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ISRAEL: New monument pays tribute to old hurt of Iraqi Jews

April 11, 2010 |  4:45 pm

Iraqi israelWhen talking about life in the old country, Israel's Iraqi-born Jews acknowledge two eras: before the Farhoud, and after. In June 1941, during the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, nearly 200 of Baghdad's Jews were slain in a killing rampage that went on for several days. Things were never the same after the pogrom that marked the beginning of the end of the Jewish community that had lived in Iraq since antiquity. Most of Iraq's Jews -- about 150,000 -- left for Israel within a few years of the massacre.

Around 6,000 remained of the community that had lived in Iraq for more than 2,000 years.

In 1969, dwindled Iraqi Jewry suffered another shock, when nine men from Baghdad and Basra were rounded up and accused of spying for Israel. The trial concluded quickly and their inevitable execution was a public event that crowds were encouraged to witness and cheer. The Baghdad hangings followed closely on the heels of the Baath coup of 1968; Saddam Hussein was President Ahmed Hassan Bakr's right-hand man.

That day, the Israeli parliament stood silently in their memory. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol said that they had approached heads of state, religious authorities and even the United Nations secretary-general to intervene with the Iraqi rulers to reverse the sentence but to no avail. The charges were false, the trial a charade and the nine were killed just for being Jews, he said. 

In a memorial ceremony this January, Salima Gabbay, whose husband, Fouad, was among those hanged, expressed the hope that their remains could one day be brought to Israel for burial. 

Last week, a monument was dedicated to the victims of both incidents. A 16-foot bronze sculpture titled "The Prayer" by artist Yasha Shapira was placed in the town of Ramat Gan, home to a large community of Iraqi Jews. The dedication was attended by Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, minister of industry, trade and labor.

Ben-Eliezer made the treacherous journey from Iraq to Israel in his boyhood; he has old photographs of his native Basra on his office walls. He said he was moved by the ceremony and sculpture that paid tribute to the cruelest incidents the Jewish community of Iraq had suffered and stressed more than anything the need for a Jewish homeland. He thanked the mayor and artist as government minister but also as a son of the community for the "commemoration of Iraqi Jews killed only for belonging to the Jewish people."

And he drew a line from then to now too. "On the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, I say loud and clear to those threatening to destroy us.... Our state is not a miracle but proof that the Jewish nation will live on and successfully confront the challenges it faces." Holocaust Remembrance Day is being marked in Israel on Monday.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Above: Industry Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, left, sculptor Yasha Shapira and Ramat Gan Mayor Zvi Bar. Courtesy of  Ben-Eliezer's office.

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