The Jews of Iraq
by: Naeim Giladi
Recieved on 2, 3, 2002


I write this article for the same reason I wrote my book: to tell the American people, and especially American Jews, that Jews from Islamic lands did not emigrate willingly to Israel; that, to force them to leave, Jews killed Jews; and that, to buy time to confiscate ever more Arab lands, Jews on numerous occasions rejected genuine peace initiatives from their Arab neighbors.

I write about what the first prime minister of Israel called “cruel Zionism.”

I write about it because I was part of it.

Of course I thought I knew it all back then. I was young, idealistic, and more than willing to put my life at risk for my convictions. It was 1947 and I wasn’t quite 18 when the Iraqi authorities caught me for smuggling young Iraqi Jews like myself out of Iraq, into Iran, and then on to the Promised Land of the soon-to-be established Israel.

I was left there, chained to the railing, for hours. But I never once considered giving them the information they wanted. I was a true believer.

My preoccupation during what I refer to as my “two years in hell” was with survival and escape. I had no interest then in the broad sweep of Jewish history in Iraq even though my family had been part of it right from the beginning. We were originally Haroons, a large and important family of the “Babylonian Diaspora.” My ancestors had settled in Iraq more than 2,600 years ago – 600 years before Christianity, and 1,200 years before Islam. I am descended from Jews who built the tomb of Yehezkel, a Jewish prophet of pre-Biblical times. My village, where I was born in 1929, is Hillah, not far from the ancient site of Babylon.

The original Jews found Babylon, with its nourishing Tigris and Euphrates rivers, to be truly a land of milk, honey, abundance—and opportunity. Although Jews, like other minorities in what became Iraq, experienced periods of oppression and discrimination depending on the rulers of the period, their general trajectory over two and one-half millennia was upward. Under the late Ottoman rule, for example, Jewish social and religious institutions, schools, and medical facilities flourished without outside interference, and Jews were prominent in government and business.

As I sat there in my cell, unaware that a death sentence soon would be handed down against me, I could not have recounted any personal grievances that my family members would have lodged against the government or the Muslim majority. Our family had been treated well and had prospered, first as farmers with some 50,000 acres devoted to rice, dates and Arab horses. Then, with the Ottomans, we bought and purified gold that was shipped to Istanbul and turned into coinage. The Turks were responsible in fact for changing our name to reflect our occupation—we became Khalaschi, meaning “Makers of Pure.”

I did not volunteer the information to my father that I had joined the Zionist underground. He found out several months before I was arrested when he saw me writing Hebrew and using words and expressions unfamiliar to him. He was even more surprised to learn that, yes, I had decided I would soon move to Israel myself. He was scornful. “You’ll come back with your tail between your legs,” he predicted. About 125,000 Jews left Iraq for Israel in the late 1940s and into 1952, most because they had been lied to and put into a panic by what I came to learn were Zionist bombs. But my mother and father were among the 6,000 who did not go to Israel. Although physically I never did return to Iraq—that bridge had been burned in any event—my heart has made the journey there many, many times. My father had it right.

I was imprisoned at the military camp of Abu-Greib, about 7 miles from Baghdad. I had been planning my escape for nearly two years and I had nothing to lose now because the military court had sentenced me to death by hanging.

It was a strange recipe for an escape: a dab of butter, an orange peel, and some army clothing that I had asked a friend to buy for me at a flea market. Over four months, I deliberately ate as much bread as I could to put on fat in anticipation of the day I became 18, when they could formally charge me with a crime and attach the 50-pound ball and chain that was standard prisoner issue. Then, after they had applied the chain to my leg, I went on a starvation diet that often left me weak-kneed. The pat of butter was to lubricate my leg in preparation for extricating it from the metal band. The orange peel I surreptitiously stuck into the lock on the night of my planned escape, having studied how it could be placed in such a way as to keep the lock from closing.

