While I was speaking to the packed room, a woman I did not know, sitting in the front row, slowly shook her tear-stained head in disbelief and muttered softly, barely audible: “I never thought I would hear these words in this building.”
The woman, it turns out, was of Iraqi Jewish ancestry. The building was the iconic United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan, astride the East River. The event was in a hall routinely used by the UN Security Council. The day was June 1, 2015. The occasion was the proclamation of “International Farhud Day” at the UN as a live global event broadcast by UN TV.
Farhud in an Arabic dialect means violent dispossession. The words I spoke that gripped the woman listening 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 throughout the Arab world effectively ended 2,600 years of Jewish existence in those lands. Ultimately, some 850,000 to 900,000 Jews were systemically pauperized and made stateless in a coordinated forced exodus from the Arab world.
Many Sephardic Jews consider the 1941 Farhud, which murdered and maimed hundreds, 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 hear of. Nor for the past 74 years was this blood-letting and its aftermath commemorated in the vast chronicles of organized Holocaust remembrances. Nor for the past 74 years was this constellation of tragedies commonly known and/or spoken of within the Jewish community. In fact, it took years of highly acrimonious, sometimes public, debate with and pressure on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum — only recently successful — to even induce the USHMM 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.” I first wrote about this massacre in passing in my 2004 book, Banking on Baghdad. My articles on the subject in the media, drawn from the book, such as those syndicated by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, were typically headlined “The Forgotten Pogrom.” That spawned the 2005 Farhud Recognition Project, which endeavored to bring this brutal Holocaust chapter into history’s sightlines.
Half a decade later, in 2010, I went further and published an entire book devoted to the topic, The Farhud: Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust. Yet, ten years after being “rediscovered” and right through the week before the UN event, Jewish media articles were still referring to the Farhud as the “forgotten pogrom.” Conference of Presidents vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, in his introductory remarks at the June 1, 2015 UN event, poignantly asked this question: “I must wonder why it took 74 years for the world to recognize the tragedy of the Farhud.”
Certainly, that was the question of the day. Three main reasons explain how mass carnage as barbaric as the Farhud remained out of earshot and over the horizon of Holocaust awareness.
First, persecution of Jewish victims in Arab countries did not conform to the established line of study that followed the classic Holocaust definition, as archetypically 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.” Note the pivotal word “European.” 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, because the persecution of Jews in Arab lands during WWII and their forced exodus was considered beyond the thematic horizon, the type of well-financed and skilled scholarship that has riveted world attention on the Holocaust in Europe generally bypassed the Sephardic experience. Certainly, the overwhelming blood and eternal sorrow of the Holocaust genocide was experienced by European Jewry. But their deeply tragic suffering, including that endured by my Polish parents, who survived, does not exclude the examination of other groups. Years of focus on the plight of Gypsies, Jews in Japan, and other persecuted groups proves that. Undeniably, a solid nexus clasps the events of the Middle East, roiling in oil, colonialism, and League of Nations mandates, to a European theatre brimming with war crimes and military campaigns.
After the 1941 Farhud and during the subsequent years Husseini was on Hitler’s payroll, the Mufti of Jerusalem toured European concentration camps and intervened at the highest levels to send European children to death camps in occupied Poland rather than see them rescued into Mandate Palestine. In his diary, Husseini called Adolf Eichmann “a rare diamond.” What’s more, the tens of thousands of Nazified Arabs who fought in three Waffen SS Divisions in the Balkans and across all of Europe, were fighting for a Palestine and a greater Middle East Arab cause that hinged on Jewish extermination and colonial upheaval. When I wrote The Farhud in 2010, the focus was on excavating the details of a forgotten pogrom and a forgotten Nazi alliance. Only in recent years has a renewed trickle of excellent scholarship yielded gripping new research into the Arab role in the Holocaust. For example, there is Islam and Nazi Germany’s War, which the Wall Street Journal reviewed as “impeccably researched.” A second book, Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by meticulous Arab and Turkish culture researcher Wolfgang Schwanitz, was published by Yale University Press. There are several excellent others.
Third, critics say, that many of the leading Jewish newspapers and wire services, now vastly more politicized than they were in the prior decade, did not devote sufficient space and informed knowledge to the topic. Moreover, some these 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.”
In that vein, the day before the June 1, 2015 UN event, one prominent Jewish newspaper published an article on the Farhud, which included this observation: “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.” Before the UN ceremony, three different irate members of the audience showed me this article on their tablets, and the consensus of disdain was expressed by one Sephardic gentleman who objected, first quoting the newspaper with derision: “‘Deploy it frequently to support their claims for refugee recognition on behalf of Middle Eastern Jews?'” and then adding, “They would never say such a thing about the European Kristallnacht!”
The complainers were equally astonished that this prominent article made no mention of the Mufti of Jerusalem. They felt the complete omission of Husseini’s involvement and the marginalization of their nightmare was typical of the roadblocks they had encountered during their decades-long struggle for recognition of their anguish.
But on June 1, 2015 — yes, 74 inexcusable years late and, yes, not an hour too soon — after waiting for thirty minutes beneath a gaggle of umbrellas in the torrential rain at a narrow admittance gate on First Ave, and then into a packed hall at the UN, attended by diplomats from several countries, human rights activists of various causes and key Jewish leaders from across the spectrum, in an event broadcast worldwide live by the UN itself, the stalwarts of Farhud memory gathered to finally make the proclamation of International Farhud Day — and made it loud and clear. In doing so, they made history by simply recognizing history.