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Commemorating the 1951 Jewish Expulsion from Iraq

Yesterday in Erbil, the Kurdistan Regional Government commemorated the expulsion of 25,000 Jewish Kurds by the Iraqi National government in April 1951.  They were among an estimated 125,000 Iraqi Jews who walked or flew on the Biblical wings of eagles in a massive airlift to Israel in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.  Their properties, assets, funds were expropriated by the Iraqi government that some estimate were worth several billion in current dollars of account.

jewishkurdexpulsionfromiraq

Sherzad Omar Mamsani, Jewish Representative at Kurdistan Regional Religious Affairs Ministry.

The largest contingent were the Baghdadi or Babylonian Jews, while Kurdish Jews were the smallest contingent of the mass expulsion after having resided more than 2,700 years in both the Assyrian and  Babylonian captivities.  The Babylonian Jews produced the great rabbinic commentaries in the Talmud and other works that are studied daily in Yeshivas in Israel and the Jewish Diaspora.

Iraqi Jewish emigrants to Israel and the West have made major contributions to the establishment and growth of the modern State of Israel.  While initially opposed to Zionism, following The Farhud, the Arab Nazi-inspired  pogrom in June 1941, and especially, after the invasion by Iraq of the embryonic State of Israel in the 1948 1949 War of Independence and issuance of expropriations and expulsion orders, Iraq’s Jews  realized that Israel was the only sanctuary and made arrangements to leave en mass.   We have written of that in our NER interviews with Dr. Harold Rhode, whom we dubbed “the savior “of the Babylonian Jewish archives.

During the preparation for our NER interview  with US Army  Brig. Gen. (ret.)  Ernie Audino published in the December 2015 NER, he recommended  reading  a remarkable memoir of one Kurdish Jewish family from Zakho in Kurdistan  near the Turkish border, My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search  for his Father’s Past  by Ariel Sabar.  Saber’s book discusses his family’s integration in Israel. Noteworthy is the chronicle of  Saber’s father  who earned  degrees at both Hebrew and Yale Universities becoming a  full professor at UCLA and world recognized expert in the lingua franca spoken by Kurdish Jews, neo-Aramaic.

While heretofore little was known about the Kurdish Jews who arrived in Israel in 1951, more became known as the descendants of this wave of enforced emigration after arriving in Israel. It is estimated that Israel has more than 200,000 citizens of Kurdish Jewish origins, with 100,000 living in greater Jerusalem, alone.

Yesterday’s commemoration in Erbil was reported by AFP/ Arutz Israel National News and the RUDAW Kurdish news agency.   The AFP/ Arutz Sheva National News  article ,”Jewish Kurds hold groundbreaking Iraq commemoration:”

In the Kurdish autonomous, region in northern Iraq, a ceremony was held on Monday to mark the deportation of Jews from Iraq seven decades ago, AFP reports.

The event also marked the beginning of Jewish representation at Kurdistan region’s Religious Affairs Ministry, which is the result of a law passed in May to promote minority rights. “The law says that if there was one person from the followers of any religion, his rights are preserved,” said Sherzad Omar Mamsani, the Jewish representative at the Kurdish Regional Ministry.

The ceremony in the regional capital Erbil was attended by Kurds of Jewish origin and officials who also visited an exhibition of old photographs and records documenting Iraqi Jewry.

According to Mamsani, the ceremony is the first of its kind and marks what is known as theFarhud, the dispossession that led to the exodus and deportation of Jews from Iraq.

Mamsani, who has Jewish origins, said he estimated that the families who self-identify as Jews in Kurdistan but are still officially registered to as Muslims numbered around 400. He added that the number of families who converted to Islam but “are Jews in origin” was in the thousands.

Zach Huff, an American researcher living in Israel and specializing in Kurdish affairs, said he hoped Monday’s ceremony was the start of a Jewish revival in the Iraqi region of Kurdistan. “There are about 200,000 Kurds living in Israel and close to 100,000 living in and around Jerusalem,” he toldAFP.

