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The Adas Affair

The life and death of the richest Jew in Iraq

Adi Schwartz
December 09, 2022
Courtesy Sabah Adas
The Adas family, circa 1942Courtesy Sabah Adas
Courtesy Sabah Adas
The Adas family, circa 1942Courtesy Sabah Adas

“The day will come, and the Iraqi people will acquit Adas, just as the French acquitted Dreyfus.”

— Muhammed Zaki al-Hatib, a Muslim Iraqi lawyer, 1948

A woman makes a frantic journey from the southern city of Basra to the Royal Palace in Baghdad. Her name is Aliza (Alice) Adas. She is Shafiq Adas’s wife and will soon be his widow. Waiting for her inside the palace is the Hashemite prince Emir ‘Abd al-Ilah, the head of the Iraqi Royal Family. She genuflects before him, falling to the ground and kissing his feet. Little does she know in this moment that hanging in the balance is not only her husband’s life, but also the fate of the whole Jewish community.

It was September 1948. Together with her husband Shafiq, 40-year-old Aliza had brought into the world three sons (Zaki, Victor, and Sabah) and three daughters (Dolly, Vicky, and Stella). In this couple, Aliza was the local one, the daughter of a wealthy family engaged in the tea and sugar trades. Shafiq was born in Aleppo, Syria, and had followed his eldest brother Avraham to Iraq to try his luck in business after the First World War, in which Iraq was conquered by the empire on which the sun had not yet set. Iraq was a whole new world for them, a place of boundless business opportunities. Aliza had a broad face and sharp features, and her posture hinted at her hands-on disposition. Despite having been born and raised in Baghdad and speaking flawless Arabic, she was entirely illiterate in the language. Nevertheless, she had a masterful grasp of English and French, as expected among the Jewish elite in Iraq in that era.

The Emir, for his part, was much weaker than he appeared. Perhaps the most eccentric figure in the Iraqi Royal Family, ‘Abd al-Ilah knew that the opportunities facing him were extremely limited. Ever since his brother-in-law, King Ghazi, had been killed in a gruesome car accident at the entrance of the Royal Palace in Bagdad nine years earlier—a telegraph pole had fallen on his race car and sliced his head in two—the Emir had served as the formal head of the Iraqi state, since the legal heir, Ghazi’s son Faisal, was only four years old. As Queen Aliya’s brother, living with her in the palace, ‘Abd al-Ilah also became the interim head of the royal household, with the title of regent.

This regent had never managed to endear himself to the Iraqi people, most of whom saw him as a pro-British collaborator. He was a gazelle-like figure, wrote a British diplomat, with large eyes, a prominent forehead, and an oval face. His choice to fill his guestroom with photographs of the British Royal Family, and the fact that his main hobby was horseback riding, added nothing to his popularity. He once questioned how Arab he truly was at all. The rumors about his suspected homosexual tendencies did little to help him, either.

Emir ’Abd al-Ilah, during World War II
Emir ’Abd al-Ilah, during World War IICecil Beaton/Wikipedia

‘Abd al-Ilah had already been deposed once in a military coup. It had happened in 1941, during the Second World War, when a group of pro-Nazi Iraqis had seized power with the help of the military. ‘Abd al-Ilah had managed to escape Baghdad by the skin of his teeth, hiding under a rug in an American diplomat’s car. The British had briefly accommodated him at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem until they could reconquer Baghdad, oust the conspirators, and restore the emir—but not before a Muslim mob carried out the biggest pogrom in the history of Iraqi Jewry: the Farhud. Then too, the Jews paid a price for Iraqi political upheavals. For the emir to come out against army and Iraqi public opinion now, and in favor of the Jews, would have been suicidal.

Meanwhile, a violent storm was raging around the Royal Palace. The Iraqi street and much of the press were demanding Shafiq Adas’s head, after his conviction in a military tribunal on charges of treason and aiding the “Zionist enemy.” Nearly everyone who had followed the lightning trial, which lasted three days without any time given to the defense to call up witnesses, knew that Adas had been tried in a kangaroo court, designed to terrorize the Jewish community. Adas stood accused of selling decommissioned ex-British military gear from the Second World War to Iraq’s sworn enemy: Israel.

