Who are the Jews of Iraq? Why did they leave? And why do so many Iraqi Jews, even those born elsewhere, still consider Iraq their home? 

The premiere episode of a new limited narrative series from American Jewish Committee (AJC) uncovers the answers to these questions through the inspiring story of Mizrahi Jewish cartoonist Carol Isaacs’ family. Feeling alienated growing up as the only Jew in school from an Arab-majority country, Carol turned her longing for Iraq and the life her family left behind into a gripping graphic memoir, The Wolf of Baghdad

Meanwhile, Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, professor of History and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, delves into the fascinating, yet the little-known history of Iraqi Jewry, from its roots in the region 2,600 years ago, to the antisemitic riots that led them to seek refuge in Israel, England, and the U.S.

Show notes:

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Music credits:

Thanks to Carol Isaacs and her band 3yin for permission to use The Wolf of Bagdad soundtrack. Portions of the following tracks can be heard throughout the episode: 

  • 01 Dhikrayyat (al Qasabji) 
  • 02 Muqaddima Hijaz (trad) 
  • 03 Che Mali Wali (pt 1) (trad)
  • 05 Fog el Nakhal (trad) 
  • 11 Balini-b Balwa (trad) 
  • 12 Al Effendi (al Kuwaiti) 
  • 14 Dililol (trad) 
  • 15 Che Mail Wali (pt 2) (trad) 

Pond5: “Desert Caravans”: Publisher: Pond5 Publishing Beta (BMI), Composer: Tiemur Zarobov (BMI), IPI#1098108837; “Sentimental Oud Middle Eastern”: Publisher: Pond5 Publishing Beta (BMI), Composer: Sotirios Bakas (BMI), IPI#797324989; “Adventures in the East”: Publisher: Pond5 Publishing Beta (BMI) Composer: Petar Milinkovic (BMI), IPI#00738313833.


Episode Transcript

CAROL ISAACS: A lot of businesses were trashed, houses were burnt. It was an awful time. And that was a kind of time when the Jews of Iraq had started to think, ‘Well, maybe this isn't our homeland after all.’

MANYA BRACHEAR PASHMAN: Welcome to the premiere of the first ever podcast series devoted exclusively to an overlooked episode in modern history: the 800,000 Jews who left or were driven from their homes in Arab nations and Iran in the mid-20th century. Some fled antisemitism, mistreatment, and pogroms that sparked a refugee crisis like no other, as persecuted Jewish communities poured from numerous directions.  Others sought opportunities for their families or followed the calling to help create a Jewish state. In Israel, America, Italy, wherever they landed, these Jews forged new lives for themselves and future generations. This series explores that pivotal moment in Jewish history and the rich Jewish heritage of Iran and Arab nations as some begin to build relations with Israel.

Each week, we will share the history of one Jewish family with roots in the Arab world. Each account is personal and different. Some include painful memories or elegies for what could’ve been. Others pay homage to the conviction of their ancestors to seek a life where they were wanted. To ground each episode, we rely on a scholar to untangle the complexities. Some of these stories have never been told because they wished to leave the past in the past. For those of you who, like me, before this project began, never read this chapter in Jewish history, we hope you find this series enlightening. And for those who felt ignored for so many decades, we hope these stories honor your families’ legacies. Join us as we explore stories of courage, perseverance, and resilience. 

I’m your host, Manya Brachear Pashman, and this is The Forgotten Exodus. Today’s episode: Leaving Iraq.

CAROL: All my life, I've lived in two worlds – one inside the family home, which is a very Jewish world, obviously, but also tinged with Iraqi customs like Iraqi food, a language we spoke—Judeo Arabic. So, I've always known that I’m not just British. I've lived in these two worlds, the one at home, and then the one at school. And then later on at work, which was very English. I went to a terribly English school, for example, there were about a thousand girls. Of those thousand girls, 30 were Jewish, and I was the only Mizrahi, the only non-European Jew. So, there's always been that knowing that I’m not quite fitting into boxes. Do you know what I mean? But I never quite knew which box I fit into.

MANYA: Carol Isaacs makes her living illustrating the zeitgeists of our time, poking fun at the irony all around us, reminding us of our common quirks. And she fits it all into a tiny box. You might not know Carol by her given name, but you’ve probably seen her pen name, scrawled in the corner of her cartoons published by The New Yorker and Spectator magazines: TS McCoy, or The Surreal McCoy. 

Carol is homesick for a home she never knew. Born and raised Jewish in London, she grew up hearing stories of her parents’ life in Baghdad. How her family members learned to swim in the Tigris River using the bark of palm trees as life preservers, how they shopped in the city sooks for dates to bake b’ab’e b’tamer. 

