Linda Abdul Aziz Menuhin hopes her story can shed light on how Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa suffered in the 20th century.
That story is the subject of a documentary, Shadow in Baghdad,
which screens at Congregation Mikveh Israel on Nov. 26 at 7 p.m. In the film, Menuhin connects with an Iraqi journalist, and the two attempt to discover what happened to her father, who disappeared decades before in Iraq.
A question-and-answer session with Menuhin will follow the screening.
“This is a story of empowerment. … If you assume responsibility of your future, you can change it,” said Menuhin, a journalist who lives in Israel. “This is my message.”
The Consulate General of Israel in New York, in cooperation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, organized the screening. It is the first of several happening around Nov. 30, Israel’s day to mark the departure and expulsion of Jews from Arab countries and Iran.
“It is essential that we raise awareness that the war of 1948 created refugees not only on the Palestinian side,” said Galit Peleg, consul for public diplomacy, who will also give opening remarks. “Following the establishment of the Jewish state, over half a million Jews were forced to flee their homes in Arab countries, leaving behind all their property.”
Menuhin is one of them. She and her brother fled Iraq in the early 1970s when she was 20 years old.
Life for Iraqi Jews became increasingly difficult after the Ba’ath Party took over in a 1968 coup d’etat. They put restrictions on Jews’ movement and on how much money they could withdraw. Jewish people couldn’t join social clubs, have large gatherings or attend universities.
They fasted every Monday and Thursday, praying for an end to the persecution.
“They tried to suffocate us,” Menuhin said. “There was a lot of incitement on the radio and the television, so the public started to rise against Jews. Jews felt very threatened. Now … they started to come to Jews’ houses and ask questions, [to] the father or the son, and they will take him to investigation, and then these people never came back home.”
Her father was a lawyer, she said, and totally opposed to breaking the law, so she didn’t tell him about her plans to flee. She said goodbye to him as she and her brother headed out. Their father didn’t approve. He believed Iraq would eventually provide them with passports, and they should wait until then.
It was a frightening journey to Israel, Menuhin said. With the help of Kurds, they disguised themselves as Arabs and got to Iran. From there, they made their way to Israel.
Her mother and younger sister joined them eight months later, but her father stayed behind.
Later, they began to hear rumors that her father hadn’t shown up to synagogue on Yom Kippur eve. A community leader reached out to the Iraqi government, who said he must have run away, but that seemed unusual given his insistence on waiting for a passport.
Menuhin put it out of her mind.
“When you don’t really have any clue, we just went on with our lives. … I hoped he might be hiding somewhere,” she said. “We were in a new country and had a lot of challenges and we went on with our life.”
That changed in 2003 with the American invasion of Iraq. Suddenly, Iraq was on television and in her home every day.
“This really pressed me to think about my past and my father,” she said.
Menuhin decided to find out what had happened. She went to the American Embassy, but that led nowhere.
She took it as a personal mission and began to investigate her father’s fate. She wanted to make a documentary, which led her to connecting with Duki Dror, an independent filmmaker who focuses on issues of identity.
Eventually, the Iraqi journalist reached out to her, and the two delved into her past. He helped her find closure.
“I wasn’t really ready to believe that, because [my father] was a Jew he was killed,” Menuhin said.
Since the film’s release in 2013, Menuhin has traveled for screenings. She had been particularly surprised by the Iraqi Muslims who have come to the screenings in Europe and shared their own stories with her. They felt her story — though she was Jewish and a woman — was an Iraqi story, too.
She noted Iraqis are starting to acknowledge the role Jewish communities played in building the country. Iraqis and Iraqi Jews are starting to connect through social media. She feels optimistic about the future of this relationship.
“Now, it has become an issue of identity,” she said. “Now, Iraq needs all the multicultural factions that used to live in Iraq and live peacefully with each other. The Jewish question helps them understand their identity crisis.”