In this Huffington Post interview with Usman Butt, a reporter for the Community Channel (see video clip) Emile Cohen gives an interesting perspective to the story of the Jews of Iraq. However, he tends to downplay Iraqi antisemitism, perhaps because he personally was spared the worst of it. See my comment below. (With thanks: Janet)
Emile Cohen interviewed by Usman Butt
"The Jews were important constituents of Iraq, they participated in
every facet of Iraqi society. At the end, the Jews of Iraq did not lose
Iraq, Iraq is still with them- in their hearts. But Iraq lost the Jews
and I think they are suffering from it now." Smiling at me from across
his dining table, Emile Cohen serves the most important reason for
understanding the Jewish Iraqi experience. Last summer's Gaza war and
the ongoing situation with ISIS in Iraq/Syria- means we are in a period
of profound regional transformation, some of which, threatens the
existence of minorities in the Middle East.
One minority has
already been largely eliminated form the Arab World and that is the
Jewish minority. The expulsion/pressured removal of Jews from Arab lands
took places during the last great regional transformation, which was in
the 1950's and 60's during the European decolonization. Places like
Iraq had been home to a Jewish community for over 2, 600 years, "Most of
the prophets, Jewish prophets, were buried in Iraq. There are more
prophets in Iraq than Israel, Iraq is more of a holy land, if you like,
than Israel." Emile proudly told me.
But mingled with his pride,
was a sense of great loss and sadness. Born in 1943, Emile attended a
mixed Jewish, Christian and Muslim primary school and didn't feel
different from the other boys. Only upon entering a Jewish secondary
school did he begin to identify more with his Jewishness. Jews were
classed as 'People of the Book' by Islam, but under Ottoman rule were
made to pay a special protection tax to the Ottoman authorities. The
special tax applied to all non-Muslims subjects and exempted them from
military service, which was theoretically compulsory for all Muslim men.
Many Jews from Arab countries told me about the discriminatory
laws in the Arab world, which rendered them Second-Class citizens and
many tied it into a universal narrative about Jewish suffering, not too
different from the European Jewish experience. However, Emile strongly
disagreed with this assertion and while he acknowledges discrimination
did exist, he found the comparison with the Jewish experience in Europe
quite perverse. "We do not compare that (what happened to us) with what
happened in Europe. Nowhere near. Not just the Holocaust, but even the
pogroms (anti-Jewish riots) that took place in Russia, Poland and all
these places. They cannot be compared."
In 1941, Baghdad saw an
outbreak of anti-Jewish feeling and it led to an anti-Semitic riot and
many Jewish businesses were destroyed. Some people called this incident
an Iraqi pogrom or even the Arab version of the Kristallnacht, Emile
asserted that it was a 'kind of pogrom', but nothing comparable to the
pogroms of Europe. He cited that while many people died, it was not on
the scale of Europe and that it was a result of a break-down in-law and
order, no government and the British authority, who ruled Iraq, lack of
interest in preventing rioters. Interestingly, he traces back the rise
of anti-Semitic tensions to the late 1930's and not to historical
'ancient hatred' that characterized European anti-Semitism.
had a problem with pan-Arab nationalism, because they could not
differentiate a Jew from a Zionist (A glib explanation: Jews were not the only victims, eg Kurds, Assyrian Christians - ed) ." But unlike in Europe, no Holocaust
took place in Arab lands, "The people of Iraq were not like that." Emile
went on to describe what Jewish life was like in Iraq, the food, the
language and especially the music. Many of Iraq's great musicians were
Jewish, but nobody knew that they were Jewish and nobody really cared.
Emile was officially de-naturalized from Iraq, while living and studying
in England in the 1960's. Iraq came under Ba'athist rule and the
antagonism towards Israel, saw many Arab countries turning against their
Jewish communities. In the end, they were forced to leave or were
physically expelled and they took with them 2, 600 years worth of
culture and tradition.
Read article in full
My comment: Emile is correct that antisemitism in the Muslim world was not on the scale of what Jews experienced in Europe, but that does not mean that Arabs/Muslims were more tolerant. When they did strike, pogroms were every bit as lethal. The Farhud was not 'a kind of pogrom' - it was a pogrom, and more Jews died on 1st and 2nd June 1941 in Baghdad than during Kristallnacht. Emile tends to minimise anti-Jewish hostility in Iraq, but admits he himself experienced state-sanctioned discrimination, having been stripped of his nationality while a student in England. He never lived through the period of Ba'athist terror at the end of the 1960s.
Iraq-born Jews attend Kurdish meet