According to the conspiracy theory that was promoted by anti-Zionist writers such as Abbas Shiblak and Naeim Giladi, Israel sent Mossad agents to bomb the Jewish community in Baghdad, causing the death of four Jews and injured dozens. The reason for the bombing was to force the Jews to leave Iraq, which has always been a “paradise for coexistence”
In early 1950 the Iraqi Minister of the Interior, Salih Jabr, submitted a draft bill to Parliament which was in effect a supplement to Decree №62 of 1933 on denaturalization. Subsequently approved by Parliament and by the Iraqi Senate, it was made law by the Regent on 9 March 1950. The law comprised several articles, the most important of which stated:
“The Council of Ministers is empowered to deprive any Iraqi Jew of Iraqi citizenship, who, of his own free will, chooses to leave Iraq for good, after he shall so signify in writing before an official designated by the Ministry of Interior.
Any Iraqi Jew who leaves Iraq legally or attempts to leave illegally will be deprived of Iraqi citizenship. The Ministry of Interior will order the deportation from the country of all those who are deprived of Iraqi citizenship….
Any Iraqi Jew who has already left Iraq illegally will be regarded as though he has left for good, if he does not return within two months from the effective date of this law.”
The law was to remain in force for one year, and could be revoked at any time during this period by royal decree.
By the time the law expired on 8 March 1951, nearly 105,000 Jews had registered and subsequently emigrated to Israel, while over 15,000 more had left the country illegally. In other words, 120,000 Jews ultimately left Iraq.
On 25 June 1951, when the emigration of the Jews from Iraq had virtually ended, the Iraqi government published a statement on five bomb explosions which had occurred in various parts of Baghdad:
1. On 8 April 1950, a grenade exploded on Abu Nuwas Street, near the al-Baida cafe, Four Jews were injured.
2. On 14 January 1951, a grenade was thrown at the Masuda Shemtob synagogue (which served as a registration and transit station for emigration). four Jews were killed, including a 12-year-old boy, and ten were wounded.
3. On 19 March 1951, a grenade was thrown at the United States Information Service building.
4. On 10 May 1951, a bomb exploded outside the building belonging to Messrs Lawee.
5. On the night of 5–6 June 1951, a charge exploded near the premises of a Jewish firm belonging to Stanley Shaashua. Nobody was injured.
The Iraqi Investigation
The investigation revealed a weapons depot of the underground Zionist organization that has been operating in Baghdad since 1942, and people who were involved in the possession of this weapon were seized. Dozens of people were arrested, including Shalom Salih and Yosef Basri. At the end of June 1951, the Iraqi authorities declared the exposure of the perpetrators of the terrorist incidents, which they claimed were intended to undermine Iraq’s internal security and tarnish its image.
It is interesting that the Iraqi government statement clearly affirms, prior to its being proven in a court of law, that those responsible for the bombings were among those arrested. However, on 15 October 1951, the trial commenced of the two members of the underground, Shalom Salih and Yosef Basri. Ultimately found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.
But what were they actually accused of?
A closer examination of the investigation reveals some surprising facts. First, in the Iraqi court, Batzri and Saleh were charged with only three of the five terrorist incidents that took place in Baghdad. These three incidents occurred between March and June 1951, in which several people were injured. Iraq itself has never accused Batzri and Saleh of the terrorist incident at the Masuda Shemtob synagogue and hence has never accused them of murdering Jews. Presumably, Iraq would not have hesitated to do so had it succeeded in linking them to the first two terrorist incidents.
Moreover, these three terrorist incidents took place after March 8, 1951, the date when the Citizenship Law expired and it was no longer possible to register for aliyah. Hence, these terrorist incidents could not have affected the extent of the exodus of Iraqi Jews. If the two did commit the three acts of terrorism, the motives for this were not related to aliyah.
In fact, the last bomb of the three happened after they had already been arrested!
A few years ago it was revealed that the fifth bomb was indeed a “Jewish” bomb. It was planted by Yosef Habaza (Beit Halachmi), a member of one of the spy networks, in order to convince the Iraqi police that it was not the Jewish detainees who planted the bombs — since they were in prison and the terrorist incidents continued — thus saving his friends. He himself fled to Israel, and the bomb he planted not only did not help his friends, but Basri and Saleh were actually accused of the bombing.