‘Abd al-Ilah knew Adas, who used to host him at his home when he visited Basra. The entire who’s who of the young Iraqi state—a product of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, British interests, and Hashemite family ambitions—knew exactly who he was. Adas was also close to the most important politician in the Kingdom of Iraq, Nuri al-Said, and had even called his son Sabah, like Said’s own son. Ministers, businesspeople, senior officials, and members of parliament had all met Adas, who had made a fortune in business and was now one of the richest men in Iraq. Some of them even had commercial ties with him, yet nevertheless, when he was put on trial for allegedly selling military equipment to Israel during the war that the Arab states had launched against it a few months earlier, none of his Muslim partners were named co-defendants. Somehow Adas, the Jew, was the only man in the dock.

After the verdict was delivered at the military courthouse in Basra, it was sent to Baghdad for the emir’s signature. Countless people pled for Adas’s life in the days before the Emir’s decision, including a delegation of rabbis, the U.S. ambassador, Muslim acquaintances of Adas, and former politicians. There was also the Emir’s meeting with Aliza, although what exactly was said there, we will never know. But before the Iraqi regent signed Adas’s death sentence, he convened his advisors for a consultation. Islam forbids the spilling of innocent blood, he told his counselors. Iraq was at war with the Jews of Palestine, but not the Jews of Iraq. His advisors replied: it’s either Adas’s head—or yours.

The trial stunned the Jews of Iraq. What unfolded before their eyes was a tragedy that they had never believed could happen: their country was about to execute an innocent man, one of its leading citizens, simply for being a Jew. Few Jews had taken an interest in Adas’s career until then, but his widely reported trial and cruel death sentence made him an icon of the entire Jewish community. He had done most of his business with Iraqi Muslims, but the moment the scandal was underway, it was clear to all Jews in Iraq that Adas’s fate would affect their own. From now on, their lives would forever be divided into two distinct chapters: the time before Adas’s trial, and the time afterwards.

Some members of the Jewish community hoped until the last minute that the Iraqi state was motivated by greed and Adas’s life could be saved for a ransom. His wife Aliza offered to redeem his life for no less than 8 million Iraqi dinars, an astronomical sum at the time, equivalent to some $300 million in today’s terms. But as the days went by and the lynch-like atmosphere in the streets intensified, hope gave way to despair. If a man as wealthy and well-connected as Adas could, in just a few weeks, go from being an all-powerful tycoon and familiar face in Baghdad’s hallways of power to a prisoner on death row, whom everyone avoided like the plague, beyond the help of even the royal court, then the fate of every other Jew in Iraq had also been sealed. If Adas’s power and money were no use against the waves of anti-Jewish sentiment sweeping Iraq, then no Jew remained safe. If Shafiq Adas was being led to the gallows, the whole Jewish community’s fate had clearly been determined.

The Iraqi-born writer Yitzhak Bar-Moshe compared the mood in the Jewish community to an earthquake. “When it was announced that the crown prince had authorized the verdict,” he wrote, “the Jews exchanged astonished and bewildered glances; they felt like they had gotten lost in the Sinai Desert for a second time.” Every day, the newspapers carried photographs of Adas being led to trial, surrounded by police officers with bayonet-mounted rifles. “The sight of this thin, tanned, short man surrounded by machine-gun-carrying security officers—he looked like a martyr.”

Adas in the courthouse
Adas in the courthouseGhetto Fighters House

Many Jews struggled to fathom how the outlandish accusations against Adas could be accepted by the court. He did not have a reputation for supporting Zionism, and in fact he had made a point of avoiding political associations. He was not considered an active member of the Jewish community and was uninvolved in its organizations and events. At one point, it was even alleged that he had donated thousands of dinars to Iraq’s military campaign against Israel. No one ever saw him in a synagogue. His son Sabah recalls that there was little that was distinctly Jewish about their home. Shafiq Adas was unaffiliated with the Jewish community, uninvolved in politics—and still, it was Adas, of all people, who was stitched up and accused of aiding the enemy in wartime.

Jewish community leaders in Baghdad debated what to do. They were the heirs not only of 2,500 years of history, the history of the oldest Jewish community in the world outside of Israel, but also of extraordinary achievements over the previous century, ever since the Ottoman Empire’s extension of equal rights to Jews in the mid-nineteenth century, at least on paper. Jews had done everything imaginable since Iraq declared independence in 1932. They had served their country with pride, tried to integrate into its society and become Iraqi patriots, professed their loyalty at every opportunity, and contributed to the young state’s economic and cultural development—and yet here they found themselves, in the eye of a perfect storm.

