Last month, I addressed a packed room at the United Nations in New York at an event marking the first International Farhud Day. A woman I did not know, who turned out to be of Iraqi Jewish descent, slowly shook her tear-stained head in disbelief and muttered softly, “I never thought I would hear these words in this building.”
Farhud is Arabic dialect for “violent dispossession.” The words I spoke that gripped the woman described in detail how the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, leader of the Arab community in Mandate Palestine, organized a blood-curdling massacre by Nazi-allied Arabs against Baghdad’s peaceful Jewish community on June 1-2, 1941. The ensuing mass rape, beheading, murder, burning and looting spree was the first step in a process that effectively ended 2,600 years of Jewish life throughout the Arab world. Ultimately, some 850,000 to 900,000 Jews were systemically pauperized and made stateless in a coordinated forced exodus from Arab lands.
Many Sephardic Jews consider the 1941 Farhud to be their Kristallnacht.
However, for the past 74 years, neither the facts about the brutal, two-day pogrom, nor the culpability of the Nazified Iraqi and Palestinian Arab perpetrators, nor the expulsion of 850,000 Jewish refugees from the Arab world that followed were topics the UN wanted to discuss. Nor was this bloodletting and its aftermath commemorated in the vast chronicles of organized Holocaust remembrances or spoken of within the Jewish community. In fact, it took years of highly acrimonious, sometimes public, debate and pressure on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum — only recently successful — for that institution to recognize either the atrocity that occurred or the Mufti’s role in the killing as a Holocaust-era persecution.
Indeed, the Farhud is most often referred to as the “forgotten pogrom.” In his remarks at the June 1 conference, Conference of Presidents vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein asked, “I must wonder why it took 74 years for the world to recognize the tragedy of the Farhud.”
First, persecution of Jewish victims in Arab countries did not conform to the classic Holocaust definition, as expressed by the USHMM’s mission statement: “The Holocaust was the state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945.” This geographic qualifier left out the Jews of Iraq as well as their persecuted coreligionists in North Africa, where some 17 concentration camps were established by Vichy-allied and Nazi influenced Arab regimes.
Second, the type of well-financed and skilled scholarship that has riveted world attention on the Holocaust in Europe, generally by-passed the Sephardic experience.
Third, many of the leading Jewish newspapers and wire services did not devote sufficient space and informed knowledge to the topic. Moreover, some critics suggest that in recent years, the Jewish press seemed to have marginalized the atrocity and its aftermath as a political discussion. “When former Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon was doing his 2012 campaign for Jewish refugees from Arab lands,” asserts Lyn Julius of the British organization HARIF – Association of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East, “hardly a day went by when certain Jewish or Israeli newspapers did not politicize the matter, or suggest Israel was exploiting the issue for political gain.”
The day before the United Nations proclamation, one prominent Jewish newspaper published an article on the Farhud, writing, “Now, Jewish organizations and the Israeli government deploy it [memory of the Farhud] frequently to support their claims for refugee recognition on behalf of Middle Eastern Jews.” As one Sephardic gentleman in the audience complained, “’Deploy it frequently to support their claims for refugee recognition on behalf of Middle Eastern Jews?’ They would never say such a thing about the European Kristallnacht!”
On June 1, 74 years late, International Farhud Day was finally proclaimed to honor the victims of the June 1941 Baghdad massacre, recognize the participation of Palestinian Arab leaders like the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and commemorate the forced expulsion of nearly one million Jews from Arab lands. “We recognize this date as a lamented day of history that should not be forgotten,” the proclamation stated.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry devoted a page to International Farhud Day, and Google added the day to their online calendar cites. Within 48 hours, a simple Google search yielded more than 5,000 entries for “International Farhud Day.” Hashtags such as for #FarhudDay appeared.
Going forward, memories of the day Baghdad burned in 1941 will no longer be invisible, muffled, or parenthesized.
Edwin Black’s books include “The Farhud: Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust.” He began the initiative to proclaim International Farhud Day at the United Nations.