A Personal Essay by Naomi Rabeeya
Each year on Shavuot (this year, May 25-27), we remember the Farhud in Baghdad, Iraq. The Farhud – which translates to violent dispossession – was a riot against Jewish lives, property, and businesses that took place on Shavuot in 1941, in the days following the collapse of the pro-Nazi government of Rashid Ali and ensuing victory of the British in the Anglo-Iraqi War. My Iraqi father, David (Hikmat) Rabeeya, of blessed memory, was three years old at the time.
Jews had been in Mesopotamia since about the 6th Century BCE. We were an influential part of Iraqi society, holding prominent roles in the development of music, medicine, universities, banking, newspapers, and participating in the federal government, like my grandfather Nissim, who was a Jewish liaison to the Iraqi Parliament and oversaw all the offices of mail and telegraph in his region. The Farhud marked the beginning of the end of a large Jewish presence in Iraq, a new era of Muslim-Jewish relations, where discrimination and humiliation became further compounded by direct physical threat to Jews’ survival.
The Jewish middle-class intelligentsia, who had perceived themselves as partners in creating Iraqi culture felt rejected and betrayed, and their faith in the prospect of Jewish integration into Iraqi society suffered a severe shock. Jewish leaders preferred quiet, personal, indirect diplomacy to over political activism. The Jews in Parliament adopted the same policy and did not vote against the Iraqi government or publicly defend the rights of the Jewish minority.
Many youth rejected these cautious policies. The nationalists among them, attracted to the Zionist movement, envisioned a future in Palestine. The socialists, attracted to the Communist party, imagined a just and socialist order in Iraq. Young people who did not identify in either camp sought to emigrate to the West.
Many of my father’s cousins left for India, which was under British rule, eventually ending up in Australia. In 1951-1952, Operation Ezra and Nehemiah airlifted most of the Iraqi Jewish community to Israel via Cyprus, including my father and his immediate family. They left their possessions behind and rescinded their Iraqi citizenship.
At this time of Shavuot, remembering the Farhud, and having passed one year since my father’s death, I not only mourn my father, but also the culture of Iraqi Jews. It feels like most people are unaware of Arab-Jewish culture, and any knowledge is relegated to the worlds of academia and art. I feel left out, and, at the same time, I grapple with feeling like an imposter when trying to speak about my Sephardic experience. How can I know a culture, let alone represent it, if I do not have the opportunity to live it and breathe it?
Over the past year, I met and spoke to my clergy about my feelings and was encouraged to create a group for members of Mizrachi and Sephardi background at my synagogue. It has been incredibly meaningful to share our stories, discuss food, prejudice, art, music, and history, and, at the same time, work with clergy to have a Mizrachi/Sephardi voice in the larger community. We have discussed that it may not be our job to recreate culture, but to instead define it on our terms.
During this process of personal healing and discovery, I offered my father’s beloved Sephardic Torah to my synagogue for use by the community at large. They were honored to accept it, specifically on November 30, the annual National Day of Commemoration in Israel for Jewish refugees who were displaced from Arab countries and Iran in the 20th Century. The Torah is now used not only for educational purposes, but also for when people of Mizrachi and Sephardi background have B’nei Mitzvot and other lifecycle events. I look forward to my son reading from this Torah and am proud it is now part of the larger community.
In light of the anniversary of my father’s death, which happens to be the same date as both of his parents, Nissim and Naima (of whom I am the namesake), I spoke to my clergy asking if we could use a word other than the Yiddish word, Yahrzeit. While many non-European Jews have adapted this term, I felt it was important to recognize there were other terms used by different groups of Mizrachi and Sephardi Jews including Nachla, Anyos, Meldado, Yom Hashana. I cannot express how much it meant to me, when the student rabbi used the word Nachla, when reading the names of those we remember at the anniversary of their passing.
I am grateful to my clergy, the members of Mizrachi and Sephardi Backgrounds small group, and the broader community for their support, and for listening to those of us from not solely European descent speak on our terms. This has been particularly influential to me as I continue to navigate a world without my father and discover what it means to be an Arab Jew in my world. In this context, I will teach about the Farhud at the next small group meeting, and I am active in doing my small part to expand the norms of what It means to be a Jew in the mainstream.
From this, I hope to, honor my father’s life and culture and contribute to genuine multiculturalism.