Millions of Jews have called Iraq home for more than 2,600 years, including many of their children and grandchildren who have never been there, but long to go. Like Carol, they were raised with indelible stories of daily life in Mosul, Basra, Baghdad – Jewish life that ceased to exist because it ceased to be safe.

CAROL: My mother remembered sitting with her mother and her grandmother and all the family in the cellar, going through every single grain of rice for chometz. Now, if you imagine that there were eight days of Passover, I don't know 10, 12 people in the household, plus guests, they ate rice at least twice a day. You can imagine how much rice you'd have to go through. So little things like that, you know, that would give you a window into another world completely, that they remembered with so much fondness. 

And it's been like that all my life. I've had this nostalgia for this, this place that my parents used to, now and again, they’d talk about it, this place that I've never visited and I've never known. But it would be wonderful to go and just smell the same air that my ancestors smelled, you know, walk around the same streets in the Jewish Quarter. The houses are still there, the old Jewish Quarter. They're a bit run down. Well, very run down.

MANYA: Carol turned her longing for Iraq and the life her family left behind into a graphic memoir and animated film called The Wolf of Baghdad. Think Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the graphic novel about the Holocaust, but for Jews in Iraq who on the holiday of Shavuot in 1941 suffered through a brutal pogrom known as the Farhud, followed by decades of persecution, and ultimately, expulsion.

Her research for the book involved conversations with family members who had never spoken about the violence and hatred they witnessed. They had left it in the past and now looked toward the future. There’s no dialogue in the book either. The story arc simply follows the memories.

CAROL: They wanted to look forward. So, it was really gratifying that they did tell me these things. ‘Cause when my parents came, for example, they came to the UK, it was very much ‘Look forward. We are British now.’ My father was the quintessential city gent. He'd go to the office every day in the city of London with his pinstriped suit, and a rose plucked from the front garden, you know, a copy of The Guardian newspaper under his arm. He was British. We listened to classical music. We didn't listen to the music of my heritage. It was all Western music in the house.

MANYA: But her father’s Muslim and Christian business associates in Iraq visited regularly, as long as they could safely travel.   

CAROL: On a Sunday, every month, our house would turn into little Baghdad. They would come and my mother would feed them these delicacies that she spent all week making and they’d sit and they’d talk.

MANYA: As Carol said, she had heard only fond memories throughout her childhood because for millennia, Jews in Iraq lived in harmony with their Muslim and Christian neighbors. 

CAROL: Jews have always lived in Mesopotamia, lived generally quite well. There was always the dimmi status, which is a status given to minorities. For example, they had to pay a certain tax, had to wear certain clothing. Sometimes, they weren't allowed to build houses higher than their neighbor, because they weren't allowed to be above their neighbor. They couldn't ride a horse, for example, Jews. I mean, small little rules, that you were never quite accorded full status. But then when the Brits arrived in 1917, things became a bit easier.

MANYA: But 20-some years later, life for Jews took a turn for the worse. That sudden and dramatic turning point in 1941 was called The Farhud.

ZVI BEN-DOR BENITE: Jews have been living in Iraq for thousands of years. If we start with the Farhud, we are starting in the middle of the story, in fact, in the middle of the end.”

MANYA: That’s Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, a professor of history and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. The son of Iraqi Jewish parents who migrated to Israel in the early 1950s, he carries in his imagination maps of old Jewish neighborhoods in Mosul and Baghdad, etched by his parents’ stories of life in the old country. He shares Carol’s longing to walk those same streets one day. 

ZVI: Iraqis, even those who were born in Israel, still self-identify as Iraqis and still consider that home to a certain extent – an imaginary home, but home. And you can say the same thing, and even more so, for people who were born there and lived there at the time. So here’s the thing: if I go there, I would be considering myself a returnee. But it would be my first time.

MANYA: As a Jew, Zvi knows the chances of his returning are slim. To this day, Iraq remains the only Arab country that has never signed a ceasefire with Israel since Arab nations declared war on the Jewish state upon its creation in 1948. Jews are not safe there. Really, no one has been for a while. The dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, ISIS, and general civil unrest have made modern-day Iraq dangerous for decades. The region is simply unstable.

The centuries leading up to the Farhud in 1941 were no different. The territory originally known as Mesopotamia flipped from empire to empire, including Babylonian, Mongol, Safavids, Ottoman, British. Just to name a few. But during those centuries, Iraq was historically diverse – home to Muslims, Jews, Assyrian Christians. Yes, Jews were a minority and faced some limitations. But that didn’t change the fact that they loved the place they called home. 

