London – Relatives of Iraqi Jews executed as spies in Baghdad in 1969 gathered with members of the United Kingdom’s Jewish community in a London synagogue this week for a tearful memorial marking the 50 year anniversary of the public hangings.
The service took place on February 19th at the Bevis Marks Synagogue, reported Jewish News (https://bit.ly/2XgW9kU), honoring the memories of those were executed as well as other Jewish men and women who simply disappeared, never to be seen again.
According to Haaretz (http://bit.ly/2XfZmRN), the sting of defeat felt by Arab countries in the aftermath of the Six Day War, coupled with the rise of the Ba’ath party in Iraq created a hostile environment for the country’s already dwindling Jewish population.
An air attack launched by Israel in December 1968 in retaliation for shelling in the Galilee had officials in Baghdad mobilizing, hunting down what it claimed was a ring of American-Israeli spies. Twelve Jewish men from Baghdad and Basra were arrested by police, with nine of those among 15 who were hung in Baghdad’s Liberation Square on January 27th, 1969 as spies. The remaining three were put to death seven months later.
Several candles were lit by relatives of the Baghdad Hangings, with Faiza Saigh, Samira Elias, and Nouri Dallal all honoring the memories of their brothers, 21 year old Daoud Ghalil Yagdar, 20 year old Heskel Saleh Heskel and 20 year old Daoud Heskel Baruch Dallal, all of whom who were executed on that day.
Community president Sabah Zubaidah lit a candle in memory of another hanging victim, 60 year old Ezra Naji Sion Heqel Zilka, as well as his own father, Daoud Sassoon Zubeida.
It was “a terrifying time in which Jews were the easiest target,” said Zubaida.
Additional candles were lit by prominent individuals including Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Levy who led demonstrations against the hangings outside London’s Iraqi embassy in 1969, Bishop Graham King on behalf of the Church of England and Israeli ambassador Mark Regev, who noted that Iraqi anti-Semitism is alive and well today and flourishing on social media.
In an emotional speech in what is believed to be the only synagogue in Europe that has been operating continuously for over 300 years, Rabbi Joseph Dweck, senior rabbi of the United Kingdom’s Spanish and Portuguese Sephardic community, described Iraq as the foundation of Jewish scholarship for centuries and a place where Jews had prospered for generations. Addressing the pain and fear that still haunts relatives even half a century later, Rabbi Dweck urged listeners to “stand taller, not slouch; be stronger, not sad. Lift up your hearts.”
Speaking out publicly for the first time last month, the 70 year old Saigh told Jewish News (http://bit.ly/2SgVJr2) about the death of her brother, explaining how he and several others were taken in by police in Basra for what they were told would be simple questioning. Saigh’s mother spent the next two months in Baghdad, searching her son, but it was her father who first heard the news while listening to Iraqi radio, hearing his son on trial and confessing that he had been spying for Israel. A judge ordering the executions which took place before 5 AM the next morning.
“We heard they tortured them,” said Saigh, adding, “we heard they were taking their nails off. They made them confess.”
Hearing of the hangings shortly after they happened, Saigh’s mother went to Liberation Square.
“There were thousands of people,” said Saigh. “She went and she saw the bodies, the people dancing underneath. She never told us.”
The hangings and their accompanying specter of fear were the final death knell for Iraq’s Jewish community. Saigh, like many other relatives of the executed men, eventually made her way to England.
“Now 50 years later, I’m still scared,” said Saigh. “I was scared to do this interview, scared to think who might read it. But I decided to do it with the encouragement of my son. I have to say what happened.”