Monday, October 20, 2008

Philip Mendes's essay on Iraqi Jews: good in parts


It is unclear why the Meretz USA Blog has now chosen to resurrect the essay by Philip Mendes, an Australian academic, titled Why Jews left Arab lands, six years after he wrote it. On the whole, the article, which focuses on the best-integrated of communities in Arab lands, the Jews of Iraq, is nuanced, fair and a good summary of their plight. But I cannot agree with some of Mendes's conclusions. My comments appear in bold italics.

"To summarize, the massive and rapid Jewish exodus from Iraq arguably reflected a combination of push and pull factors. The key push factor was the strength of popular anti-Jewish feeling which was heightened by the 1948 Israeli-Arab war. Increasingly, Jews were viewed as a potential fifth column whose real sympathies lay with the enemies of Iraq.

"These feelings were intentionally exploited and strengthened by deliberate government policies which deprived Jews of their civil and economic rights (Kedourie 1989:49-50). On the one hand, the authorities cynically scapegoated Iraqi Jews in order to deflect attention from their military failures in Palestine. On the other hand, they appear to have held a genuine belief that the departure of a significant number of Jews would both contribute to a lowering of the communist threat, and undermine one of the key propaganda themes of the extreme right.

"The Palestinian intellectual Edward Said describes this "wholesale persecution of communities, preeminently but not exclusively the Jewish ones" as reflecting a "xenophobic enthusiasm officially decreeing that these and other designated alien communities had to be extracted by force from our midst" (Said 2001:208-209).

"An important role was also played by the Zionist underground movement which increasingly succeeded in convincing the Jewish community that emigration offered the best solution to their problems (Kedourie 1970:311-312). In doing so, they openly encouraged and arguably aggravated the existing tensions in the relationship between Jews and the wider Iraqi society (Gat 1997:193). However, the Zionist agenda only moved from the margins to the centre of Jewish life precisely because of the push factors described above (Hillel 1987:110-111).

"The existence of the State of Israel as a potential place of refuge also provided the Iraqi Jews with a new and attractive option which they had not enjoyed at the time of the 1941 pogrom or during earlier periods of persecution (Cohen 1973:35).

For many Jews, stripped of their citizenship, Israel was the ONLY option. It was more of an option than they had in 1941, but it was hardly attractive. Being stuck in a windblown tent in the Israeli desert was hardly a desirable option, but it was the only one they had. These Jews did not have the money or the connections to go elsewhere and no other country would have them.

" The Israelis and their supporters have often argued that the experience of the Jewish refugees can be equated with that of the Palestinian refugees. Both left their countries due to violence or threats of violence. Unlike the Palestinians, however, who remained in refugee camps rather than being offered homes elsewhere, the Jewish refugees were welcomed and resettled in the Jewish State of Israel. Their settlement inside Israel constitutes (so the argument goes) a direct and legitimate exchange of populations.

"The Arab view is almost dichotomous. The Jewish refugees were respected and equal citizens of Arab countries, but were persuaded to leave by malicious Zionist propaganda. Unlike the Palestinian refugees, they left voluntarily and are welcome to return at any time.

"As the above discussion has demonstrated, neither of these perspectives reflects the complexity of the Jewish exodus.

Mendes calls the Jewish exodus a complex blend of push and pull factors. This is debatable, and why just the Jewish exodus? Historians clearly state that the reasons for the Palestinian exodus were equally complex. Some Palestinian Arabs left of their own free will, some at the urging of their leaders, some out of fear that if they did not they would be deemed renegades, and some were, undeniably, expelled.


"To be sure, there are some superficial similarities between the two exoduses. However, the differences between the two exoduses are arguably far more significant. Firstly, the Palestinian expulsion occurred under conditions of external war and conflict, whereas the Jewish departure from Iraq primarily reflected internal political developments.

The two exoduses were indeed different. The Palestinian exodus occurred as a result of war - a war declared on Israel by the Arab states.
There is evidence that Jewish leaders, in Haifa for instance, appealed to them to stay. It was not a result of a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing, as Benny Morris admits. Had there been such a policy, one million Arabs would not be living in Israel today.

Jews have objected that equating the two - "letting bygones be bygones" - almost devalues the Jewish exodus by assigning responsiblity to each side for their own refugees, whereas the Arab side was responsible for both. They fear that this equivalence may also lead to compensation claims cancelling each other out, even though Jews lost ten times what the Palestinians lost.

Jews have argued that what happened to them was far more egregious: it was official Arab state policy to exploit the Jews, steal their property and deprive them of their rights, whereas the Palestinian plight was self-inflicted.


"In addition, the Jewish departure reflected far more diverse factors. As already noted, many Jews were strongly motivated by Zionist beliefs, and voluntarily left Iraq for Israel (Tessler 1994:309).

By claiming that many Jews were motivated by Zionism, Mendes contradicts his earlier assertion that the overwhelming majority of Iraqi Jews were not Zionist. As his piece states, a significant number of young Jews were communists who did not go willingly to Israel, but were forced to leave Iraq - like Shimon Ballas - out of fear of their lives. These ex-communists still harbour ambivalent feelings towards Israel today.

