Anti-Semitism as state doctrine?

A law has been passed by the Iraqi parliament that criminalises any contact with Israel. In the midst of heated debates on the subject, one crucial aspect has been forgotten: the restitution of Jewish property. Birgit Svensson reports from Baghdad

By Birgit Svensson

Farida was a Jew. The famous singer lived in Baghdad in the 1930s. Men adored her, women admired her. But then came the Second World War and the Nazi propaganda agitating against the Jews. Like other Arab countries, Iraq hoped to rid itself of its despised British occupiers with the help of the Nazis.

In April 1941, a group of Arab nationalists, joined by a German diplomat, launched a military coup against the pro-British king. After Baghdad capitulated to the British on 31 May 1941, the next two days brought a pogrom against the city's Jewish inhabitants. It was dubbed "Farhud" in Arabic, meaning violent expropriation. In his novel "Farida", Naim Kattan, a well-known Jewish Arabic writer, deals with this period, the beginning of the Jewish exodus from Iraq. The year 2022 marks the 81st anniversary of the Farhud. Iraqis today no longer remember what this word means.

And yet the consequences of the event are omnipresent. Iraq has remained anti-Semitic. The latest example is a law recently passed by the parliament in Baghdad criminalising any contact with Israel or its people.

Chats with Israeli friends or relatives are likewise prohibited. Violations are punishable even by death. The law applies not only to Iraqis but also to foreign companies and individuals operating in the country. Anyone with an Israeli stamp in their passport will thus be living dangerously from now on.

Iraq is anti-Semitic

If Mithal al-Alusi ever dared to travel to Baghdad, he would be apprehended immediately and put on trial. There is a warrant for the arrest of the 69-year-old Iraqi. His crime: attempts at reconciliation with Israel, including a visit to the Knesset in his capacity as Iraqi MP. The charges are not new, and the arrest warrant is nine months old.


In September 2021, a conference was held in the Kurdish city of Erbil, attended by 300 people, with the aim of normalising relations with Israel. The government in Baghdad reacted harshly and took legal action against those who participated.

A total of six arrest warrants were issued, one of them for Mithal al-Alusi. The new anti-Israel legislation is a further consequence of these events. The conference in the Kurdish autonomous regions came at a time when the United Arab Emirates as well as Bahrain were establishing diplomatic ties with Israel. Morocco and Sudan announced they would normalise relations with Israel as well. Al-Alusi and those sharing his views believed Iraq would also open up to Israel, particularly as there are thousands of Iraqi Jews living in Israel who want nothing more than reconciliation with Baghdad. But their hopes were in vain.

Iraq has officially been at war with the State of Israel ever since the latter's establishment in 1948. Iraqi soldiers participated in three Arab military operations. Israel in turn felt threatened by Saddam Hussein's secret nuclear programme and thus launched an air raid in 1981 on the Osirak nuclear reactor west of Baghdad, destroying it completely.

Ten years later, when the Americans and their allies attacked Iraq after it occupied Kuwait, the Iraqi dictator responded by dispatching dozens of Scud missiles to bomb Haifa and Tel Aviv.

Today, Iraq justifies its opposition to Israel by citing its support for the Palestinians. Iraq’s foreign ministry emphasises the country’s "firm position and full support for the Palestinian cause" and its "categorical rejection of normalisation with Israel". It reiterates that this is the will of the Iraqi people and their independent decision. 275 of a total of 329 members of parliament voted in favour of the law that practically elevates anti-Semitism to the status of Iraqi state doctrine.       

Kurdish MPs also voted in favour

What is surprising is that the Kurdish MPs present also voted in favour of the law. The conference on reconciliation with Israel in September 2021 was after all held in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous regions. The initiator was an American organisation called "Center for Peace Communication", which is dedicated to peace and reconciliation in the Middle East and North Africa. The Kurds are considered allies of the Americans.

Former Iraqi MP Mithal al-Alusi (photo: private)
Even chatting with Israeli friends or relatives could mean the death penalty in future for people in Iraq: the Iraqi parliament passed a law to this effect on 26 May 2022. All MPs present approved the bill against "normalising" relations with Israel. Former MP Mithal al-Alusi sees Iran's growing influence as one reason for the vote against Israel. Since the influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his supporters introduced the bill into parliament and all other Shia factions influenced by Iran followed suit, it is obvious who is behind the legislation, al-Alusi speculates

Furthermore, although Iraqi Kurdistan does not maintain official diplomatic relations with Israel, it does have "friendly contacts" with the Jewish state. Israel buys Kurdish oil and is even planning a pipeline to supply both Jordan and Israel with Kurdish gas in future. It also supported the 2017 independence referendum with which Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani ended up turning many countries against his cause, including the USA. The anti-Israel law will further deepen the rift between Baghdad and Erbil, predicts Arafat Karam, an advisor to Barzani. He told the TV station Rudaw that the Kurds' votes in favour of the law did not mean that Erbil was joining the chorus against Israel. Haider al-Lami, a member of former Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition, explains the unanimous decision by citing various forces trying to pressure politicians to agree to a normalisation of relations with Israel, which led them to pass the law out of spite.

Mithal al-Alusi sees Iran’s growing influence in the country as one reason for the vote against Israel. In March, Tehran fired 12 ballistic missiles at Erbil, alleging that the city was harbouring a training camp of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, which was planning operations in Iran. As the anti-Israel bill was introduced in parliament by the influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, with his followers and all other Iranian-influenced Shia factions lining up to support it, it would seem obvious who is behind the law, Alusi speculates.

Al-Sadr's bloc gained the most seats in the parliamentary elections in October 2021 and has since been trying to form a government. It would appear that the anti-Israel law unites parties that are otherwise hopelessly at odds. Only a handful of Jews live in Iraq today. The vast majority left the country after Israel was established.

Freedom of expression at risk

Heavy criticism of the law has been voiced in the USA. A speaker for the State Department in Washington called it an attack on free speech. Iraqi constitutional lawyer Maitham Handal likewise interprets the law as a tool being used by the legislature to subordinate freedom of expression to the higher interests of the state. He told Al Hurra TV station that, constitutionally speaking, each case must be treated separately, as the Iraqi constitution in general stipulates freedom of expression. Nevertheless, he does see a danger that the law could be used to silence political opponents. 


Meanwhile, Mithal al-Alusi has pointed to yet another reason for the anti-Semitic law, one that has received little attention in the current discussion, but yet remains of great relevance. The conference in Erbil also dealt with the property Jews left behind in Iraq. Alusi is advocating for the restitution of this property. "Once two years were up, all of the Jews who left Iraq lost everything they owned there," he explains. Ever since the invasion of Iraq by American and British forces, the legal situation has been unclear. Rents from Jewish real estate have since gone to the Iranian Quds brigades, while members of Iranian-funded militias live in the homes. The Baghdad district of Karrada in particular, where Jews, Christians and Shias once lived together in harmony, is now controlled by Shia militias. Forged papers have allowed them to enter their names in the land register. Millions, if not billions, are at stake here. Recently, an Iraqi court ruled that the land on which the ministry of finance stands should be returned to its Jewish owner – a decision that triggered an avalanche. "The Erbil conference was seen as a dire threat by all those who have appropriated Jewish property," said Alusi, commenting on the court's decision. "If Jews can prove that they own real estate in Iraq, they are entitled to their property." The new law would put a stop to that.

The anti-Israel bill is currently on the desk of the Iraqi president Barham Saleh. Only with his signature can it go into effect. Saleh is a Kurd.

Birgit Svensson

© 2022

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor


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