As the jailers turned to go after locking up, I put on the old army issue that was indistinguishable from what they were wearing – a long, green coat and a stocking cap that I pulled down over much of my face (it was winter). Then I just quietly opened the door and joined the departing group of soldiers as they strode down the hall and outside, and I offered a “good night” to the shift guard as I left. A friend with a car was waiting to speed me away

Later I made my way to the new State of Israel, arriving in May, 1950. At the entry point they had trouble in Hebrew with my name Khalaschi. There is no “kh” sound in Hebrew, so they came up with an Eastern European, Ashkenazi conversion, Klaski. In one way, this “mistake” was my key to discovering very soon just how the Israeli caste system worked, but I didn’t know that then. I accepted Klaski as my new surname.

They asked me where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. I was the son of a farmer, I knew all the problems of the farm, so I volunteered to go to Dafnah, a farming kibbutz in the high Galilee. I only lasted a few weeks. The new immigrants were given the worst of everything. The food was the same, but that was the only thing that everyone had in common. For the immigrants, bad cigarettes, even bad toothpaste. Everything. I left.

Then, through the Jewish Agency, I was advised to go to al-Mejdil (later renamed Ashkelon), an Arab town about 9 miles from Gaza, very close to the Mediterranean. The Israeli government planned to turn it into a farmers’ city, so my farm background would be an asset there.

When I reported to the Labor Office in al-Mejdil, they saw that I could read and write Arabic and Hebrew and they said that I could find a good-paying job with the Military Governor’s office. The Arabs in what was now Israel were under the authority of these Military Governors. A clerk handed me a bunch of forms in Arabic and Hebrew. Now it dawned on me. Before Israel could establish its farmers’ city, it had to rid al-Mejdil of its indigenous Palestinians. The forms were petitions to the United Nations Inspectors asking for transfer out of Israel to Gaza, which was under Egyptian control.

I read over the petition. In signing, the Palestinian would be saying that he was of sound mind and body and was making the request for transfer free of pressure or duress. Of course, there was no way that they would leave without being pressured to do so. These families had been there hundreds of years, as farmers, primitive artisans, weavers. The Military Governor prohibited them from pursuing their livelihoods, just penned them up until they lost hope of resuming their normal lives. That’s when they signed to leave. I was there and heard their grief. “Our hearts are in pain when we look at the orange trees that we planted with our own hands. Please let us go, let us give water to those trees. God will not be pleased with us if we leave His trees untended.” I asked the Military Governor to give them relief, but he said, “No, we want them to leave.”

I could no longer be part of this oppression and I left. Those Palestinians who didn’t sign up for transfers were taken by force—just put in trucks and dumped in Gaza. About four thousand people were driven from al-Mejdil in one way or another. The few who remained were collaborators with the Israeli authorities.

Subsequently I wrote letters trying to get a government job elsewhere and I got many immediate responses asking me to come for an interview. Then they would discover that my face didn’t match my Polish/Ashkenazi name. They would ask if I spoke Yiddish or Polish, and when I said I didn’t, they would ask where I came by a Polish name. Desperate for a good job, I would usually say that I thought my great-grandfather was from Poland. I was advised time and again that “we’ll give you a call.”

Eventually, three to four years after coming to Israel, I changed my name to Giladi, which is close to the code name, Gilad, that I had in the Zionist underground. Klaski wasn’t doing me any good anyway, and my Eastern friends were always chiding me about the name they knew didn’t go with my origins as an Iraqi Jew.

I was disillusioned at what I found in the Promised Land, disillusioned personally, disillusioned at the institutionalized racism, disillusioned at what I was beginning to learn about Zionism’s cruelties. The principal interest Israel had in Jews from Islamic countries was as a supply of cheap labor, especially for the farm work that was beneath the urbanized Eastern European Jews. Ben Gurion needed the “Oriental” Jews to farm the thousands of acres of land left by Palestinians who were driven out by Israeli forces in 1948.

And I began to find out about the barbaric methods used to rid the fledgling state of as many Palestinians as possible. The world recoils today at the thought of bacteriological warfare, but Israel was probably the first to actually use it in the Middle East. In the 1948 war, Jewish forces would empty Arab villages of their populations, often by threats, sometimes by just gunning down a half-dozen unarmed Arabs as examples to the rest. To make sure the Arabs couldn’t return to make a fresh life for themselves in these villages, the Israelis put typhus and dysentery bacteria into the water wells.

