In the wake of the U.N.’s predictable yet galling vote to move the Palestinians one step closer to statehood as reward for targeting Israeli men, women and children with 12,000 rockets, I realized that we are, in the truest sense, living in an Orwelian universe where evil is good and good is evil and those who commit unspeakable ill are gifted with moral equivalence and, at times, even their own countries. It is a place where that sacred vow, “never again” — a solemn oath once repeated like a mantra — has, in the end, been relegated to the dustbin of history.
Iran is now a force with which to be reckoned, nearing the finish-line of its nuclear weapons program and pumping a seemingly boundless supply of money and arms into the hands of Hamas, Hezbollah and other Islamic extremists bent on liquidating the Jewish people. In turn, the cooling of relations with Egypt following Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, and with the Muslim Brotherhood now circling King Abdullah’s Jordan like a vulture, it appears the Jewish State could soon find itself less two friendly neighbors in the coming months and years ahead. Thus, Israel faces the same if not greater existential threat today than it did 65 years ago.
Reflecting on the past, present and future, I was prompted to ask myself once more: Indeed, whatever did happen to “never again?” Are our memories so fleeting?
There are few chapters in history that have ever revealed the face of evil, or that were wrought in more human suffering and degradation than the Holocaust, or Shoah. What many do not realize, however, is that the poisonous barbs of Hitler’s Final Solution were not confined solely to Europe, but stretched far beyond to the East, where my father, and his father were born.
My father, Joseph Gabbay, was an Israeli hero who served proudly and bravely in the Jewish State’s War of Independence in 1948. From as early as I can remember, he would tell me stories of his journey from a life of wealth and privilege in Iraq, embraced by the warmth of family and educated at the prestigious Alliance School, to a humble, solitary existence of labor and study on a kibbutz in Haifa where he first learned to speak Hebrew and would later prepare for war.
As I grew older, and my “Abba” (father) felt I was mature enough to handle greater truths, his stories became more piquant, filled with details of his pains and struggles, joys and triumphs. Each retold memory was imbued with a sense of pride and humility; reverence and awe at how he and his lonsmen in battle, so severely outnumbered, were at the mercy of the “Hand of God.” For as much as he witnessed, although his own blood had been spilled, my father would never have traded it for the world. He was a part of Israel. And so, too, became I.
Though it was clear Abba restrained himself a great deal, never wishing to frighten me with the disturbing details of the horrors he endured, he said enough. I knew he suffered. The greatest, kindest man I have ever known, who was filled with an infectious light and beloved by all he encountered, was forced to survive a barbarism few, save those who have faced evil in war, could fathom even in the darkest recesses of the mind.
Some of the most poignant of my father’s true stories revolved around two fateful operations during the War of Independence. They are as relevant today as they were then. But to get to that story, I must first tell you how my father came to be an Israeli.
My father was born in Baghdad, as was his father before him. In fact, our family lineage can be traced back to Babylonian times. Throughout history, various forces came to rule over Iraq, from the Ottomans, to the Mongols, to the British, but in all its incarnations there was only one constant. Indeed, since the 6th century BCE, the Jewish people maintained a consistent presence in Iraq, hundreds of years before Islam arrived in the 7th century.
In my grandfather’s prime, Iraq fell under the auspices of the British Mandate and Jews, who until then were vehemently discriminated against, finally became recognized as full-fledged citizens. They were given the right to vote, hold political office and indeed, attain their rightful place in society.
Although the British Mandate of Iraq officially ended in 1930, the Baghdad of my father’s childhood was still highly influenced by the monarchy and was a flourishing metropolis if ever there was one. Members of the city’s established Jewish community, which comprised one-third of Baghdad’s population, along with its Christian counterpart, played an indispensable role in shaping the land into a thriving paradise that enjoyed economic, agricultural and societal prosperity.
Still, as they are wont to do, the primitivity and tribalism, the jealousy and loathing, the anti-Semitism that has long-served as hallmarks of the Arab world, reared its ugly head eventually. It was not before long that a pro-Nazi prime minister took hold of the kingdom and, just like that, the nearly three millennia-old Iraqi Jewish community was faced with outright extinction (sound familiar?).
Many, including some students of history are unaware of the fact that the Holocaust was not confined solely to Europe, but that its reach stretched as far as the Middle East and North Africa. While Arabs certainly needed no help fomenting hatred of their Jewish neighbors, it was Adolf Hitler who solidified, in their minds, the belief that the genocide they had always dreamed of was actually attainable. As the Final Solution raged in the West, Muslims in the East saw Hitler’s Third Reich as the model to emulate. And so they tried.
The Mufti and the Fuhrer
Just as there is a Pope in the Vatican who represents the whole of Catholicism, Muslims, too, revere a singular spiritual leader, and that figure is called a “grand mufti.” In 1941, Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, took a shine to the teachings of the fuhrer and began conspiring with the Nazis to exterminate another contingent of the Jewish population — this one in Baghdad.
In 1941, al-Husseini traveled to Germany to meet with Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Joachim Von Ribbentrop and other prominent Nazis to enlist their help in bringing the Final Solution to the Arab world. Through no less than 15 drafts, the Mufti told Hitler that the Jews were his arch enemies and urged Germany and Italy to declare Jewish homes illegal in the British mandate of Palestine. He also called on the two fascist nations to grant Arabs “the right to solve the problem of the Jewish elements in Palestine and other Arab countries, in accordance with the interest of the Arabs and, by the same method, that the question is now being settled in the Axis countries.”
