Film night at Sutton Synagogue (Sunday, 29th April 2012)

On Sunday 29th April 2012, ninety people gathered at the shul for two short films produced by
David Kahtan.
 
The first film, Voices of the Farhud was intended as a record (a la Spielberg) of
eyewitness accounts of the pogrom or Farhud against the Jews of Iraq in 1941 and the
persistent persecution of the Iraqi Jews. After 2500 years of living and contributing at every
level to the welfare of their country, they were reduced to the status of second class citizens,
dispossessed and made into refugees.
 
The second film, entitled Escape from Baghdad, focused on his father, Moshe’s escape from Baghdad just before the Six Day War erupted in 1967.
 
 
As David and his family were former members of the Sutton community, there was great interest
in the story his father had to tell.
 
Introducing the films, David explained the impact of the Second World War on his family: his
maternal great-grandmother had been in the camps, while her son was a Resistance leader who
was highly decorated for bravery. The story of the Middle Eastern Jews on his father’s side,
however, was a relatively neglected area in Jewish education and general knowledge, despite
52% of Israel’s Jewish population originating from there.

Prior to the attacks of 1941, a third of the population of Baghdad were Jews. The pogrom, or
Farhud, against the Iraqi Jews occurred in an atmosphere of anti-Semitism cultivated by Nazi
propaganda, which was greatly influential in the Middle East, to the extent that Hitler promised
the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem that he would make it free of Jews. On Shavuot, 1st and 2nd June
1941, the attack began, the Jews being totally unprotected by the military who were kept back,
while Jews were raped and murdered and their homes looted, the perpetrators often being their
neighbours or employees. It is estimated that perhaps six hundred people died while perhaps
two thousand were injured, although the exact figures are unknown while official estimates are
lower.
 
It is worth reflecting that in 1941 there was no State of Israel to blame for the
breakdown of peace in the Middle East. In fact, pogroms occurred there before that date.
Following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, huge numbers of Jews were forced
to leave Iraq, while in 1951 there was an Israeli airlift of 110,000 Iraqi Jews, so that only a tiny
remnant remains from this largest, richest and most long lasting community of the Middle East.
Although life improved for a short time under General Kassem, who came to power through a
coup d’etat in 1958, when he was killed in 1963, anti-Semitism was the prevailing situation.

The second film was a personal account of Moshe’s desperate escape from Baghdad, the last
Jew to escape persecution before the Six day War between Israel and her Arab neighbours.
Moshe was educated in England, but by returning to Iraq in 1965 to be with his sick father, he
fully understood that he would not be able to leave. His passport was confiscated on arrival.
Although his English degree entitled him to become an officer, his Jewish status meant that his
degree would not be recognised. Compulsory conscription was accompanied by sweeps of
those without service papers, who could simply disappear in prison. One day an army truck
crashed into the back of his car and though the colonel admitted fault, on discovering Moshe’s
name, he blackmailed him. Eventually Moshe had to make the hard decision to go.

Moshe calculated that each time he tried to prepare the way to put his affairs in order, such as
selling his home, he had to deal with thirty different officials, each expecting a bribe or
bakshsish. However, as the paperwork was only valid for a month, he repeated the whole
procedure about three times. Eventually, he managed to arrange a necessary cholera injection,
without the necessary travel documents, and flew to Basra on the border with Iran. The plan
was to hire a boat as though he were taking a small trip on the lake, then meet a boat that
would smuggle him over to Iran. However, the smuggler did not show up until very late.
Although Moshe was eventually picked up, the authorities were alerted, gave chase and opened
fire on the launch, which fortunately was faster than the police boat. He was smuggled across
the water after an ordeal which lasted five and a half hours instead of ten minutes. “We were
just part of the commodities.” Sadly, the smuggler was identified by his boat and he was
arrested, tortured and hanged.

On arrival in Iran, Moshe was interviewed by a colonel who acted courteously, just demanding
that he sign a statement explaining why he had to leave Iraq. On the first day of the Six Day
War, the Iraqi secret service came looking for him at his home in Baghdad, as they did to many
other Jews who were imprisoned and tortured. Nine Jews accused of spying for Israel were
given a show trial and publicly hanged. The film is dedicated to the memory of these nine
men, aged between 20 and 60 years old, who were murdered in Baghdad on 27th January 1969.
Moshe reflects on the behaviour of the Iranians then and now and the malleability of the
human mind, that is so easily brainwashed, just as the German population were by Hitler,
including the cream of the intelligentsia, many of whom were in the SS: philosophers, poets
and doctors. Moshe concludes that he owes his life to the State of Israel, which is where he
feels he belongs and where he and his wife Dominique now live.

Thanks were given to Lyn Julius who runs the UK Association of Jews from the Middle East &
North Africa, otherwise known as Harif (meaning spicy) to promote the history and culture of
Jews from those regions. It focuses attention on the huge numbers of Jewish refugees from
these countries, a fact that is often overlooked because of focus on the Palestinian narrative.
The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa were persecuted, had their land confiscated and
their assets frozen. If you wish to find out more, please contact Lyn, emailing
info@harif.org.
If you wish to further your reading on this subject, try Eli Amir, author of The Dove Flier, who
writes for the Israeli media.

Chairman Paul Sarfaty thanked Vice Chairman Rica Infante and the Sutton Synagogue
Functions Committee, Peter Fisher for screening the film, Stuart Stanton of SLIF (South
London Israel Forum,) and David Kahtan for his informative and moving productions, one
currently available on You-Tube, one to be added soon. The evening concluded with a raffle
and light refreshments.
 
 
Pictures by Graeme Lewis can be seen on the 'Photo Gallery'
This site has been presented in loving memory of Eva and Joe Sarfaty

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