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.
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