ZVI: We zoom in on the Farhud because it is a relatively unique event. Jews in Iraq were highly integrated, certainly those who lived in the big cities and certainly those who lived in Baghdad. Few reasons to talk about this integration. First of all, they spoke Arabic. Second of all, they participated in the Iraqi transition to modernity. In many ways, the Jewish community even spearheaded Iraqi society’s transition into modernity.

Of course, you know, being a minority, it means that not everything is rosy, and I'm not in any way trying to make it as a rosy situation. But if you compare it to the experiences of European Jews, certainly Europeans in the Pale of Settlement or in Eastern Europe, it's a much lovelier situation. Many Jews participate in Iraqi politics in different ways. Many Jews joined the Communist Party, in fact, lead the Communist Party to a certain extent. Others join different parties that highly identify in terms of Iraqi nationalism.

MANYA: Very few Iraqi Jews identified with the modern Zionist movement, a Jewish nationalist movement to establish a state on the ancestral homeland of the Jews, then known as Palestine. Still, Iraqi Jews were not immune from Arab hostility toward the notion of Jewish self-determination. Adding to that tension: the Nazi propaganda that poured out of the German embassy in Baghdad. 

CAROL: Mein Kampf was translated into Arabic and published in all the newspapers there. There were broadcasts coming from Radio Berlin, in Arabic, politicizing Islam and generally manipulating certain texts from the Quran, to show that Jews were the enemies of Islam. So, there was this constant drip, drip of antisemitism.

ZVI: Another factor is, of course, the British. There is an anti-British government in Baghdad at the time, during the period of someone who went down in history as a Nazi collaborator, Rashid Ali. And Rashid Ali's been removed just before the British retake Iraq. We should remember that basically, even though Iraq is a kind of constitutional monarchy, the British run the show behind the scenes for a very, very long time. So, there is a little bit of a hiatus over several months with Rashid Ali, and then when he is removed, you know, people blame the Jews for that.

MANYA: On the afternoon of June 1, 1941, Jews in Baghdad prepared to celebrate the traditional Jewish harvest festival of Shavuot. Violent mobs descended on the celebrants.

CAROL: In those two days the mobs ran riot and took it all out on the Jews. We don't, to this day, we don't know how many Jews died. Conservative estimates say about 120. We think it was in the thousands. Certainly, a lot of businesses were trashed, houses were burnt, women raped, mutilated, babies killed. It was an awful time. And that was a kind of time when the Jews of Iraq had started to think, ‘Well, maybe this isn't our homeland after all.’

MANYA: The mobs were a fraction of the Iraqi population. Many Muslim residents protected their Jewish neighbors. 

CAROL: One of my relations said that during the Farhud, the pogrom, that her neighbors stood guard over their house, Muslim neighbors, and told the mobs that they wouldn't let them in that these people are our family, our friends. They wouldn't let them in. They looked after each other, they protected each other.

MANYA: But the climate in Iraq was no longer one in which Jews could thrive. Now they just hoped to survive. In the mid-to-late 40s, Carol’s father, who worked for the British army during World War II, left for the United Kingdom and, as the eldest son, began to bring his family out one by one. Then came 1948. Israel declared independence and five Arab nations declared war. 

ZVI: So, Iraq sent soldiers to fight as part of the Arab effort in Palestine, and they began to come back in coffins. I mean, there's a sense of defeat.

Three deserters, three Iraqi soldiers that deserted the war, and crossed the desert back to Iraq, and they landed up in Mosul on the Eve of Passover in 1949. And they knocked on the door of one of my uncles. And they said, they were hosted by this Jewish family. And they were telling the Jews, who were their hosts that evening, about the war in Palestine, and about what was going on and so on. This is just an isolated case, but the point is that you know, it raises the tension in the population, and it raises the tensions against Jews tenfold.

But there's no massive movement of Iraqi Jews, even though the conditions are worsening. In other words, it becomes uneasy for someone to walk in the street as a Jew. There is a certain sense of fear that is going on. And then comes the legal action.

MANYA: That legal action, transacted with the state of Israel and facilitated by Zionist operatives, set the most significant exodus in motion. In 1950, the Iraqi government gave its Jewish citizens a choice. Renounce their Iraqi citizenship, take only what fits in a suitcase, and board a flight to Israel, or stay and face an uncertain future. The offer expired in a year, meaning those who stayed would no longer be allowed to leave.

ZVI: If you're a Jew in Iraq in 1950, you are plunged into a very, very cruel dilemma. First of all, you don't know what the future holds. You do know that the present, after 1948, suggests worsening conditions.