Why, then, were the members of the underground accused of only three of the five bombings? One explanation is that the locations of these three incidents all had some connection with the United States; one bomb thrown at the USIS, and the other two at Jewish firms engaged in the import of American automobiles, ostensibly an attempt to disrupt Iraqi-American relations
Moreover, with regard to the bomb placed at the Masuda Shemtob synagogue on 14 January, the British Ambassador noted that despite reported in the radical press that the crime had been instigated by the Jewish leadership, an unconfirmed rumor circulating in the bazaars had it that an Iraqi army officer had been arrested. In this context, we should note the report current among the immigrants from Iraq newly arrived in Israel that the Jews in Iraq had identified the person who threw the bomb at the synagogue as an Iraqi army officer, Major Jamil Mamo, a member of the Independence Party (Istiqlal) known for its radical position with regard to the Jews.
Referring to the three bombings of which the suspects were accused, we must therefore ask whether the police had sufficient evidence to prove their case. The only proof was the confession of one of the accused, Shalom Salih, the younger of the two, whose role in the underground involved the transport and concealment of arms. This confession was obtained following severe torture, a fact which the court overlooked. In this context, the American Ambassador in Baghdad, Edward S. Crocker, wrote:
“Such confessions are suspect, because of the probable use of third degree methods by the local police”
In the course of the trial Shalom Salih described the tortures inflicted on him, “which forced me to tell them that I, together with Yusuf Khabaza (another member of the underground who succeeded in escaping) and Yosef Basri (the second suspect), threw the bombs. I was also taken by the investigators to certain places, and they made me point to these places as the locations where the bombs were place” ‘ The rest of the evidence was in effect circumstantial, based on the supposed connection between the bombing incidents and the caches of arms and explosives discovered in synagogues and Jewish homes.
A report by the British Foreign Office, which certainly cannot be suspected of pro-Zionist leanings, did not state explicitly that the accused were in fact responsible for the bombings but only that the evidence was circumstantial and that the trial was conducted properly. In contrast their report on the trial of the spy-ring of Yehuda Tager" and others stressed that “there has been every indication that the Jews condemned at Baghdad on charges of espionage were in fact guilty”
The reports of the American Embassy on this affair also raise serious doubts whether the two suspects did in fact throw the bombs. Following the publication of the Iraqi government statement, the American Ambassador noted that a police source had confirmed the accuracy of the information in the statement on the discovery of weapons and explosives. The Ambassador added that as far as was known the explosives used for the bombs had to date not been traced to the Jewish sources cited in the statement, namely the caches found in synagogues and Jewish homes. Two facts are clear from this report:
1. The police sources cited said nothing of the bombings.
2. The Iraqi government knew that it would be very difficult to prove the link between the bombing incidents and the caches uncovered. In its published statement it presented the guilt of the suspects as a fait accompli, reporting that those responsible for the bombings had been apprehended.
The Iraqi government was undoubtedly under pressure from public opinion and the press to arrest those responsible for the bombing. The arrest of the members of the underground and the discovery of the explosives provided them with a convenient opportunity. The two witnesses for the prosecution state specifically that “the police are operating under public pressure and the burden of their responsibility to apprehend those who committed these crimes”.
Why The Jews Really left Iraq?
From the reports of the British Embassy in Baghdad, we know that in early January 1951, a week before the bombing near the synagogue, 86,000 Jews out of the 105,000 Jews who left Iraq on flights to Israel had already registered for immigration. These Jews relinquished their citizenship and the right to return to Iraq, and waited for the Israeli planes that were in no hurry to arrive. Hence regardless of the question of who dropped the bomb near the synagogue, it was not this incident that caused the mass aliyah.
On 8 March the law did in fact expire, and by this date, as already noted, close to 105,000 Jews had registered for emigration, of whom close to 40,000 had already left the country. We must take into account that in addition to those who registered to leave Iraq legally, about 15,000 more left Iraq illegally, both before and after the promulgation of the law. It is estimated that the Jewish population of Iraq at the time numbered close to 125,000. Ultimately, we find that only 5,000 Jews chose to link their fate, which would be a bitter one, with Iraq. Again, the question arises: why plant bombs? Who needed to be terrorized? The law was about to expire in any case, and all Jews wishing to leave Iraq knew that they had to follow the procedures set down by the Iraqi authorities or try to flee as the Jews had done formerly.
