The November 19th edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Weekend‘ asked “what happened to the Jews of Baghdad?” but listeners hoping to get an accurate and full answer to that question would have been disappointed.
Worricker: “Now in 1917 a third of the people living in the Iraqi city of Baghdad were Jewish. A hundred years on, among the city’s six and a half million people only a handful are Jews. There was more than one factor behind the exodus of Baghdad’s Jewish population and a new documentary that premiered in London last week has been exploring what happened to some of them, among them Edwin Shuker. In 1971 he left Baghdad as a child and came to Britain with his parents and he says he still wants to maintain a bond with Iraq.”
The documentary concerned is called ‘Remember Baghdad’ and listeners heard a short clip from that film before Worricker interviewed Edwin Shuker. After Mr Shuker spoke about the 2,600 year-long history of the Jewish community in Iraq and the background to some of the scenes in the film portraying his visits to Iraq, Worricker continued:
Worricker: “…you went to what I think is now the only still potentially functioning – and I say potentially for good reason – synagogue. It is a building in good condition but it is the only one like that and there are now said to be only five Jews left in Iraq. How has it come to that?”
Shuker: “Well, it was ethnic cleansing. In…”
Worricker [interrupts]: “That’s how you see it?”
Shuker: “That’s how the world should see it. In 1948 there were 150,000 Jews. Many of them would have stayed. Then there were some very racist laws. Law number 1951 which stripped them from their nationality but more than that, it stripped every Jew who ever leaves Iraq for whatever reason for more than six months – and only the Jew – stripped him from his nationality without the possibility of recovering it.”
Worricker, however, went on to propose another reason for the decline of Iraq’s Jewish community to BBC World Service listeners.
Worricker: “Part of that sharp fall in numbers in the early 1950s was also due – was it not – to what the then first Israeli prime minister David Ben Gurion was offering to Jews by way of…you can call it pressure, call it incentive…to move to what was then the new Jewish state.”
Quite what ‘incentives’ Julian Worricker believes Ben Gurion had to offer Iraqi Jews at the time – apart from a shack unconnected to mains water or electricity in a transit camp, dubious employment prospects and loss of social status – is unclear.
Notably though, while Worricker did find time in this item to suggest that Israel ‘pressured’ Jews to leave Iraq, listeners heard nothing at all about the main turning point in the story of that community – the Farhud in 1941. Neither did they hear any explanation of the political events that led to that pogrom or – beyond the one law mentioned by Mr Shuker – the legislations by the Iraqi government that resulted in Jews being criminalised on suspicion of being Zionists, dismissed from government employment and stripped of their assets. No mention was made of another seminal event that contributed to the exodus of Jews from Iraq: the show trial and hanging of a prominent Jewish businessman in 1948.
During the subsequent conversation with Worricker’s studio guests Jonathan Steele and Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, listeners heard the latter describe Iran as having “a vibrant Jewish population” along with the claim that Jews who did leave the country did so “because they didn’t want their boys going off to fight in the Iran-Iraq war”. They did not however hear any mention of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran as a factor that caused Persian Jews to flee the country.
With the BBC having a very dismal track record on reporting the topic of Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim lands, listeners to this programme would not be well placed to fill in its serious omissions for themselves. Hence, the question presented as a description of this item was clearly left largely unanswered.