The Farhud, the violent attack on Iraqi Jews, remembered 80 years later

From a flyer for the virtual event commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Farhud

For Fred Rabie and his wife Barbara, the virtual event on May 30 commemorating the 80th anniversary of a little-known pogrom that occurred in Baghdad in 1941 was deeply personal.

Fred Rabie, now 88, was only eight years old when his brother was killed during the Farhud.   

“That morning on the radio they were mentioning that they were given permission to, you know, shoot into the houses or go into the houses that belong to Jewish people,” Rabie said describing the tragic events in Baghdad.

Rabie’s family had been living in Iran but were visiting an aunt back home in Iraq when the Farhud occurred.   

He and two siblings were hiding in their aunt’s home when rioters began attacking the neighbourhood. His older brother Edward, 9, was killed when a bullet from outside ricocheted off the wall and struck him.   

The family was able to hold a small shivah before fleeing to India days later, but were forced to leave the burial to Christian neighbours. Because of this, Rabie’s family does not know where Edward is buried.  

It’s something he was unable to talk about for decades, even to his wife.

“They had what you call survivor’s guilt, because there were three children on the stairs,” said Barbara. “One was eight, one was nine, one was ten. And they never got over it. They never did.”  

Rabie eventually moved to Montreal in 1958. Three years later he would marry Barbara, whose family had sponsored the Rabie family’s original immigration to the United States in 1946. 

An unknown tragedy

The Zoom event was a joint effort presented by Montreal’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue and Harif, a U.K. association of Middle Eastern and North African Jews that attracted hundreds of viewers. 

Although attention has increased in recent years, the Farhud—which means violent dispossession in Arabic—has gone largely unheard of for decades.   

“The public should know that this was a real genocide. Because if they were not checked by the British and Jordanian armies, [the armed Iraqi mobs] would have continued,” said Sami Sourani, 86, of St. Laurent, Quebec, in an interview with The CJN Daily.

Sourani was six years old during the Farhud. A pre-recorded video of him recounting his experience was shown during Sunday’s Zoom. Sourani has recorded a number of videos with the digital archive project created by Sephardi Voices.

“They started in the lower part of the city, house by house, street by street. They didn’t reach the centre of Baghdad, but it was very easy to hear, especially at night, the screams of the people asking for help.”   

According to official sources, 180 Jews were killed in the two-day period. Some 900 Jewish properties were destroyed or looted, and 1,000 individuals were injured.  

More victims 

Some survivors, including Sourani, who is a historian of Iraqi and Babylonian Jews, say the number is much higher.  

“I can refer you to a document from the British Foreign Affairs [department] where you can read that the estimate of the British High Commissioner in Baghdad was about 1,000 that day,” he said.  

He explained that the official numbers do not include those who died later from their injuries, or those whose bodies were not found.   

“They threw them in the river, there was no trace of the bodies. Families disappeared totally.”  

Sourani left Iraq for Israel in 1950, before moving to Montreal in 1964. He estimates that there are around 200 Jewish families of Iraqi origin living there, and about the same number in Toronto.  

Strangers, or traitors

Like Fred Rabie, it took Joseph Samuels decades to talk about the Farhud. In 2020, he wrote a memoir chronicling his experiences, Beyond the Rivers of Babylon. 

Samuels was 10 years old during the Farhud. He remembers barricading the doors of his house with furniture and carrying buckets of water to his roof so that he could throw boiling water on rioters if they attempted to attack his home. Luckily, the mob did not reach his house.

“The Farhud was a major event that really woke the Jews up in Iraq. At best we were looked at as strangers, at worst we were looked at as traitors,” said Samuels, now 90.  

Joe Samuels
Joe Samuels, 90, survived the Farhud in 1941. He lives in California, after settling in Montreal. (Submitted photo)

Samuels escaped to Israel in 1949, after being smuggled out of Iraq on a cargo boat. He remained in Israel and served in the IDF for several years before moving to Montreal. The family moved to California in 1978.  

As a board member of the organization Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), he is an advocate for Mizrachi Jews who have been expelled from the Middle East.  Some 850,000 Arab Jews were forced to leave their homes between 1940 and 1980. 

He has also been active in the campaign to keep the Iraqi Jewish Archive from being repatriated back to Iraq from the United States. The archives contain tens of thousands of documents and books and were found by U.S. soldiers during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Some of the documents are over 500 years old.  

Listen to the unknown stories of Iraq’s Farhud pogrom on The CJN Daily with Ellin Bessner

Many advocates believe that since almost all of Iraq’s Jewish population was expelled and their citizenship and properties forfeited, the artifacts should not be returned.  

Irwin Cotler also voiced his support at the Zoom event for refusing the return of the documents. The Montreal human rights lawyer drew connections between the Farhud and the present day. 

“We meet at a time when the 80th anniversary of the Farhud has contemporary consequences, for the struggle for justice for Jews from Arab lands, as well as the struggle against contemporary anti-Semitism today,” said Cotler, the founder and chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.   

Cotler also spoke of seeing “the absence of outrage” regarding global anti-Semitism today, just as there was the absence of global outrage for decades following the Farhud.  

Monument for the Farhud in Ramat Gan. Israel
A monument in Ramat Gan, Israel, for the Jews who were killed in Iraq in the Farhud. (Photo by Avishai Teicher/Wikimedia Commons)

Prior to the Farhud, the Jewish community in Iraq was the oldest continuing Jewish Diaspora community and its history could be traced back 2,700 years. Approximately 130,000 Jews lived in Baghdad alone. As of 2021, only three remain in all of Iraq. 

“It’s regrettable, because I feel this is part of our culture. We know this is the only thing that we have outside the Arab world that we can feel touch and see,” said Samuels, explaining that the items should stay in the United States or be sent to Israel.

Sami Sourani agrees that the material should be kept where it can be studied by scholars. Sourani is fluent in Hebrew and is able to understand the archaic style of writing used in some of the documents, 17 of which he helped to translate. He hopes that there will be more opportunities to translate further documents and make them publicly available. He fears that they may be lost or thrown away if they are returned to Iraq, as he says they are of no value to the general Iraqi population. 

According to Sourani, the archives even include personal items seized when the Jewish community fled, like his own report cards.  

“What can you do with 200 school certificates? Nothing.” 

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