The Jews of Baghdad and Zionism:



M.Phil Thesis in Modern Middle Eastern Studies
By Ari Alexander
Magdalen College, University of Oxford
May 2004

Full Thesis (PDF format—1 megabyte)


  Acknowledgements 3
  Contents 4


  I. Historical Background Jews under Islam, the Ottoman Empire and the Transition to British Colonial Rule 14

1.1 The Dhimmis


1.2 The Ottoman Empire                                                           


1.3 The Jews of Iraq During the Ottoman Empire               


1.4 Tanzimat


1.5 Changes in the Baghdadi Jewish Community


1.6 The European Link: Schools and Modern Education in Baghdad


1.7 British Occupation and the Mandate

  2. ZIONISM IN BAGHDAD IN THE 1920s The Origins of an Unpopular Movement 38

2.1 Iraqi Jewish Links with Palestine Before Modern Political Zionism


2.2 The Question of Zionism In Baghdad Prior to 1920


2.3 The Baghdadi Zionist Movement


2.4 Anti-Zionism in Baghdad


2.5 The Iraqi Orientation and Jewish Distance from Zionism


3. IRAQI POLITICS AND THE JEWS, 1934-1941 Cornered by Nazism, Zionism and Arab Nationalism


3.1 Anti-Jewish Policies and Incidents


3.2 Iraqi and Pan-Arabist National Politics


3.3 Zionism, Palestine and Hostility Towards Baghdadi Jews


3.4 The Influence of Nazi Germany On Iraqi Politics and Education


4. 1941-1948 The Farhud, the War Economy, Communists and Zionists


4.1 The Farhud


4.2 Leaders vs. Youth


4.3 Communism 


4.4 The Zionist Underground






            The Jewish community in Baghdad virtually disappeared with the mass exodus of 120,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel between 1949-1951.  This Jewish community lived in Iraq for approximately 2,500 years and my thesis looks closely at the years between 1920-1948 in order to gain as much insight as possible into the complex set of economic, political and religious factors that coalesce to form the lived experience of Baghdadi Jews during this period.  It is my contention that during this time, an historic and thus far irreversible break in Arab-Jewish relations occurred, and that Baghdad is a crucial arena to observe this shift as it unfolds.  This thesis is a study of the impact of anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism and anti-imperial ‘Britishism’ on the Baghdadi Jewish community. 

            Aside from the obvious hatred sown by the conflict between Palestinians and Jews in Palestine, the relationship between Muslim, Christian and Jewish Arabs more generally was destructively altered by the Zionist project.  This thesis aims to contribute to a body of literature that illuminates what went wrong in relations between Arabs and Jews in the modern Middle East. It is framed by the contemporary question of whether or not Zionism alone accounts for the deep-seated hostility towards Jews that is currently so widespread in the Arab-Muslim world.  This question is of relevance to Zionist historiography, which is notably narrow in its interest in the subject.  And it is also of interest to the uninformed public, which tends to hold an opinion—either that Arabs pathologically hate Jews or that Zionists are to blame for all of the troubles in the region.           

            I approach this subject as a critic of Zionism, assuming that most of ‘what went wrong’ could be understood to be the fault of Zionism.  It was the Zionists, after all, who constructed the discourse whereby a Jew and an Arab could not be the same person, and where a Jew was a Zionist, if not a potential Zionist.  But I also approach this subject as a Jew who is sensitive to the impact of centuries of persecution on the creation of Zionism in the Eastern European context.  The relationship between Zionism and anti-Jewish sentiments is investigated throughout much of the thesis. There is no doubt that modern political Zionism cannot be explained without a proper understanding of the anti-Semitic European context from which it grew.  However, there has been remarkably little research on Zionism in Middle Eastern countries, and even less on the spread of European anti-Semitism to the Middle East.  And thus, the question of the extent of anti-Jewish sentiments and actions in Middle Eastern countries in the colonial period has not yet been subjected to analysis in terms of the development of the Zionist movement.   I seek to investigate whether anti-Jewish protests, legislation and acts of violence can be legitimately essentialized as nothing more than anti-Zionist expressions.  I also touch upon more general issues that emerge from the conflict between competing nationalist movements—Arab nationalism and Jewish nationalism, which is Zionism.

