of history at the University of Haifa, wrote, “The German propaganda created an ‘ideological climate’ of hostility and Jew hatred, granted legitimacy, which hadn’t existed until them, to the murder of Jews for being Jews, and allowed them to be killed. In so doing it constituted, to the best of my historical-professional understanding, a decisive cause for the events of the Farhud.”

Prof. Yitzhak Kerem, an expert on Middle Eastern Jewry was quoted as saying that, “The combination of all the data leads to the conclusion that the decisive cause for the outbreak of the Farhud was Nazi incitement against the Jews in Iraq. The incitement was carried out by the Nazi regime by means of its representatives and agents, and was funded by it.”

But all of the historians' arguments were rejected by the Haifa District Court.

“None of the studies points to Nazi propaganda as a dominant and central cause that led to the feeling of hatred for the Jews and the outburst that caused the Farhud. It’s impossible to assert that without the German incitement the events of the Farhud would not have taken place,” wrote the judges.

In the final analysis they accepted the argument that hatred of Jews existed in Iraq even before the rise of the Nazi regime and that in this context, the Farhud was launched.

According to attorney Atzmon, the problem with this argument is that this was a historical event that took place nearly 80 years ago, and was naturally influenced by many factors in addition to Nazi incitement. For that reason, he says, it is not fair on the part of the court to demand unequivocal proof of the fact that such incitement was the exclusive cause of the Farhud.

“History is not an exact science, and in the context of a historical discussion it is impossible to isolate a particular cause from the other causes that came to play, to the point of a definite assertion that it was ‘crucial,’” he explains.

“The facts are that in Iraq for a prolonged period preceding the Farhud, there was an anti-Semitic Nazi campaign of incitement, which was directed and funded by Nazi Germany. The Nazi incitement campaign influenced the Iraqi population’s hostility against the Jews living among them, and therefore this incitement campaign was one of the causes of the Farhud, in addition to other causes,” Atzmon argues.

In 2015, at the height of the legal wrangling over this case, the Finance Ministry decided that the Jews of Iraq, Morocco and Algeria who were persecuted in the Holocaust would also receive financial compensation. However, as opposed to the demand of victims of the Farhud – to receive the same compensation received in the past by others, who were deemed eligible for it – the government decided that the sum would be substantially lower than for Jews in other countries. So survivors of Holocaust-related persecution from those three countries were granted a yearly sum of about 3,600 shekels (about $1,000), compared to a monthly grant of about 2,200 shekels distributed to victims of Nazi persecution in Europe.

The Iraqi victims of the Farhud now have their hopes set on acceptance by the Supreme Court of their arguments and, in turn, a ruling instructing the government to grant them the same compensation as that received by other Jews who filed for compensation as victims of the Nazis.

At the same time, in lower judicial instances, there has been discussion of similar lawsuits filed by Moroccan Jews, who suffered from persecution by the pro-Nazi Vichy government. Their demands were also rejected in the first stage by the government, which ruled that “the anti-Semitic policy adopted toward the Jews in Morocco was not carried out based on an order issued by Nazi Germany.”

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