Already the 1930s, the situation of the Jews in Iraq deteriorated. Previously, the growing Iraqi Arab nationalist sentiment included Iraqi Jews as fellow Arabs, but these views changed with the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian Mandate and the introduction of Nazi propaganda. Despite protestations of their loyalty to Iraq, Iraqi Jews were increasingly subject to discrimination and anti-Jewish actions. In September 1934, following the appointment of Arshad al-Umari as the new minister of economics and communications, tens of Jews were dismissed from their posts in that ministry; and, subsequently, there were unofficial quotas of Jews that could be appointed in the civil service or admitted to secondary schools and colleges. Zionist activity had continued covertly even after 1929, but in 1935 the last two Palestinian Jewish teachers were deported, and the president of the Zionist organization was put on trial and ultimately required to leave the country.
With the beginning of the Arab uprising (1936–1939) in Palestine, the severity of events against the Jews in Iraq escalated. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, September 16, 1936, three Jews were murdered. Within a month and a half (from mid-September to the end of October 1936), a total of 5 Jews were killed in Baghdad. On Yom Kippur that year, a bomb was thrown at a synagogue in Baghdad. A hand grenade was thrown at the Laura Khaduri Jewish Club in 1938 and a young Jew was killed. An unexploded bomb was found the next day in the Al-Rashid Jewish Club. In particular, the reduction of Jewish studies.
In 1939, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, arrived in Baghdad and became an active partner in incitement against the Jews in Iraq. Syrian exiles were also active in these movements. Demonstrations, leaflets and the press published open incitement against the Jews. In addition to anti-Zionist propaganda, the Iraqi youth weekly Al-Hadayah Al-Islamiya devoted its articles to anti-Jewish attacks. The nationalist circles put pressure on the leaders of the Jewish community to issue declarations of opposition to Zionism and support for the struggle of the Arabs of the Land of Israel. The head of the community, Rabbi (“Hacham”) Sasson Khaduri (الحاخام ساسون خضوري), responded to the pressure and published a statement of this kind with the 33 Jewish dignitaries, who also published educated Jews. The Jews did their best to show their loyalty to Iraq and donated tens of thousands of pounds to various national causes. The government took advantage of their situation to extort additional funds from them, as well as al-Husseini and some of his Palestinian aides (such as Akram Zeitar and Darwish al-Maqdadi), who organized anti-Jewish propaganda, extorting money from Iraqi Jews for the leaders’ fund.
The Mufti’s led instigation, Futuwah Arab Hitler-youth gang’s agitation, prelude to the brutal Farhud (al-Farhoud) massacre in June-1941 Baghdad, the particularly gruesome attack, where as many as 1,000 Jews could have died. Four days before the Farhud, the infamous [Younis] Yunus Bahri, recruited by Grobba, incited via his broadcast.
“the emissaries of the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, and Grobba, the political attaché of Nazi Germany in Baghdad, who provoked incitement against Iraqi Jews.”
Inspired by the ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust in 1941, fascist Rashid Ali set up a Nazi-like ghetto for over 670 Jews in the small city of Diwaniya: Forced labor, starvation and beatings.
Before the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine vote, Iraq’s prime minister Nuri al-Said told British diplomats that if the United Nations solution was not “satisfactory”, “severe measures should [would?] be taken against all Jews in Arab countries”. In a speech at the General Assembly Hall at Flushing Meadow, New York, on Friday, 28 November 1947, Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Fadel Jamall, included the following statement:
“Partition imposed against the will of the majority of the people will jeopardize peace and harmony in the Middle East. Not only the uprising of the Arabs of Palestine is to be expected, but the masses in the Arab world cannot be restrained. The Arab-Jewish relationship in the Arab world will greatly deteriorate. There are more Jews in the Arab world outside of Palestine than there are in Palestine. In Iraq alone, we have about one hundred and fifty thousand Jews who share with Moslems and Christians all the advantages of political and economic rights. Harmony prevails among Moslems, Christians and Jews. But any injustice imposed upon the Arabs of Palestine will disturb the harmony among Jews and non-Jews in Iraq; it will breed inter-religious prejudice and hatred.”