            The central challenge of this work is to write about Baghdadi Jews without undue influence of either one of the two dominant narratives that lurks behind almost all that has been written on the subject.  These are the anti-Zionist and the anti-Semitist narratives.  My goal is to expose them both, to tell this history through a critical analysis of each, which will ultimately lead me to arrive at a much messier, far less satisfying, picture that I believe more accurately represents the lived experience of Baghdadi Jews during this period.  Following in the footsteps of Palestinian scholar Abbas Shiblak, I also attempt to bring the colonial context, and the anti-British sentiment that evolved in Iraq, back into the story, to represent a third major narrative that frames this work. 

            I choose to focus on the city of Baghdad as a case study because it provides me with a window into an investigation of colonialism, Arab nationalism, anti-Semitism and Zionism—all superimposed on one another and shaping the experience of a 90,000 strong Jewish community.   Baghdad’s was one of the two largest communities of Oriental Jews that relocated to Israel, and therefore an important piece of the puzzle of Arab-Jewish relations in the region. The Jews were one-third of the population of the city of Baghdad—just as they are in New York City today.  And this thesis focuses exclusively on the Baghdadi Jews, who were approximately three-quarters of the Iraqi Jews in the period under investigation. [1]

            Some of Baghdad’s Jews were amongst the wealthiest Jews in the world, thanks to their multi-lingual and unusually modern education system, led by the French Jewish-backed schools of the Alliance Universelle Israelite. The Jews were the international bankers and traders of Baghdad.  They were successful, in large part, due to the emigration of some of their brethren to places like Bombay, Shanghai, Rangun and Manchester during the nineteenth century.  This created a global network that gave Iraqi Jews a competitive edge, even over the British settlers in the area.  With the reforms of 1839 and 1856, Jews and Christians in some parts of the Ottoman Empire began to live with a sense of civil equality that they had never before experienced as dhimmis under Muslim rule.  The European colonial context entrenched a revolutionary form of religious equality in the region.  More significantly for Muslim-Jewish relations in Iraq, the Jews would immediately benefit economically from British rule in ways that would transform many from dhimmis to elites in a relatively short time.  This was one of the seeds of hostility sown by the British, since the Muslims, both Sunni and Shi’i, felt themselves to be on the short-end of British favoritism.  This factor is essential in explaining some of the Jew-hatred that emerged in the coming years. 

            There was a small Zionist movement in Baghdad in the 1920s.  The first Baghdadi Zionist, Aharon Sassoon, nicknamed Ha-Moreh (the teacher), had small groups of young people over his house to read from newspapers and magazines in Hebrew.  A small Zionist Association was founded in 1921, with British permission, and was allowed to function with semi-legal status until 1929, when all Zionist activity became illegal following the anti-Zionist sentiments that grew with the Wailing Wall incident in Palestine. Jewish elites took pains, both within the community and in their correspondence with the outside world, to distance themselves from Zionism and warn of its potential dangers to their position.  Their voice proved prophetic in predicting the dangers Zionism would bring to Jewish communities in the Arab world.