“They do actually long to connect with their roots in Kurdistan even if they’re second or third generation,” Huff said. “They see that Kurdistan is open and welcoming them with open arms.”

“I do predict that there will be a lot more business, tourism and a closer relationship in the near future between Jewish Kurds and the people of Kurdistan,” Huff said.

There is no active synagogue in the region but Mamsani has said he hoped that would change soon.

Watch this RUDAW news video of the Kurdistan commemoration, Kurdistan celebrates Kurdish Jews.

The following is an excerpt from Saber’s  My Father’s Paradise pp. 104-105 describing the family’s experience on the day of expulsion, April 16, 1951 for Iraq’s Jews:

The end arrived suddenly. A line of motor coaches rolled into town early one April [1951] morning, and word went out that the time had come. Under a sky still full of stars , Jewish families , anxious and bleary, dragged suitcases and children out front doors and into the cramped  alleys that led to the main street.  As they crossed the bridge to the bus stop, they saw that another crowd had gotten there first: Hundreds of Muslims had lined the streets to bid their neighbors farewell.  Old women raised cries of li-li-li-li-li, ululating as if a loved one had died. One beggar –beloved of the townspeople, though he was slightly mad- pounded his head had against a newly erected electric pole. “Where  are my brothers going!” he shrieked, until people crowded in to console him. “Why are they forsaking us?” Buses carried the [Zakho’s]Jews to Mosul, and trains carried them to Baghdad. At the airport, angry mobs pressed against the barricades hurling curses. “Die kilab yahud!” “Rot in Hell” “Be gone!”  It was April 16, 1951. Miryam flinched at the ugly words and pulled her children against her skirt as crowds of departing Jews pressed in from all sides. A few hours later, the Bah Saba has reached the checkpoint where guards searched bodies and luggage for contraband”.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review.

Why Turkey’s Jews Left following WWII

Turkey, the Jews and the Holoacuast coverHarold  Rhode, whom we interviewed in the December 2013 edition  of the New English Review (NER), has an  review of a new book in Sephardic  Horizons about Turkish treatment of its once numerous Jewish population; 100,000 at the start of WWII now less than 15,000.  The book is Turkey, the Jews, and the Holocaust by Corry Gutstadt, originally published in German in 2008 and reissued in an English translation by Cambridge University Press in 2013.  Rhode spent nearly three decades, as a Turkish and Islamic Affairs expert in the US Office of the Secretary of Defense before his retirement in 2010.

Coincidentally, in our interview with Michel Gurfinkiel, to be published in the forthcoming February 2014 edition of the NER, he spoke of the migration of Turkish Jews following WWII.  They migrated to Israel and France prompted by their mistreatment by the xenophobic Turkish wartime regime.

Struma Ferry in Istanbul harbor 1942

Ill-fated Romanian ferry Struma in Istanbul harbor 1942

One horrific defining moment was the refusal of the Turkish government in 1942 to permit transit of 769 passengers aboard the Romanian ferry, the Struma. Its engines had failed and the vessel was anchored in Istanbul harbor for 71 days, overloaded with desperate Jews seeking to escape the Holocaust.  The British Consul in Istanbul had refused to issue visas for entry of these Romanian Jews to transit to Palestine, because of the draconian immigration restrictions of the 1939 White Paper.  On February 23, 1942  the Struma was  ordered by Turkish authorities towed out into the Black Sea and  tragically sunk the following day  by a Soviet submarine with loss of all aboard save for two survivors. They were a woman, Mrs. Medea Solomonowitz recuperating from a miscarriage in Or-Haim Jewish hospital in Balat, Istanbul and David Stollar.

