Friday, June 20, 2014

Bashkin stresses tales of Farhud rescue

The US-based Israeli academic Orit Bashkin has made the Jews of Iraq her speciality. Her work is not without its critics - notably, she has been accused in her book New Babylonians of downplaying the 1941 Farhud, dating instead the decline in Arab-Jewish relations to the late 1940s. Perhaps it is to remedy the lack of attention to the Farhud in her book that she has chosen to focus on that devastating pogrom in this piece, published on the 73rd anniversary in +972 Magazine. Of course, any focus on these terrible events  is to be welcomed. But Bashkin falls into a familiar pattern of emphasising those Muslim neighbours who saved Jews, while barely mentioning those who joined in the slaughter and looting. My comments on specific points are interspersed in italics:

Silently but not without some noise, a blessed thing is happening in Israel right now. The general category of “Mizrahiness” is falling apart into the stories of specific communities, cities, places, languages and memories: Iraq and Morocco, Aleppo and Oran, Ladino and Aramaic. All of them are asking to tell the stories of their Jewish communities. As part of this beautiful centrifugal process – which is being led by novelists, poets, historians, folklorists, literary and musical artists – the history of the Jewish community of Iraq is also crystallizing. This magnificent community has sprouted an amazing literature written by Jews in Arabic. In Iraq, the European education of community members did not prevent them from falling in love with Arab literature and culture, which were taught in the Jewish schools (both public and private). The love was preserved here in Israel as well. In Iraq, they also used the term Arab Jews, at times politically (to express support for the Palestinians) and at times culturally to connote Jews that love Arabic and Arab culture.

The term 'Arab Jew' is not used widely by Jews, unless they are Arab nationalists or communists keen to deny the Jews' separate ethnicity or right to self-determination. Most Jewish expressions of 'support for the Palestinians' in Iraq were made under duress.

This love and the desire to integrate into modern Iraqi society were challenged starting in 1939.

The challenge actually began much earlier, with the growth of Nazi influence from 1933.

Part of the nationalistic Arab elites – and I stress, only part – sought to cooperate with Germany, as an enemy of England (as did anti-British forces in the liberation movements of India, in the Irish liberation army, and even in the Lehi, or Stern Gang).

Bashkin takes a position similar to that of Gilbert Achcar: pro-Nazis in the Arab world were basically anti-British, adopting a pragmatic 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' approach. She minimises support for the Nazis among the Arab elites, whereas other authors (Mattias Kuntzel, Kuppers and Mallmann, Jeffrey Herf) have identified overwhelming popular support for the Nazis in Arab countries.  Her mention of the Stern Gang is a disingenuous attempt at moral equivalence: the numbers of Jews who wished to cooperate with the Nazis were tiny.

In April and May of 1941, Iraq experienced a military coup, led by Rashid Ali al-Gaylani. When the British forces were about to enter Baghdad (on the first and second of June), with the defeat of Rashid Ali’s forces, a terrible slaughter against the Jews of Iraq took place. A mob of discharged soldiers, military youth groups, corrupt cops, city dwellers – and on the second day, poor robbers and looters – took the lives of at least 180 Jews.

The British forces could have entered the city earlier and saved the Jews but they decided to not get involved. The Farhud is at the center of a number of studies, but more importantly, it is rooted in the memories of members of the community. But what do we know about the Farhud? Unfortunately, most Israelis that are not Iraqi have never heard of this tragedy (except from the popular satirical show that recently made an ugly mockery of the event) because Iraq – despite its Westernized Jewish elites with ties to the global economic system through trade, banking and oil – is not part of the “Europe” that Israelis conceived of. There are pogroms and then there are pogroms.

Bashkin is right to have a dig at the Israeli failure to educate schoolchildren and have the Farhud recognised as a significant pogrom.  

Mass grave of victims of the Farhud, 1941. (photo: Ministry of Education and the Ben - Zvi, Jerusalem)

Mass grave of victims of the Farhud, 1941. (photo: Ministry of Education and the Ben – Zvi, Jerusalem)
In the collective memory of the Iraqi Jewish community, the Farhud is seen as a failure of the Arab-Jewish idea and as a moment in the penetration of Nazis into the Middle East through the influence of Haj Amin al-Husseini who took refuge in Baghdad for a while. But even here, the story is not complete, since portraying the Farhud as a pogrom against helpless Jews ignores the fact that Jews in Iraq fought against the Nazis and their influence. They wrote articles – in Arabic – about the crimes of the Nazis in Germany and of the Fascists in Italy. They collaborated with anti-Nazi Arab liberals and socialists. They voiced their opposition against teachers who spread Nazi propaganda at school and demanded they be fired. Germany was not able to screen propaganda films in Baghdad because the movie theaters – which were owned by Jews – refused to screen them.

But Jewish attempts to stem pro-Nazi influence were defensive and ineffectual compared to the massive effort put in by the German ambassador and the pro-Nazi Mufti and his supporters to spread anti-Jewish incitement.

Jews resisted during the days of the Farhud as well. They poured hot oil on the rioters, threw stones, and hopped from rooftop to rooftop to save their lives.
And there’s another story from the Farhud that deserves telling: the bravery of Muslims during the crisis. The wealthy Jewish neighborhoods were not targeted in the onslaught. Those who were hurt were the poor Jewish neighborhoods. Those who were saved lived in mixed neighborhoods – often because their Muslim neighbors risked their lives to save them. Recollections of Jews, letters by Zionist emissaries, and police reports praise those neighbors and friends.

