Remembering the Iraqi Intellectual Who Stood Up for the Jews

July 10, 2020 | Raad Yahya Qassim
About the author:

In May 1941, a bloody pogrom, known as the farhud, ravaged Baghdad, leaving 200 Jews dead, hundreds more injured or raped, and shops and homes looted or destroyed. Between 1950 and 1952, approximately 75 percent of Iraq’s Jews left for Israel, but the remainder—some 10,000 souls—lived in relative piece until the 1960s, when conditions took a sharp turn for the worse. Raad Yahya Qassim recounts the attitudes toward the Jews of his father, Yahya Qassim, who between 1945 and 1958 was the editor of the liberal Baghdad paper al-Sha’b:

In 1946, with al-Sha’b in its second year of publication, the political atmosphere in Iraq started to grow increasingly tense in view of the expected creation of the state of Israel. Iraqi public opinion was roughly divided into three views on this matter: the first view was that of Iraqi political parties and newspapers pushing the Arab nationalist approach, who considered Iraqi Jewry and Zionism as one and the same and exhibiting outright hostility toward the Jewish community in Iraq. The second view, predominant in the ruling establishment, looked at the question through a somewhat more moderate and pragmatic lens, taking into account the pressure exerted by some other Arab governments, particularly Syria’s, to follow a hardline policy toward Zionism and the creation of the state of Israel.

The third view was that of a minority, in which Yahya Qassim was a leading example. This view was embodied in Qassim’s daily editorials in al-Sha’b, arguing that Iraqi Jews were—both de jure and de facto—fully equal to other Iraqi citizens, and that the creation of the state of Israel was a separate and distinct question of Iraqi governmental foreign policy. Furthermore, Qassim argued that sympathizing with the plight of the Palestinian Arabs in no way conflicted with the recognition of the full rights of Jews as Iraqi citizens.

There was, however, no significant voice in favor of pursuing good relations with the new Jewish state, although it posed no strategic threat to Iraq, at that time a pro-Western country. But as the younger Qassim relates, his father also “took on the role of lawyer for hundreds of Iraqi Jews” when the Jewish community faced a bevy of anti-Semitic legislation and regulations.

Read more on Tablet:

Welcome to Mosaic

Create a free account to continue reading and you'll get two months of unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Register Already a subscriber? Sign in now