Some Jewish notables met secretly in Baghdad, among them Salman Shina, one of the Jewish community’s six representatives in the Iraqi parliament, and the senator and philanthropist Menachem Daniel. Both men saw themselves as unapologetic Iraqi patriots, and under the Ottomans, Daniel had sat in the administrative council of the province of Baghdad. Now, everything that they had been advocating for over the previous decades was about to collapse. “We are in genuine peril,” said Shina in the meeting. “Our enemies are chasing us and trying to ensnare us in their conspiratorial web.” In his memoirs, published a few years later after he escaped to Israel, Shina described the sense of jeopardy in the community and even wrote that the Iraqi prime minister and defense minister “planned together the extermination of Iraqi Jewry.”

Shafiq Adas’s arrest was not a one-off incident, of the sort that might somehow be excused, but part of a widescale anti-Jewish campaign waged by the Iraqi government and public. Since the start of 1948, and even before Iraq had declared war on Israel, the Jewish community had become a target of attacks and harassment. Cries of “Death to the Jews!” blared through protests in the streets. The Iraqi secret police had started persecuting Jews, and merchants were arrested for the purpose of extortion. Undercover officers prowled through streets where Jews lived, waiting for people to snitch on them. Jewish officials, both junior and senior, were fired from government ministries. Every night, increasing numbers of Jews were arrested, and community leaders appealed to anyone they could to intercede on their behalf and save them from their impending fate. Senator Daniel, approaching his eightieth birthday, was seen walking the length of the city at night, going from one Muslim politician’s house to the next, asking for help. One rumor said that Iraq’s defense minister had prepared a list of prominent Jews to be tried for all sorts of odd offenses.

Some Jews were imprisoned for the “crime” of keeping prayerbooks and other religious objects at home. Others faced tremendous difficulties trying to leave Iraq, and any mail arriving from Israel was confiscated. Even a simple letter sending kind regards could cost Baghdadi Jews three years in jail and a heavy fine. In July 1948, Zionism was officially declared a capital offense. Legally, two witnesses were sufficient to convict a Jew of Zionism. Any two Iraqis who wanted to blackmail a Jew but failed could simply go to a police station, as they did, and accuse him of being a Zionist or a communist, and the Jew in question would be sent to prison immediately. In the summer of 1948, hundreds of Jews were put on trial; most were fined, while others were sentenced to lengthy terms behind bars.

Jewish communities overseas also mobilized to Adas’s defense. The global Jewish press, from Sydney to London, covered the trial as a frontpage story and presented Adas as a kind of Iraqi Dreyfus. Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen Wise, leaders of American Jewry, sent urgent telegrams to Secretary of State George Marshall, exhorting him to use his influence to save Adas from the gallows. “I am certain that the United States Government would not wish to remain indifferent in the face of such shocking suppression of human rights,” Silver wrote to Marshall. Jewish organizations in London voiced concerns that Adas’s death sentence was a harbinger of bigger pogroms and the organized plunder of Jewish property, which they feared would be a means of assuaging Arab public opinion after Iraq’s military defeat to Israel.

It was to no avail: one night, Radio Baghdad’s newscaster announced at the end of the regular 8 o’clock show that “His Majesty the Regent, the Crown Prince of Iraq, has approved the death sentence of the criminal Shafiq Adas.”

Before sunrise on the morning of September 23, 1948, an armored police vehicle pulled into the large plaza outside the Adas residence in the upmarket Al Ashar neighborhood, near the Shatt al-Arab River. It was “a spectacularly beautiful and large house ... surrounded by an enormous garden,” described Asher Shaharabani, a local resident who often passed by the house on family trips in the 1940s. It was soon after 4 a.m. but the streets were already full of military guards and locals, many of whom knew Adas and even depended on him for their livelihood. The city was in tumult, filled everywhere with the sound of bare feet making their way to the square. Buses full of people had traveled for hours in order to catch the scene. At the head of one procession stood a young man with a dog’s corpse skewered on a wooden pike. “This is the lot of the Zionist Adas!” he shouted. Jewish homes were stoned. At long last, the prisoner emerged from the vehicle with several wardens. The military tribunal had ordered the death sentence to be carried out in front of his house: according to reports in the Iraqi media, Adas had promised the “Zionist enemy” that the nascent Jewish state could open a consulate in his home—a fable for which no evidence has ever been produced.

