On this date in 1952, Iraq hanged Yosef Basri and Shalom Salah for an alleged Zionist bombing campaign in Baghdad.
The most remarkable thing about this campaign is that it was perpetrated against Iraq’s Jews — and if these men’s conviction was rightly secured, it was conducted by other Jews for the purpose of driving those Iraqi Jews to emigrate to the still-tenuous new state of Israel.
While this community had at certain moments in centuries past been the very flower of the diaspora, it was justifiably nervous here in the perilous 20th century.
In 1950-51, the Iraqi government offered its Jewish citizens an emigration window from a homeland tense with anti-Jewish hostility — at the same time the Israeli government was practically begging them to come. (The cost: give up Iraqi citizenship permanently. Iraq seems to have expected only a few thousand to depart.)
Against the grain of this “monstrous” mutuality of interest stood the natural obstacles for any emigre: affection for the familiarity of one’s native lands, the trauma and uncertainty of uprooting … plus the specific problem that most stood to lose their illiquid wealth either by hasty firesale disposal or (as eventually happened) outright confiscation. Particularly pending clarity in property remuneration, many Iraqi Jews were initially wary about departing.
Iraqi Jews also dismayed Zionist recruiters with their “lack [of] a Zionist outlook and even a Zionist instinct.”**
But these stick-in-the-Mesopotamians would soon receive some explosive encouragement: a headline-grabbing series of attacks on Jews and Jewish establishments during the emigration window encouraged thousands to seize the moment.
“The pace of registration for the citizenship waiver was slow in the beginning, but it increased as tensions rose between Jews and their neighbors and after acts of terror were perpetrated against Jewish businesses and institutions – especially the Mas’uda Shem-Tov Synagogue [bombed January 14, 1951]”
-Sasson Somekh, Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew
Israel historian Benny Morris summarizes the situation in this Q&A from 2009:
Ultimately, Israel’s Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, named for two Old Testament prophets who led the Biblical Israelites out of bondage, relocated virtually the whole of Iraqi Jewry to Israel — more than 120,000 people. Today, virtually no Iraqi Jews remain.
Morris’s conclusion that Israeli intelligence did not engineer the bombing campaign that so spectacularly served its statecraft is the subject of vociferous dispute. It’s also, perhaps, a bit finely cut: a handful of zealots in the local Zionist underground, sensitive to the local sentiment and keen on the urgency of the brief denaturalization opportunity, might have undertaken the project freelance without actual straight-from-Jerusalem coordination.
Amazingly, this notion that some species of Zionist agents bombed Iraqi synagogues (pdf) in the interests of the Levant’s demographic future was commonly believed not only by Iraqi Arabs but by emigre Iraqi Jews themselves. Their suspicions can hardly have been allayed when a similar misadventure went down in Egypt a couple years later.
The inevitable dispute over the factual question can’t help but roll over into everything else that’s disputatious about the Zionist Entity.
An account already exists between us and the Arab world: the account of the compensation that accrues to the Arabs who left the territory of Israel and abandoned their property … The act that has now been perpetrated by the Kingdom of Iraq … forces us to link the two accounts . . . We will take into account the value of the Jewish property that has been frozen in Iraq when calculating the compensation that we have undertaken to pay the Arabs who abandoned property in Israel.
–Moshe Sharett, Israeli Foreign Minister, March 1951**
This sort of opportunistic ethnic arithmetic obviously loses its limited suasion to the extent that Jews can be held to have driven Jews out of Iraq — which is not to say that goring this or that ox is necessarily the reason for any one scholar’s taking this or that position.
One might, however, be less inclined to extend that benefit of the doubt to the Kingdom of Iraq itself. That realm was very pleased to point the finger at its absconding Jewry.
Our Zionist cadres, Yosef Basri and Shalom Salah, were hanged by that Iraqi Entity for three grenade attacks in the bombing series. Basri repudiated his confession in court, plausibly claiming it had been tortured out of him. (A third Jew was also convicted but not executed: Yehuda Tajar is the man Morris refers to, who returned to Israel after spending the Fifties imprisoned in Iraq.)
“Long live the state of Israel,” were their last words.
But not all “beneficiaries” of their alleged efforts shared the sentiment.
“That is God’s revenge on the movement that brought us to such depths,” one Iraqi Jewish refugee in the Holy Land reportedly exclaimed.**
Just where guilt really lies in all of this has been contested (pdf) ever since, a matter that mere hooded functionaries such as your author can hardly address with authority.
Jews Done It …
… They Never Did
* Not necessarily literally; the Mongol invasions are supposed to have broken the cultural chain of Jewish habitation of Babylon, with the city re-populated later by other Jewish migrants not of a lineal connection back to Nebuchadnezzar‘s conquests.
** Quoted by Yehouda Shenhav in “The Jews of Iraq, Zionist Ideology, and the Property of the Palestinian Refugees of 1948: An Anomaly of National Accounting,” International Journal of Middle East Studies (Nov., 1999)