Uri Mileshtin, an official historian for the Israeli Defense Force, has written and spoken about the use of bacteriological agents. According to Mileshtin, Gen. Moshe Dayan, former Israeli Defense Minister, gave orders in 1948 to remove Arabs from their villages, bulldoze their homes, and render water wells unusable with typhus and dysentery bacteria.

I heard a corroborating account myself from a technician with Mekorot, the Israeli Water Authority, who was testing a well near a construction site where I was working. I asked him what he was doing. Assuming I had fought in 1948, he said, “Don’t you remember? We used bacteria in many places. Every village we occupied we put bacteria in the wells. Now we keep testing them to keep track of when it is safe to use them again.”

Bacteriological agents were used elsewhere in 1948. Acre was so situated that it could practically defend itself with one big gun, so the Haganah put bacteria into the spring that fed the town. The spring was called Capri and it ran from the north near a kibbutz. The Haganah put typhus bacteria into the water going to Acre, the people got sick, and the Jewish forces occupied Acre. This worked so well that they sent a Haganah division dressed as Arabs into Gaza, where there were Egyptian forces, and the Egyptians caught them putting two cans of bacteria, typhus and dysentery, into the water supply in wanton disregard of the civilian population. “In war, there is no sentiment,” one of the captured Haganah men was quoted as saying.

My activism in Israel began shortly after I received a letter from the Socialist/Zionist Party asking me to help with their Arabic newspaper. When I showed up at their offices at Central House in Tel Aviv, I asked around to see just where I should report. I showed the letter to a couple of people there and, without even looking at it, they would motion me away with the words, “Room No. 8.” When I saw that they weren’t even reading the letter, I inquired of several others. But the response was the same, “Room No. 8,” with not a glance at the paper I put in front of them.

So I went to Room 8 and saw that it was the Department of Jews from Islamic Countries. I was disgusted and angry. Either I am a member of the party or I’m not. Do I have a different ideology or different politics because I am an Arab Jew? It’s segregation, I thought, just like a Negroes’ Department. I turned around and walked out. That was the start of my open protests. That same year I organized a demonstration in Ashkolon against Ben Gurion’s racist policies and 10,000 people turned out.

There wasn’t much opportunity for those of us who were second class citizens to do much about it when Israel was on a war footing with outside enemies. After the 1967 war, I was in the Army myself and served in the Sinai when there was continued fighting along the Suez Canal. But the cease-fire with Egypt in 1970 gave us our opening. We took to the streets and organized politically to demand equal rights. If it’s our country, if we were expected to risk our lives in a border war, then we expected equal treatment.

We mounted the struggle so tenaciously and received so much publicity that the Israeli government tried to discredit our movement by calling us “Israel’s Black Panthers.” They were thinking in racist terms, really, in assuming the Israeli public would reject an organization whose ideology was being compared to that of radical Blacks in the United States. But we saw that what we were doing was no different than what Blacks in the United States were fighting against – segregation, discrimination, unequal treatment. Rather than reject the label, we adopted it proudly. I had posters of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandella and other civil rights activists plastered all over my office.

With the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the Israeli-condoned Sabra and Shatilla massacres, I had had enough of Israel. I became a United States citizen and made certain to revoke my Israeli citizenship. I could never have written and published my book in Israel, not with the censorship they would impose. Even in America, I had great difficulty finding a publisher because many are subject to pressures of one kind or another from Israel and its friends. I ended up paying $60,000 from my own pocket to publish Ben Gurion’s Scandals: How the Haganah & the Mossad Eliminated Jews, virtually the entire proceeds from having sold my house in Israel. I was still afraid that the printer would back out and I told him not to wait for the translation from [original language] to English to be thoroughly checked and proofread.

I have several boxes of valuable documents that back up what I have written and books I hope to write. These documents, including some that I illegally copied from the archives at Yad Vashem, confirm what I saw myself, what I was told by other witnesses, and what reputable historians and others have written concerning the Zionist bombings in Iraq, Arab peace overtures that were rebuffed, and incidents of violence and death inflicted by Jews on Jews in the cause of creating Israel.