After all, reasoned the Mufti, “the Arabs were Germany’s natural friends because they had the same enemies.”
Hitler replied that Germany would “furnish positive and practical aid to the Arabs involved in the same struggle” and that his country’s “objective [is]… solely the destruction of the Jewish element residing in the Arab sphere.”
“In that hour the Mufti would be the most authoritative spokesman for the Arab world,” he concluded.
While Hitler refused al-Husseini’s plea for an official declaration, he agreed to furnish aid to the Arabs in their opposition of a Jewish State. In the end, despite their shared anti-Semitism, the fuhrer was too much a racist to fully engage the Muslim world, but nonetheless proved to be a powerful ally for the Arabs in some very measurable ways, namely by introducing them to the highly effective tool of propaganda.
Prior to the mufti and fuhrer’s meeting and until 1941, the German embassy in Iraq was headed by famed Nazi diplomat (an oxymoron if ever there was one) Dr. Fritz Grobba, who markedly increased the dissemination of anti-Semitic propaganda material throughout the Middle East by purchasing Arab newspapers. One such newspaper, Al-alam Al-arabi (“The Arab world”), published the first Arabic-language translation of Mein Kampf. The German embassy also supported the formation of “Al-Fatwa,” the Muslim counterpart of Hitlerjugend.
Of course this all rings eerily familiar.
How often have we seen children today in Gaza or West Bank, indeed across the Arab world, chant anti-Semitic slurs in much the same way Hitler Youth did decades earlier? It is a well-established fact that Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and other Islamic militant groups have been deeply inspired by the Nazis, from whom they acquired their tactics of propaganda. Whether it be doctored photos of a wounded or “killed” Palestinian child, or modeling children’s school textbooks after Mein Kampf, the influence rings loud and clear.
Given the background, should it come as a surprise then that upon returning to the Middle East in 1941, the Grand Mufti helped to orchestrate the beginnings his own Final Solution?
On June 1, 1941, as Jews in Baghdad were preparing festive meals in anticipation for the holiday of Shavuot, a heavily armed mob of Iraqi Muslims took to the streets in a vicious rampage, targeting the city’s Jewish communities. Thousands of Islamic men equipped with guns, swords, knives, homemade grenades and other crude weapons searched out and slaughtered any Jewish man, woman or child they captured.
An image of a “hamsa,” or “Hand of God,” was painted on Jewish homes to single them out for attack. Ironically, this symbol is meant to be used as a talisman for protection. The families inside had no choice but to band together and steel themselves with whatever weapons they could muster.
My father was there. He recalled the savagery in complete and utter detail for the entire duration of his life. Although he was only a child at the time, the situation demanded he become a man, and he did.
Reliving the events for me on numerous occasions, Abba said that as the oldest son, he felt an onus to stand by his father and protect the family. Thankfully he was himself a hellion and shrewd as they come, devising a plan of ambush that, in the end, helped saved him and his family from extinction.
Somehow numb to the fear that should have, by right, overcome anyone such tender age, my father resolved to fulfill his duty and positioned himself on the roof of his house, poised with metal buckets brimming with scalding hot cooking grease, heavy stones and bricks, knives, metal pipes and any other makeshift weapons he could devise.
As several of the marauders rushed the grounds of my family’s home, my father launched his defensive, dumping the buckets of piping hot grease and hurling the projectiles he’d had on hand with all of the nerve and sinew in him. My grandfather (“Saba”), meanwhile, remained below, armed with a plan and weapons of his own.
How they managed to stave off that violent mob and certain death remains one of the great and many mysteries of my father’s life. To be sure, it would not be the last time the Hand of God would play a role in delivering him to safe harbor.
In the end, British forces came in to disperse the rampaging mob and restore some semblance of order, but it was too little too late. While estimates differ, those gleaned from the Babylonian Heritage Museum reveal that 800 innocent Iraqi Jews were killed — 180 identified and 600 unidentified that were later found buried in a mass grave. In addition, 1,000 Jews were injured, nearly 600 Jewish businesses were looted, and another 1,000 Jewish homes ransacked and destroyed.
The bloody, two-day massacre was called the “Farhud,” Arabic for “violent dispossession” and came to be known as the “forgotten pogrom of the Holocaust.”
It was also the beginning of the end of Iraq’s 2,700-year-old Jewish community.
“From that point on, I was a Zionist,” my father told me. “I saw evil. I saw how primitive and barbaric they were. All they wanted, all they wanted,” he repeated, “was to see us dead.”
“I couldn’t live like that. I just couldn’t.”
Obsessed with the thought of Israel, my father began courting his mother, my “Safta,” begging her to send him to live with an uncle in Jerusalem. Despite the fact that he had already proven he could take care of himself, she refused. Still, he would not relent and being the ever-resourceful boy that he was, attempted all modes of appeal until he finally threatened to fling himself from the nearest cliff if she continued to rebuff his pleas. Yes, my father had a flair for the dramatic, but it worked, and not before long Abba found himself on a train to the Holy Land.
Though he was just a young boy not much older than my youngest nephew is now, my father was indeed every bit the adult the times required him to be. Determined, he set out to build a new life for himself and his family in Eretz Israel, far from the murderous grip of Islamists bent on annihilating them.
Little did he know at the time, his battle had just begun.
I will return with Part Two of my father’s story, “The Hayot HaNegev,” next week.