Not true - many Jews died in poor mixed neighbourhoods.  The almost exclusively Jewish, rich neighbourhood of Bataween was virtually untouched.

A 70-year-old woman who called on all her Jewish neighbors to stay with her; Muslims who pretended to live in Jewish homes to protect Jewish property; a neighborhood hoodlum who not only hid Jews but also forced the grocer to bring them food; Iraqis who bribed rioters and threatened them with weapons – all in order to rebuff the mob. The stories show the Farhud was not only characterized by looting, murder and incitement but also by the keeping of certain social norms by which Jewish friends and neighbors were seen a precious family members, as well as by heroic and touching stories of rescue. Another story, exposed by my colleague Esther Meir, who has long worked on the Farhud and its memory, is that the Jews of Iraq did not want to immigrate to Israel after the danger subsided. Some of the younger generation, however, turned to more radical avenues – communism and Zionism.

Those who had money and connections DID emigrate from Iraq after the Farhud. Well-to-do families moved to Iran and India (Europe was off-limits). But many moved back after the war in view of the difficulties of obtaining visas, residence permits and  running a business. Those who had no option stayed put.

Read article in full 

Culture could not save the Jews of Iraq


Anonymous said...

I didn't have the oppotunity yet to read Bashkin's book, but I did read her M.A. thesis about the Iraqi-Jewish newspaper "Al-Masbah" (ha-menorah). Already there its obvious she has a strong bias and apologetic for what she (and nissim kazaz) called the "Iraqi orientation".

She seems to think that being an Iraqi nationalist is contradicting with being a Zionist, which may be true today, but was absolutely not true in the eyes of the subjects of her research. In fact the average not-politically active Iraqi Jew of the 40's and 50's was both. In her disccussion whether or not al-masbah was a Zionist newspaper she conclluded it wasn't, even though the overwhelming evidences she herself presents that it was. Even though the owner of the newspaper (Salman Shina) wrote in real time that his porpuse in publishing the newspaper was to recruit support for the Jewish national cause. It's very clear where her sympathy lies and this effects her concllusion dramatically.

The same is true about the Farhud. Her writing is extremely apologetic. It's good to point out there were cases of Iraqi Muslims saving Jews. There are always such cases in hours of pogroms and massacres. But she diverts the attention to this as a mean to be apologetic about the all event.

bataween said...

I think you are correct that to be a nationalist and a zionist were not mutually exclusive. One can point to the example of Leon Castro in Egypt - secretary of the Wafd nationalist party and at the same time a Zionist.

Empress Trudy said...

+972Rag is only slightly less antisemitic than Hamas. So you have to understand what her audience is.

Anonymous said...

"But Bashkin falls into a familiar pattern of emphasising those Muslim neighbours who saved Jews, while barely mentioning those who joined in the slaughter and looting."

Had she not, it would never have been published by +972.

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

The fact that 972 published an article acknowledging the Farhud --albeit she chooses to cite the low estimate of 180 murdered instead of Elie Kedourie's figure of 600-- can be seen as a victory of sorts for our side. The claim of total Arab innocence is not made.

Of course, the facts have to be forced into a formula, an old formula used in bygone days for other pogroms and massacres of Jews in other places and at other times. This was a formula often used by Communists and fellow-travelers. More on that ... . . .

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Note that the pogromists were not refined progressive Arab intellectuals but the lumpenproletariat ("a mob of" this and that). Class conscious progressive Arabs in the mixed neighborhoods saved Jews. She doesn't use the Commie terminology but the thinking is there.

Then she writes how well Jews fit into Arab culture and society, as if there were no history of Ottoman massacres of Armenians, of the Iraqi massacre of Assyrians in 1933 (which was welcomed enthusiastically by the Baghdad mob), no history of the dhimmi status of Jews and all non-Muslims, etc.

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Now about the Arab Iraqi elites and the possibility of serious Jewish resistance, she does not mention that the Rashid Ali al-Gaylani government was working closely with German representatives and that the Golden Square of officers were pro-Nazi for years before 1941, without needing the mufti to encourage them.

Moreover, the Mufti Husseini told a formation of the Bosnian Muslim SS division that there was much similarity between National Socialism and Islam. So for him, it was not merely an opportunistic alliance against the British.

Now if we put the Farhud into historical perspective can we see parallels in the last 55 years to that event in 1941? Why are Sunnis and Shiites massacring each other? Why did Muslim Iraqis cheer the Assyrian massacre in 1933?

Anonymous said...

Bataween, I think that not only being a zionist and a supporter of the local nationalism was not mutually exclusive, it was even mainstream. For the few Jewish political activists it may have been more of a problem - even though there are examples of such people, like Salman Shina whom I mentioned before, who was both a Zionist activist and an Iraqi patriot who served in the Iraqi Parliament in 1947-1951 - but if we talk about the average Iraqi Jew of the 40's and 50's, I think its safe to say they were both Iraqi patriots and big sympathizers with the Jewish Yishuv in Eretz Israel.

Sylvia said...

It is a 972mag translation of a Hebrew article published in Cafe Gibraltar, a site mostly about culture and mostly run by Sephardim.

972Mag occasionaly translates a"Mizrahi" article here and there from them and from Haoketz, a socially oriented Mizrahi site, to appear pluralistic and humor some of their donors.

All 972mag writers are Ashkenazim with a few Palestinians.

Sylvia said...

Some, particularly those who fought with the Algerian revolution, were both nationalists and communists. They wanted both to belong and be counted as equals, so they didn't see nationalist and communist as mutually exclusive either.