Motivated by generations of anti-Semitism in her mother’s native land of Iraq, along with a dramatic search for answers to her grandfather’s kidnapping and murder in Baghdad, Shir Mnuchin is determined to explore her family’s unusual history.
And as she travels through the United States, promoting the documentary Shadow in Baghdad, the 27-year-old Israeli lecturer and activist is urging everyone she meets to “go back to your roots and understand where you came from.”
In a Feb. 20 interview at the Ehinger Center on the Drew University campus in Madison, an hour before a speaking engagement there sponsored by the campus Hillel chapter, Mnuchin told NJ Jewish News of the dangers that surrounded not only two generations of her own family’s journey but the intrigues involved bringing their story to light.
Her mother, Linda Abdul Aziz, was born in 1950 in Baghdad into a Jewish community that dates back 2,600 years. Abdul Aziz’s father was, Mnuchin said, “a very prominent lawyer in the Jewish community. He saw himself as both very Iraqi and very Jewish.” And despite “the turmoil that came upon Iraq in 1949 after Israel was declared a state, he wanted to stay in Iraq.”
But Jews were treated “a lot more badly” after Israel achieved statehood, “and Iraqi Jews were seen as collaborators with Israel,” Mnuchin explained.
After the Six-Day War in 1967, “things started to get even more complicated for the Jews. Their phones were cut off. Their bank accounts were frozen. Their possessions were nationalized. They were treated like the Jews in Nazi Germany. That is when my mom started to realize she had no future in Iraq.”
In 1970 Mnuchin’s mother and other family members fled to Israel “because she had to escape because Jews were deprived of their basic rights” while Saddam Hussein was seizing power. But her grandfather stayed behind. “Two years later they learned he had been kidnapped and murdered,” Mnuchin said.
That bitter knowledge “was something my mom didn’t want to deal with.”
American forces invaded Iraq in 2003. As a journalist, Abdul Aziz wanted to return there to learn what had happened to her father. “She started writing about him in Arabic, and her stories were published in different parts of the Arab world,” said Mnuchin. They led to a Muslim journalist in Baghdad, who contacted her by Skype.
“He said he had never met a Jew in his life, and he wanted to help my mom find information about her father. She was kind of suspicious in the beginning that he would investigate this long-lost Jew. He was not allowed to be in touch with a Jewish woman in Israel.”
Shadow in Baghdad is the story of “the secret contacts between my mother and the Iraqi journalist and how they tried to unravel the story of my grandfather,” said Mnuchin. Because of the Iraqi reporter’s vulnerability, he is not identified in the film by name. His face has been disguised and his voice distorted to protect his anonymity. “His participating in this film really jeopardizes his life,” Mnuchin said.
He and Abdul Aziz were able to meet on one occasion in Jordan; neither one was permitted to visit the other’s country.
Then, in 2003, American forces in Iraq “were able to get documents about the Jewish community and bring them to America. My mother was able to find a few documents with some information about her father.” But much of his fate still remains a mystery.
Mnuchin said she grew up as a secular “but very traditional” Jew in the town of Har Adar near Jerusalem. After serving in the army, she obtained a master’s degree in social leadership at Ben-Gurion University in 2013. She hopes to build a career working for nongovernmental agencies in Israel. She now lives in Be’er Sheva.
For the past several weeks, Mnuchin has been touring the country to discuss her mother’s journey and her own roots. She typically speaks to Jewish community organizations but “many times I have a mixed audience. Sometimes the audience is Muslim. We are all anxious to learn about each other,” she said.
The film had its premiere at the Haifa International Film Festival last October and was recently shown at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in California. It has yet to open commercially in the United States.
Mnuchin said that its release in Israel led others to share their own stories. “My mother’s story is not unique. Many other Jews went from many Arab countries, and these people’s stories never portrayed them as refugees. Many of them are olim, and because they immigrated to Israel, that has a very positive connotation.”