In the months leading up to the November 1947 Partition vote, violence against Iraqi Jews increased. In May 1947, a Jewish man in Baghdad was lynched by an angry mob after being accused of giving poisioned candy to Arab children. Rioters ransacked homes in the Jewish Quarter of Fallujah, and the Jewish population there fled to Baghdad. Large Jewish “donations” for the Palestinian Arab cause were regularly extorted, with the names of “donors” read out on the radio to encourage more. In spite of this, Iraqi Jews still mostly continued to view themselves as loyal Iraqis and believed that the hardship would pass. The Jewish Agency’s emissary to Iraq reported that “No attention is paid [by the Jews] to the frightful manifestations of hostility around them, which place all Jews on the verge of a volcano about to erupt.”
In 1948, the year of Israel’s independence, there were about 150,000 Jews in Iraq. Persecution of Jews greatly increased that year:
-In July 1948, the government passed a law making Zionism a capital offense, with a minimum sentence of seven years imprisonment. Any Jew could be convicted of Zionism based only on the sworn testimony of two Muslim witnesses, with virtually no avenue of appeal available.
-On August 28, 1948, Jews were forbidden to engage in banking or foreign currency transactions.
-In September 1948, Jews were dismissed from the railways, the post office, the telegraph department and the Finance Ministry on the ground that they were suspected of “sabotage and treason”.
-On October 8, 1948, the issuance of export and import licenses to Jewish merchants was forbidden.
-On October 19, 1948, the discharge of all Jewish officials and workers from all governmental departments was ordered.
-In October, the Egyptian paper El-Ahram estimated that as a result of arrests, trials and sequestration of property, the Iraqi treasury collected some 20 million dinars or the equivalent of 80 million U.S. dollars.
-On December 2, 1948, the Iraq government suggested to oil companies operating in Iraq that no Jewish employees be accepted.
Following the Israeli Declaration of Independence and Iraq’s subsequent participation in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Iraq was placed under martial law. Courts martial were used to intimidate wealthy Jews, Jews were again dismissed from civil service, quotas were placed on university positions, and Jewish businesses were boycotted. In sweeps throughout urban areas, the Iraqi authorities searched thousands of Jewish homes for secret caches of money they were presumed to be sending to Israel. Walls were frequently demolished in these searches. Hundreds of Jews were arrested on suspicion of Zionist activity, tortured into confessing, and subjected to heavy fines and lengthy prison sentences. In one case, a Jewish man was sentenced to five years’ hard labor for possessing a Biblical Hebrew inscription which was presumed to be a coded Zionist message.
The greatest shock to the Jewish community came with the arrest and execution of businessman Shafiq Ades, a Jewish automobile importer who was the single wealthiest Jew in the country. Ades, who had displayed no interest in Zionism, was arrested on charges of sending military equipment to Israel and convicted by a military tribunal. He was fined $20 million and sentenced to death. His entire estate was liquidated and he was publicly hanged in Basra in September 1948. The Jewish community’s general sentiment was that if an assimilated and non-Zionist Jew as powerful and well-connected as Ades could be eliminated, other Jews would not be protected any longer. Additionally, like most Arab League states, Iraq forbade any legal emigration of its Jews on the grounds that they might go to Israel and could strengthen that state. At the same time, increasing government oppression of the Jews fueled by anti-Israeli sentiment together with public expressions of antisemitism created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.
The Iraqi Jewish community gradually became impoverished as a result of persecution. Jewish businesses were forced to close in the face of boycotts and arrests of Jewish businessmen. After Jews were prohibited from working in the civil service, skilled and formerly well-paid Jewish civil service employees were driven into poverty and forced to become street peddlers to avoid being arrested for vagrancy. Jewish home values dropped by 80%.
On 19 February 1949, Nuri al-Said acknowledged the bad treatment that the Jews had been victims of in Iraq during the recent months. He warned that unless Israel behaved itself, events might take place concerning the Iraqi Jews.
There is no basis for the claim that Mossad agents were behind the bombings on Baghdad Jewry, there is no evidence that these bombings caused Baghdad Jewry to immigrate to Israel and in fact, Iraqi Jewry has suffered for years from increasing persecution by the Iraqi government.
This article is written in memory of my grandfather, born in Baghdad, Sasson Levy, 1933–2021
In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands by Martin Gilbert
The Jewish Exodus from Iraq, 1948–1951 by Moshe Gat