About the time of the Struma incident, the neutral Turkish regime had implemented Varl?k Vergisi  literally, a capital tax, on the properties, assets and businesses on all non-Muslim minority Turkish citizens;  Greek Orthodox, Armenians and Jews.  While, the official goal was to fund Turkey’s defense during WWII, in reality it was to punish these minorities. Consider it a secular form of Islamic jizya to extort wealth.  Not unlike the horrific labor camps of the Nazi ally Horthy Regency in Hungary, Turkey implemented a forced draft of non-Turkish minorities to work in labor camps in Thrace, European Turkey, and in Anatolia.  Many labor camp inmates, Jews among them, died as a result of mistreatment.  The punishing ‘capital tax’ ended in 1944 after objections were raised by the British government. As Rhode relates in his review, the wartime Turkish government supplied chromium to the Nazi war effort, not unlike iron ore supplied from neutral Sweden, only to have the British buy up and store stockpiles in Turkey.  Hapless Turkish Jewish citizens caught in Nazi occupied Europe ended incarcerated and lost their lives in concentration and death camps.  A limited number of Jews in Salonika in occupied Greece, which once a majority Jewish population, were virtually extinguished in Nazi death camps. A small contingent received Spanish birth certificates and Visas from the wartime Franco government.  Wealthy Turkish Jewish citizens had sent funds aboard for safekeeping to establish bolt holes in France and Switzerland. Many poorer Turkish Jews left for Israel after its founding in 1948.  The 15,000 Turkish Jews who remain now are split between the elderly and those who have become Turkified and intermarried with Muslims.  Young Jews see no future in Turkey have left for Israel, Europe and the US.

Note these excerpts from Rhode’s review of Turkey, the Jews, and the Holocaust.

Despite Ataturk, non-Muslims remained outside the Turkish mainstream in that new country.   Though Ataturk and his followers tried to make the word ‘Turk’ mean any citizen of Turkey, it quickly became the accepted term for any Muslim citizen of Turkey, regardless of ethnicity. Any Muslim, no matter how short a time his ancestors or he himself lived in Turkey, was a Turk. The new term ‘Turk’ became, in essence, a synonym for the old word ‘Muslim’.

But what about the other non-Muslim citizens of that country? Very quickly, the term ‘Turk Vatandasi’, [i.e., Turkish citizen] became the phrase by which non-Muslims were politely known. Non-Muslims, many of whose ancestors had lived in modern Turkey for millennia, were, in effect, still outsiders. Despite Ataturk’s wishes, Turks still divided their world into two groups: Muslims and non-Muslims.

[…]

Those Muslim Turks who opposed Ataturk’s reforms often referred to him using the polite term ‘Salonikli’ (one whose origins were from today’s Greek city Thessaloniki – the pre-World War I population of which had a Jewish majority) or less politely ‘Dönme‘ (meaning turncoat). What these terms really mean is someone whose ancestors had been Jewish, but outwardly followed the Jewish false messiah Shabbatai Tvsi who, in the 1660s, converted to Islam. Those Jewish followers who remained loyal to Shabbatai Tsvi thereafter married among themselves and outwardly lived as Muslims, but had their own unique prayers, some of which were of Jewish origin. A large contingent of these people had lived in Salonika. So labeling Ataturk either as Salonikli or Dönme was an insult. The inference was that he wasn’t a real Muslim, and therefore not a real Turk. He, according to many of Ataturk’s opponents was an outsider of Jewish origin, who took over and, because he wasn’t a real Turk, tried to separate Turkey from its Islamic identity.

[…]

During the 1950s, the UK was looking to leave Cyprus, which had a large Greek Christian majority, and a Turkish Muslim minority. There was a Greek group which favored union (called Enosis) with (Christian) Greece. The Arab world, by and large, backed the Greeks against the UK and the Turks. One could understand why anti-Greek fervor was strong in Turkey. But anti-Jewish fervor rose as well.

[…]

Why did this happen? Simply because in the Turkish (Muslim) mind, all non-Muslims were one group. As such, they believed that all non-Muslims work together against the Muslims. This principle is so deeply ingrained in Turkish culture–whether or not a Turkish Muslim is religious–that the Greek problem in Cyprus was understand not in terms of Greeks vs. Turks, but, on a much deeper level, as a battle between the Turks (i.e., the Muslims), and the Greeks (i.e., the non-Muslims). ….In this context, it is obvious why Jews in Turkey would suffer as a result of Greek-Turkish troubles in Cyprus, which, from a Western point of view, sounds absurd.

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EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.