There is a sense that, you know, all the Jews are sort of a fifth column. All of them are associated with Zionism, even though you know, the Zionist movement is actually very small. There are certain persecutions of Zionists and communists who are Jews as well. And, you know, there have been mass arrests of them, you know, particularly of the young, younger Jewish population, so you don't know. And then the state comes in and says, ‘Look, you get one year to stay or to leave. If you leave, you leave. If you stay, you're gonna get stuck here.’ Now, just think about presenting someone with that dilemma after 1935 and the Nuremberg Laws, after what happened in Europe.

MANYA: In all, 120,000 Iraqi Jews leave for Israel over nine months – 90% of Iraqi Jewry. For the ten percent who stayed, they became a weak and endangered minority. Many Iraqis, including the family on Carol’s mother’s side, eventually escaped to America and England. 

CAROL: My mother and my father were separated by a generation. My father was much older, 23 years older than my mother. So, he had a different view of life in Baghdad. When he was around, it was generally very peaceful. The Jews were allowed to live quite, in peace with their neighbors. But with my mother's generation and younger, it was already the beginning – the rot had started to set in. So, she had a different view entirely.

CAROL: My grandmother, maternal grandmother, was the last one to come out of our family, to come out of Iraq. She left in ‘63. And my dad managed to get her out.

MANYA: After Israel defeated another Arab onslaught in 1967, thousands more fled.

ZVI: This was a glorious community, a large community, which was part of the fabric of society for centuries, if not millennia. And then, in one dramatic day, in a very, very short period, it just basically evaporated. And what was left is maybe 10 percent, which may be elite, that decided to risk everything by staying. But even they, at the end, had to leave. 

MANYA: Remember, Carol said she was one of 30 Jewish girls at her school, but the only Mizrahi Jew. The term Mizrahi, which means “Eastern” in Hebrew, refers to the diaspora of descendants of Jewish communities from Middle Eastern countries such as: Iraq, Iran, and Yemen, and North African countries such as: Egypt, Libya, and Morocco.

CAROL: It's been interesting. A lot of people didn't even know that there were Jews living in Arab lands. I mean, for all my life, I've been told, ‘Oh, you're Jewish, you speak Yiddish, you come from Poland. You eat smoked salmon and bagels. You say ‘oy vey,’ which is great if you do all those things and you do come from Eastern Europe, but I don't. Almost 1 million Jews of Arab lands, nobody knows about what happened to them, that they were ethnically cleansed, removed from their homes, and dispersed across the world.

It's our truth. And it's our history and make of it what you will, just add it to other family histories that we know.

MANYA: Carol has discovered that even Iraqis did not know of their country’s rich Jewish past, nor the fate of its Jewish citizens. Since the animated version of The Wolf of Baghdad premiered at the Israeli and Iraqi embassies in London, accompanied by Carol’s accordion and other musicians playing its Judeo-Arabic soundtrack, Iraqis in the audience have been moved to tears. 

CAROL: At one Q&A, after we did a performance, one Iraqi gentleman stood up at the front. He was crying. He said, ‘I'm really sorry for what we did to you. I'm so sorry.’ And that was immensely moving for me. It was like, well, you know what? We're talking now. It's wonderful. We can sit down together. We can talk in a shared language. We can talk about our shared culture, and we've got more that ties us together than separates us. We've got more in common, right? So, I'm always looking for that, that kind of positive, and so far it's come back to me, multiplied by a million, which has been brilliant.

The truth is coming to light, that people know that the Jews of Iraq contributed so much, not just culturally but also socially, in the government too. So, it's this reaching out from Iraq to its lost Jews saying ‘Well where are you? What happened to you? Tell us your story. We want to see where you are. Come back even,’ some of them are saying.

MANYA: Carol has continued to give a voice to the Jewish refugees of Iraq. Most recently, she has been adapting The Wolf of Baghdad for younger, middle school-aged readers to better understand the story. And high schools in London and Canada have added The Wolf of Baghdad to their history curriculum. 

CAROL: Leaving Iraq was called the silent exodus for a reason. We just left quietly and without fuss, and just went and made our lives elsewhere. I do know that life was difficult for them wherever they went, but they just got on with it, like refugees will do everywhere.

MANYA: These Jews are just one of the many Jewish communities who, in the last century left Arab countries to forge new lives for themselves and future generations. Join us next week as we share another untold story of The Forgotten Exodus.

Many thanks to Carol Isaacs for sharing her family's story and to her band 3yin for the music. Throughout this episode, you have been listening to pieces of the soundtrack from The Wolf of Baghdad motion comic performed by 3yin, a groundbreaking London based band that plays Jewish melodies from the Middle East and North Africa. The soundtrack is available at thesurrealmccoy.com.