It was a bolt out of the blue and it fizzled spectacularly.
On September 24, 300 Sunni and Shi’a Muslim Iraqis attended an unprecedented conference in northern Iraq during which they called for peace and reconciliation with Israel, Iraq’s longtime enemy. It took place in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, which has unofficial ties with Israel.
In short order, the Iraqi government denounced it and issued arrest warrants against its key speakers, who received a torrent of death threats. Cowed and intimidated by the vociferous reaction, many of the participants recanted, claiming they had been duped into attending it.
In a telling juxtaposition, the meltdown occurred as Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid officially opened Israel’s embassy in Bahrain, a year after the two nations agreed to normalize relations, and the first commercial flight between Manama and Tel Aviv took off.
The normalization conference was organized by the Center for Peace Communications in Brooklyn. Founded as a non-profit organization in 2019 by Joseph Braude, an American Jewish author and broadcaster of Iraqi descent, its objectives are two-fold: to “resolve identity-based conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa” and to “roll back antisemitism and foster a culture of supportive relations with Israel.”
Its chairman, Dennis Ross, is a retired U.S. diplomat who played a leading role in trying to reconcile Israeli and Palestinian positions during the Oslo peace process from 1993 onward.
Braude, a Middle East specialist, expected a backlash, but went forward with the conference because a group of Iraqis requested his assistance.
The keynote speaker, Sheikh Wisam Al-Hardan, a tribal leader of the Sunni Awakening movement in Anbar province, focused on the emigration of more than 100,000 Jews from Iraq in the wake of the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. The majority immigrated to Israel.
“The historical and cross-generational tyranny was manifest in the banishment and displacement, from which the Iraqi Jews suffered seven decades ago,” he said. “They lost the land which they built and inhabited as their homeland, in Mesopotamia, for 1,600 years. This history, which was unjust towards the Jews, severed one of Iraq’s arteries. We denounce this injustice in the strongest terms. At the same time, there was ethnic cleansing and genocidal massacres to which six million Jews in Europe fell victim. We see a glimmer of hope in the ability of some Iraqi Jews to rehabilitate their lives and to preserve their traditions through the generations. Most of them are still close to us, and we see them, as neighbors, in Israel.