The ‘taboo history’ of the Jews of Iraq

The ‘taboo history’ of the Jews of Iraq

Questions for Carole Basri

Carole Basri addresses a committee of the British House of Lords in 2007 on the plight of Jews in Iraq. Photo courtesy Carole Basri
Carole Basri addresses a committee of the British House of Lords in 2007 on the plight of Jews in Iraq. Photo courtesy Carole Basri

Lawyer and filmmaker Carole Basri has many facets, and most of them reflect her roots as a Jew of Iraqi descent.

An adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, she is an expert on international relations and Jewish history in the Middle East. Since 2003 she has worked in various capacities as a legal adviser to the American and Iraqi authorities in Baghdad. A filmmaker, Basri has served as director on The Last Jews Of Baghdad: End of an Exile, Beginning of a Journey (2005), a documentary that presents a historical and personal view of the persecution, torture, escape, and flight of over 160,000 Jews from Iraq between the years 1940 and 2003.

Searching For Baghdad: A Daughter’s Journey (2002), on which Basri served as a producer and director, documents her travels to find the remnants of her heritage outside of Iraq.

Basri will discuss “The Taboo History of Jews in Arab Countries” at the annual meeting and dinner of the American Jewish Committee Metro NJ region on Thursday, June 16. Linda Kohl of Short Hills will receive the 2011 Community Relations Award at the event, which is being cochaired by Carol and Robert Marcus and Thelma and Richard Florin.

In her talk, Basri will present her own family’s story with a historical overview. She discussed her topic with New Jersey Jewish News by phone on March 15.

NJJN: Why is the history taboo?

Basri: It is taboo on many levels, and not just in Arab countries. It was taboo in my own family, where we had a hanging of my father’s cousin, Joseph Basri, in Baghdad. My uncle, Meir Basri, was tortured by Saddam Hussein for three months because he was head of the Jewish community in 1969 when nine Jews were hanged in Tahrir Square [after being convicted on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel]. A lot of people were tortured. One quarter of the Jewish males between ages 20 and 60 in 1969 and 1970 were either tortured or went missing….

The Arab League drove out 900,000 indigenous Jews from their countries. The Jews left after ethnic cleansing, torture, suppression of religion, and vandalism.

In Iraq, anti-Jewish legislation started in 1933. Fritz Grobba, Hitler’s ambassador to Iraq, bought up newspapers and started printing Mein Kampf and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, redacting those parts that were anti-Arab.

In 1941 there was a pro-Nazi uprising in Iraq that is compared to Kristallnacht because there was so much glass shattered in Jewish streets. Almost 200 people were killed.

NJJN: Were Iraqi Jews sent to concentration camps?

Basri: No. But the Iraqis drew up plans to do that. It was very much talked about. The prime minister said, ‘We should take all the Jews to the border with Jordan, and if Jordan doesn’t take them, they can shoot them.”

NJJN: Did the situation for Jews in Iraq ease after World War II?

Basri: No. Jews were no longer able to practice their professions. All their bank accounts were frozen. It was a very tragic situation. They made the Jews pay for the Iraqi war effort against Israel in 1948.

NJJN: What happened to your family?

Basri: My mother’s father had to bribe his way out. He was able to get a plane to take him out of the country with my grandmother and four children, but he had to leave two daughters behind…. He took his two oldest daughters, fearing they would be assaulted or killed. He took his two sons. He left his two youngest daughters with relatives and smuggled them out of the country one year later through Kurdistan. This was the “taboo history.” The family always said, “We left,” but we left as refugees. We went to Belgium, then the United States.

On my father’s side, they all went to refugee camps in Israel and lived like refugees in tents. It was horrible.

It also has been a taboo history in Israel and it has not been brought up until recently in peace talks.

It is a taboo history to Jews all over the world and to the Arabs, of course.

NJJN: Haven’t there been similar persecutions of Jews in other Arab countries?

Basri: Right; in Iraq, though, it was very calculated. In 1952 they brought in legislation which said, “If you give up all your property we will allow you to travel out of the country.” They didn’t expect that many Jews to do it, but at least 90,000 applied…. Then, while they were figuring out how they would leave, the government confiscated their passports and all the Jewish property.

They were penniless, and the Muslims were told not to buy their property, so the Jews left destitute. It was like going to a refugee camp…. They had to leave everything behind.

NJJN: In the years of Saddam Hussein and since, what has life been like for the Jews in Iraq?

Basri: Under Saddam the Jewish population decreased from 3,500 down to 50. He was terrible to the Jews. Since 2003, some have died and some have gone to Israel. There are only seven Jews left there today.

NJJN: Are you in touch with them?

Basri: Yes. I know them all. I have been to Baghdad seven times since 2003. I have worked with U.S. Ambassador L. Paul Bremer at the Coalition Provisional Authority and with the Iraqi Ministry of Health…. I’ve worked with the Iraqi tribunal on the war crimes of Saddam [and] I worked on the oil-for-food program.

NJJN: What is life like now for the seven Jews still in Iraq?

Basri: I can’t go through it in depth because…these people are trying to keep a low profile, and I want to respect that low profile. They are in danger.

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