Ghetto Fighters House

The Hebrew-language newspaper Herut reported that Aliza Adas had visited her husband’s cell for the last time a few hours earlier. “His family wept,” the newspaper described, “and he tried to control himself, kissing everyone and ordering them to honor and obey their mother because he had ignored his own mother, who had told him: ‘You have made enough money— now take your family and get out of Iraq.’ He wrote his will and appointed his brother as his children’s guardian.” Before dawn, Adas was visited by the chief rabbi of Basra, who recited to him a chapter from Psalms.

Wearing a prison uniform, Adas crossed the square at around 4:30 a.m., toward a specially-prepared platform supporting a gallows. Walking alongside him was Basra’s chief rabbi. The square was packed with around 15,000 people, who had thronged there to watch the execution. In all this time, Adas uttered not a single word. His wardens asked him whether he had any last requests, and he asked for a glass of water. The newspaper of the nationalist Istiqlal Party reported that the enflamed masses chanted slogans against Adas, Jews, and Zionism. Herut reported that the mob stoned Adas. The British consul, however, described the crowd watching the execution in silence, writing to the ambassador in Baghdad: “I was a little surprised at the good behaviour of the crowd.”

It was an especially tense day. Radio Baghdad broadcast the execution live, and there was a carnival atmosphere in the air. Women sang hateful songs and banged on darbuka drums. British diplomats in Basra followed the events in the square minute by minute, fearing that they might spiral out of control and that the mob might violently storm shops and offices across the city. They had already demanded that the local police protect the diplomats’ residential quarter. A British battleship had moved into position near the city in case of trouble.

The Jewish community was on high alert, fearing attacks on Jewish institutions, and the Zionist underground ordered anyone who had a weapon to prepare for the worst. “The date of the hanging was the darkest day in the history of Iraqi Jewry,” reported Herut. “Jews fasted, prayed, and refused to leave their front doors.” Ariella Nave, then aged five, recalled her parents’ horror and her father’s misgivings about whether to go to work as usual and risk getting lynched—or to stay at home and be accused of being a collaborator. In the end, her father decided to go; one of his best friends slapped him in the face, spat on his clothes, and disparaged him as a “dirty Jew.”

Adas was forced to walk up to the dais and asked whether he had any last words; he said no. Suddenly, he collapsed, crumpling onto the platform, either out of fear or because of the morning’s hot winds. Soldiers picked him back up and placed the noose around his neck. His face, which should have been covered with a black sack, was left exposed. Then something went wrong, and the first time that the small wooden trap door was opened beneath his feet, Adas clung onto life.

Adas’s death sentence condemned him not only to hanging, but also to “hanging until the departure of his soul,” because there was a difference between the two scenarios that could in some cases be fateful. If a person were sentenced only to hanging and survived the first attempt, he would be treated as a free man and released. But if he were sentenced to hanging “until the departure of his soul,” there would be no such allowances, and he would be hanged again until he died. And thus, the hangman was required to carry out the execution again, and only on the second attempt did Adas release his dying breath. His body was left dangling for a long time afterwards, over two hours, until the last passerby could confirm that Iraq’s most wanted man was indeed dead. Istiqlal’s newspaper reported that “his filthy soul left his impure body” and that Jews across the Middle East now feared for their lives. “There was a general atmosphere of satisfaction at the morning’s work,” cabled the British consul.

Adas’s hanging left a tremendous impression on the Jews of Basra. The Jewish Agency emissary who visited the city soon afterwards described how the entire Jewish population of the city was haunted by the image of Adas’s corpse hanging in public view. Muslim children taunted their Jewish peers at school and called them “Adas’s orphans.” “Every Jew walking the streets of the city seemed to be possessed,” described Yitzhak Bar-Moshe.

The day after the execution, Asher Shaharabani ventured outside and saw gruesome images of the event plastered everywhere in the street: “pictures of all sizes, in the form of greeting cards, and all the stall holders jumping for joy.” They depicted the execution as it unfolded, step by step: “I stood there and beheld the sheer quantity of the horrific images ... I couldn’t go on and turned my head ... I was gripped by a profound and shocking sense of unease, which I couldn’t shake off.”

This piece is adapted from Dr. Adi Schwartz’s forthcoming book

Adi Schwartz is an Israeli scholar and author.