Secondly, the two exoduses did not concur chronologically. The Jewish exodus from Iraq and other Arab countries took place a number of years after the Palestinian exodus.

Since Mendes wrote his article in 2002, conclusive evidence has come to light that Arab League states had colluded to draft legislation as early as November 1947 branding their Jews as 'enemy aliens'. If anything, the intention of Arab states to scapegoat the Jewish population was premeditated, and occurred before hostilities got underway in Palestine.

The fact that the two exchanges did not occur simultanously reflects the messy reality of authentic 'ethnic cleansing'. The pressure on the oppressed Jewish population built up over time and had its peaks and troughs. The fact that 5,000 Jews remained in Iraq after 1951 testifies that there is always a kernel of incurable optimists who believes that things will get better. But even these diehards were eventually terrorised into fleeing and only six Jews still live in Iraq out of an original population of 140,000.


There is no evidence that the Israeli leadership anticipated a so-called population exchange when they made their arguably harsh decision to prevent the return of Palestinian refugees (Morris 1987:254-255).

The population exchange happened de facto. It did not happen with the Israeli government's approval. If anything, as Mendes himself writes, an exchange of populations was official Iraqi government policy. The Israeli government only came around much later to accepting the idea and with reluctance.

Accepting that an exchange of roughly equal populations occurred seems to me the only equitable solution. It may be rough justice, but it is the only way to achieve closure. Upholding the Palestinian 'Right of Return' three generations down the line is not only unrealistic, but a recipe for further violence.

"Thirdly, it is important to remember that the Arab States, not the Palestinians, were responsible for the Jewish exodus.

Here Mendes has swallowed the propaganda line that the Palestinians were 'innocent' victims of a situation not of their own making. This argument infantilises Palestinians, as if they were not responsible for their actions.
When the rampaging mobs of surrounding states shouted Filistin baladna, Al-yehud kelabna (Palestine is our land, the Jews are our dogs), they were stating that the Palestinian cause was a pan-Arab cause. Five Arab armies attacked Israel in support of the Palestinians. And vice-versa: for 25 years, the Palestinian Arabs had coaxed other Arabs into treating the Palestinian cause as their own. The Mufti of Jerusalem, the Palestinian leader, had allied himself with Hitler and spent years, through his speeches and radio broadcasts, inciting Arabs across the entire region against Jews. The 1941 Farhoud, which killed 180 Jews in Iraq, is a direct result of the Mufti's machinations in Baghdad.

Finally, Israel agreed to accept the Jewish refugees who subsequently integrated with varying degrees of success into Israeli society, and looked towards the future. Unlike the Palestinians, most of the Jewish refugees had little or no desire to return to their former homes in Baghdad or elsewhere. In contrast, the Arab states refused to facilitate an organized resettlement of Palestinian refugees. Consequently, most looked backwards, and held onto hopes of a return to Palestine (Segre 1971:126). This analysis demonstrates that the two exoduses are not identical in motivation and cause, and should be considered separately.

So what is Mendes suggesting? Should Israel be penalised for doing the right thing and absorbing its refugees? Should it also be held responsible for the Palestinian refugees? Should the Arab states be encouraged to do nothing, maintain the status quo or cling to the fantasy of a Right of Return? Why are the Palestinians the only set of refugees who can pick and choose where they should be resettled?

On the one hand, Arab denial of the contribution made by anti-Jewish hostility to the Jewish exodus from Iraq and elsewhere is insensitive and ahistorical. Jewish refugees from Arab lands should be entitled to some form of compensation for abandoned lands and property. There is no reason why organisations such as the World Organisation of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC) should not be formally represented in negotiations between Israel and the Arab states (Goldberg 1999; Khalidi 1999:235).

On the other hand, it is equally insensitive for Israel to use the experience of the Jewish refugees as a justification for its treatment of the Palestinian refugees. The latter group also have a justifiable claim for financial compensation (Mendes 1996:96; Mendes 1997:208).



Read article in full

2 comments:

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Mendes cites "persecution" of Jews in Iraq in history without explaining that this was not sporadic persecution but a part of Muslim law, the dhimma condition. He also insinuates that the notion that Jews suffered "persecution" in Iraq is an overdone or exaggerated claim by Zionists. Mendes does this by a rather vague mention of "push and pull" factors. No doubt there were such factors. But Mendes sets up two allegedly imbalanced, opposing positions and finds the "truth" somewhere in the middle. Yet, the legal oppression of Jews in Iraq and in the Islamic world as a whole is not a matter of point of view or partisan exaggeration. It is fact. Edward Said's remarks as quoted are meant to acknowledge some unjust actions on the part of the Iraqi govt while whitewashing Arab nationalism [to which Said was loyal]. Meanwhile, Mendes misrepresents history by suggesting that claims of "persecution" of Jews in Iraq are exaggerated by Zionist partisans.

IndependentObserver said...

Why do leftist Jews like Mendes so often undercut their own people's case?