Jewish refugees from Arab lands slowly gain recognition

Jewish refugees from Arab lands slowly gain recognition

Documentary captures Skype conversations between an Iraqi Jew researching her father’s fate and the young reporter in Baghdad who tries to help her

Linda Menuhin is looking for closure in 'Shadow in Baghdad' (photo credit: courtesy)
Linda Menuhin is looking for closure in 'Shadow in Baghdad' (photo credit: courtesy)

NEW YORK — At the United Nations headquarters in New York City this November, Linda Abdul Aziz Menuhin was getting agitated. A Jew of Iraqi descent, she had come to tell her story at the Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries conference. However, after an emotional heartfelt speech from Lucette Lagnado, about her upbringing in Egypt and her father’s attempts to keep their family in the country, Menuhin couldn’t find the strength to read the words she had prepared.

“When Lucette was speaking about her father, I could hear my father,” she said to those in attendance. “My father was so fond of Iraq. I don’t know if he ever imagined that it would betray him the way it did.”

Menuhin is one of many Jews who grew up in an Arab country, who were then eventually uprooted and forced to leave their homes. Her story is one that is shared by approximately 850,000 Jews who lost their personal belongings, family members, and land.

Recently, the issue of Jewish refugees has gained steam around the world. Amid this rising interest, Menuhin has become the subject of a new documentary, “Shadow in Baghdad.”

Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Duki Dror, the film attempts to shed light on Menuhin’s years in Iraq and the circumstances surrounding her father’s disappearance.

Linda Menuhin speaks via Skype with an anonymous Iraqi journalist in 'Shadow Over Baghdad' (photo credit: courtesy)
Linda Menuhin speaks via Skype with an anonymous Iraqi journalist in ‘Shadow in Baghdad’ (photo credit: courtesy)

After the Six-Day War in 1967, Iraqi Jews became defenseless targets. Three years later, Menuhin would flee the country, but her father, Jacob Abdul Aziz, stayed. He loved Iraq and the thought of having to sneak out was one he would not entertain.

Sadly, on the eve of Yom Kippur in 1972 he failed to show up to synagogue and was never heard from again. His abduction is the emotional center of the film, as Menuhin attempts to retrace her father’s steps, and hopefully provide closure to her story.

“I was trying at the beginning to [make a film] by myself, but I thought that was really a heavy duty undertaking,” Menuhin told The Times of Israel. “Because it was very emotional, I understood that I wouldn’t be able to make it.”

“Shadow in Baghdad” isn’t the only film where Menuhin has spoken about her father’s abduction. Back in 2004 she was interviewed for the documentary “The Forgotten Refugees,” in which she recounted her years in Baghdad publicly for the first time. Prior to that, she had found it too painful to discuss these issues. Though it had been decades since she had left the country, the memories were still too raw.

“Some of the people I knew preferred to avoid this scenario at all, so they just subdued the issue,” Menuhin said. “They just pretended that it never happened and they went on with their lives.”

‘The Jewish community of Iraq, it was big, it was important, it was vibrant, it was part of the Iraqi society for hundreds of years, and it vanished’

Menuhin’s experience with the first film would lead her to write and speak about the issue with greater frequency, which is how she and Dror ended up connecting. The filmmaker, an Iraqi Jew himself, found Menuhin’s story to be a sad yet fascinating account of the persecution of Arab Jews.

“She had a compelling story,” Dror said. “It was the way for me as a storyteller to connect and understand that this could be a very interesting film to make on a subject that is almost non-existent in film.”

Before 2004, the topic of Arab-based Jewish refugees hadn’t gotten the type of attention one would expect for an issue affecting so many. Dror thinks most Jewish attention, at least on the film front, had been focused on the Holocaust, a fact that made “Shadow in Baghdad” that much more difficult to put together.

“It was a struggle to finance,” he said. “Because you can think about any films that you want, but the bottom line is that you have to finance it and you have to convince people that this is an important subject.”

As for Menuhin, she believed that silence on the issue — both from refugees and those with an overall knowledge and understanding of the topic — was what lead to it not being discussed at all in the first place.

“Since there was no mention of Jews as refugees from Arab countries, nobody really talked about it,” she said. “When you don’t speak about this subject in the media, it doesn’t make room for that in the narrative.”

However, after “The Forgotten Refugees,” those who had been affected began to speak up. Soon enough, places as far off as Canada were shining a spotlight on the Jewish refugee conflict. There was even interest in the Arab world, a point that’s illustrated in “Shadow in Baghdad.”

At some point, Menuhin’s story attracted the attention of an Iraqi journalist who wanted to know more about her father’s disappearance. This development provided a compelling narrative to Dror’s film and he decided to structure the documentary around Skype conversations between Menuhin and the young anonymous reporter.

‘This was really fascinating to me seeing this dialogue between them, bridging a gap of generation’

“It was very exciting in the beginning, because you didn’t know who this guy was on the other side. You know, she left in the Seventies when she was very young, and she’s now sitting in front of this young Iraqi,” said Dror. “This was really fascinating to me seeing this dialogue between them, bridging a gap of generation, a gap of being from a different religion, and a gap of being from two countries who were in conflict.”

Though Menuhin’s story was compelling on its own, bringing in an Iraqi journalist gave the film an angle Dror hadn’t thought was possible: a perspective from someone who currently lives in Iraq. After all, it was far too dangerous for Dror and Menuhin to travel there themselves, which forced them to cobble together what little information they had from remaining documents and archives.

“If there is a document telling what happened to her father somewhere, it could have been among 10 million documents that are now at the Hoover Institute at Stanford, which I visited,” Dror said. “We had a few people doing the research, but it was like finding a needle in the haystack.”

Through the unnamed Iraqi journalist, Dror and Menuhin were able to get a better viewpoint on Baghdad and the neighborhood where she had grown up. Overall, it helped bring the film full circle, giving Menuhin’s Iraqi upbringing a connection to someone who currently lives in the country.

“Shadow in Baghdad” has already been released in Israel and is currently set for a U.S. release in March 2014. According to Dror, there has also been interest in showing the film in the Arab world, perhaps even in Baghdad.

While that would be a tremendous accomplishment, the fact that the movie was financed, shot, and released to begin with represents another step forward for Jewish refugees of Arab descent.

“The Jewish community of Iraq, it was big, it was important, it was vibrant, it was part of the Iraqi society for hundreds of years, and it vanished. And I want people to know this,” he said. “You cannot erase 2,000 years in one day.”

For Menuhin, “Shadow in Baghdad” represents something a bit more personal: closure.

“In a way the process provided some kind of a closure because it brought positive memories rather than thinking about the negative and traumatic events I witnessed during my life there,” she said.

“I have come to see my suffering as part of a major evolution that Iraq underwent through the Ba’ath regime, which did not only impact Jews but Iraqis across the board. It made me realize that there are still normal people in Iraq who can identify with my loss and acknowledge the injustice done to Jews.”

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