            Baghdad became one of the centers of Arab nationalism in the late-twenties and thirties.  From 1929, one of the central features of pan-Arab expression was solidarity and sympathy for the Palestinian Arabs.  This rhetoric increasingly blurred the lines between Jews and Zionists, in spite of the fact that the overwhelming majority of Baghdadi Jews were non-Zionists.  Countless attempts were made by Jewish community leaders in Baghdadi newspapers and in public statements to distance the Jews from the Zionists, and in some cases, even to financially support the Palestinian Arab struggle against the Jewish Zionists. One feature of Baghdadi political life that accelerated and deepened the antagonism towards Jews was that from 1932-1939, Fritz Grobba served as Germany’s representative to Iraq, helping to usher in a virulent form of anti-Semitism.  A wide range of activities saw the categorical spread of Nazi propaganda into Iraqi schools, newspapers, radio and political parties.  There is unfortunately a dearth of non-Arabic sources which shed light on the nature of the attitude of ordinary Baghdadis to the anti-Jewish ideological component of Nazism.  The Germans being powerful and anti-British, and with a recent history of training Ottoman soldiers, from which most of the new generation of Iraqi leaders had sprung, found a receptive audience in the Iraqi people for their anti-British ideas.  Whether or not Nazi anti-Semitism seeped into the hearts and minds of average Iraqis along with the convenient alliance against the British is a subject in need of further scholarly exploration.  The exiled Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husayni played a key role in strengthening the alliance with the Nazis in Baghdad through the late-thirties and into the early-forties.  It is unclear if this relationship was primarily pro-German or specifically pro-Nazi.  This is but one example of the complex interplay between Zionism and the question about the presence of racist Jew-hatred.  Baghdad in the mid-1930s was not an easy place to neatly separate these two matters. 

            Jews were essentially pro-British as a means to maintain their political and social rights, newly experienced since the end of their dhimmitude with the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire.  They benefited from special economic privileges under British tutelage that planted some of the seeds in Iraqi political consciousness that turned against them, especially when boosted by Nazi rhetoric and their religious link with the Zionist enemy.

            Bearing this picture in mind, one can view with greater sympathy and contextual understanding the fact that Jews in Baghdad came to be scapegoated for the actions of the Zionists in Palestine and the British in Iraq.  Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism both grew stronger, one based on reports from Palestine and the other from German-sponsored programs.  And in spite of both of these trends, economically, the Jewish community continued to maintain a near monopoly on many of the businesses in Baghdad.  Perhaps their prosperity and their continued lack of interest in Zionism meant that the vast majority of Jews at this time had no intention of leaving the country.  What is unclear, and may never be known, is whether or not their lack of support for Zionism would have changed had the anti-Zionist political discourse of the time not been so harsh and ubiquitous.  The Jews opted, as most of them had since the end of World War One, for apoliticism.  They were keenly aware of their vulnerable position in the state, and hoped that focusing on education, work and family would keep them safe. 

            It was this ‘silent Jewish majority’ that was particularly shocked by the farhud of June 1-2, 1941.  It was an anti-Jewish riot that featured the murder of approximately 180 Jews carried out by radical nationalists in Baghdad, joined by the Iraqi masses who sought to gain looted property, and allowed by the British, who did not mind the Jewish community paying a small price for greater British legitimacy with the return of the regent.  This was a critical time in the history of Iraqi nationalism, as their nine year-old independence seemed reversed with the re-occupation by the British and the return of the regent. 

            In the period of 1941-1948, the vast majority of the Jews rode the wave of economic opportunity that came with the wartime economy.  Urged by the community’s leaders to see the farhud as a one-time event and to focus on re-integration into Baghdadi life, they enjoyed some of their most prosperous times and were generally protected by the Iraqi authorities.

            A small number of young people in Baghdad, in an overt rebellion against their parents and the conservative leadership of the community, joined in one of the two underground movements, Zionism and communism.  The farhud led directly to the decision by the Zionist Movement to send emissaries of the Mossad L’Aliyah Bet, the illegal Zionist underground, to Iraq—usually in the guise of British soldiers, to set up an underground Zionist movement in Iraq.  According to the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion made a decision that the reservoir of potential bodies needed to turn the Zionist dream into a reality was being burned in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.  There was no alternative but to turn the Oriental Jews into Zionists.  And so, the Zionist Movement exerted major resources on Jews living in Arab countries only once the tragedy taking place in Europe began to be exposed and it was clear that they needed a new source of immigration. The One Million Plan was launched in 1944, envisioning the mass exodus of Jews from Middle Eastern countries to Palestine.  The community in Baghdad was a vital component of this plan.  Even at its height in 1948, however, there were only two thousand Zionists in all of Iraq.             

            Nearly all writings on this topic, and all of the interviews with the leading contributors to this field conducted in researching this thesis, exist in a particular context—an Israeli Zionist one.  And the natures of both Israel and of Zionism are publicly contested in conceptual space.  Authors frequently use history to battle for memory, for the authentic narrative.  And in modern Israel, with its wide array of Ashkenazi-Sephardi, religious-secular, Zionist-post-Zionist discourses, historical cases such as the one upon which I am focused, become tools in a much larger conversation about the history of the state and the relative guilt or innocence of various groups.  Some even use their interpretation as a means to lash out against the state or the mainstream narrative for dealing with certain groups and communities unfairly. 

            The extreme pro-Zionist camp features former Zionist emissaries in Iraq, Shlomo Hillel, Mordechai Bibi and director of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Israel, Mordechai Ben-Porat.  They argue that Iraqi Jews were in perilous danger, that a Holocaust would have come in a matter of years and that the Zionists saved them from death at the hands of Iraqis.  They tend to exaggerate the level of support for Zionism and ignore the facts that display a relatively peaceful co-existence between Jews and Muslims in Baghdad. 

            To their ‘left’ are the critical Zionist historians, Esther Meir-Glitzenstein and Nissim Kazzaz, both of whom have written books that show that Baghdadi Jews were never Zionists.  Meir-Glitzenstein focuses on the change of policy in the yishuv [2] to ‘Zionize’ these Jews in the 1940s, while Kazzaz concentrates on the history of the community itself.  Both of them suggest that Zionism was partially responsible for the deterioration of the Baghdadi Jewish community.  Their books were scathed by the aforementioned Zionist establishment for revealing the lack of a Zionist movement in Baghdad before Jews from Palestine established the underground.

            The far left side of the spectrum in contemporary Israeli discourse, who are variously referred to as non-Zionists and post-Zionists, is represented by Nissim Rejwan and Sassoon Somekh, novelists Sami Michael and Shimon Balas, and scholars Ella Shohat and Yehouda Shenhav.  Several of them were communists when they lived in Baghdad and all were and are vocal critics of Zionism.

            The thesis does not investigate the post-May 1948 situation of Baghdadi Jews.  It is clear that Jews were systematically and brutally persecuted by the Iraqi authorities in the weeks and months following the emergence of Israel.  Jews were assumed to be Zionists, imagined to be a fifth column and scapegoated for the military defeat of the Arabs by the Jews in Palestine.  Life was unbearable for Jews by this time and those who had never sympathized with the Zionists and who wanted to stay in Baghdad felt compelled to leave. I avoid engaging in the debate over the speculation that Zionist emissaries were involved in a series of bombings in 1950-1 in order to instill fear in Baghdadi Jews to encourage their emigration to Israel.  This debate is avoided, not because of a predilection one way or another, but rather due to the absolute lack of scholarly evidence used by either side.  The question of my thesis is whether or not the Iraqi Jews themselves could have acted in a way that would have enabled them to continue to live safely in Iraq.  And if they could not prevent their departure, as my thesis will show, then should the mass flight be explained primarily in terms of the intervention of the Zionist movement, the exclusive politics and narrow-mindedness of Nazi-inspired Iraqi nationalists, or of Jewish economic privilege under British tutelage and the hostility and envy that came with it?  The thesis focuses on the 1920-1948 period, and argues that all of these served as factors in the eventual exodus, but that the growth of the Zionists in Palestine played the largest role in the demise of Arab-Jewish relations.

[1] The two other major Jewish communities, about which little has been written, were Basra and Mosul.  A groundbreaking study on Basra’s Jews by Israeli scholar David Sagiv is forthcoming and the history of the Kurdish Jews in Mosul is beyond the scope of this thesis.

[2] The yishuv is the Hebrew word for the collective of Zionist settlers living in Palestine before May of 1948.