Sunday, April 20, 2008

Yesterday's Baghdad was doomed anyway

Sasson Somekh's latest book Baghdad yesterday reflects the rose-coloured nostalgia for a vanished lifestyle and the ambivalence of people forcibly transplanted to Israel. But in spite of the difficulties of the Iraqi-Jewish aliya, it appears from the bitter experience of the Jews who remained that the Jewish community of Iraq would have been doomed anyway. Calev Ben David reviews Somekh's book in The Jerusalem Post (with thanks: Lily):

"Much of Baghdad, Yesterday first appeared as a series of short pieces published in Haaretz, and the book retains an episodic feel. While an enjoyable and illuminating read, it doesn't quite have the polish and depth of, say, Andre Aciman's Out of Egypt, which described the cosmopolitan world of Alexandria's Jews during the same period.

"That book, like this one, is part of a growing literature of both fiction and non-fiction that recalls a world of Arabic Jewry that largely ended (except in Morocco and, to a much smaller degree, Tunisia) with the establishment of the State of Israel. Indeed, Baghdad, Yesterday was published by Ibis Editions, a small non-profit press based in Jerusalem and run by poet/translator Peter Cole (assisted by his wife Adina Hoffman, who like this reviewer is a former Jerusalem Post film critic) whose stated mission is dedicated "to the publication of Levant-related books of poetry and belletristic prose," and "to build bridges of various sorts, between Arabs and Jews, the communal and the personal, America and the Middle East, and more. In short, we hope that our books have changed and will continue to change the way individual readers think about this troubled region and about the lives and literatures of the people who live here."

"This is a worthy mission to be sure, but the effort to preserve and perhaps renew Middle Eastern Jewish culture brings with it an intriguing and sometimes controversial corollary issue, that Somekh addresses in part in his book. This is the historical discussion over the reason behind the mass migration of some one million Mizrahi Jews from Arab lands to the newborn Jewish state during the 1950s, an event that essentially brought an end to the epoch of Arabic Jewry, and in the specific case of Iraq has been the subject of particularly contentious debate.

"The mass immigration to Israel that took place in 1950 and 1951 involved most of the Iraqi Jewish community, and it startled us," writes Somekh. "Coming in the wake of the parliament's decision to allow any Jew who so desired to waive his Iraqi citizenship, it posed a very serious dilemma for many Jews, most of whom eventually opted to leave for Israel."

"Some historians have contended that the seeds of that exodus were planted even before the birth of the Jewish state, in the Iraqi pogrom, called the Farhood, which erupted in 1941 when the British army occupied the country to overthrow its pro-German government, and angry crowds took out their resentment on the local Jewish community, robbing and killing thousands.

"Although this was a shocking episode, Somekh asserts that "to describe the Farhood as the beginning of the end doesn't convey the whole picture. The subsequent years were ones of recovery and consolidation of a sort previously unknown to the Jews of Iraq. No clear signs of discomfort were evident, and most people did not seem to be looking elsewhere for a place to live. So it is incorrect to say that the Farhood was in itself a turning point."

"Somekh puts additional stress on the political crackdown by the government during the late 1940s following an anti-British rebellion called al-Warthab (the uprising), in which several members of the Iraqi Communist Party, which like elsewhere included a disproportionate number of Jews among its members, were imprisoned or executed.

"Like many Iraqis of his generation (such as the novelists Sami Michael and Eli Amir), Somekh is clearly ambivalent about an Iraqi-Israeli immigrant experience in which many of the olim, including his parents, suffered a shocking drop in economic and social status on their arrival here.

"Still, while never explicitly making a judgment on the end of the modern Babylonian-Jewish exile, he tellingly closes the book with the story of one of the some 5,000 to 10,000 Iraqi Jews who decided to stay on after Operation Ezra and Nehemia, in this case a family friend named Clementine Kashkush.

"Then in April or May of 1973, we heard terrible news: Police or soldiers had burst into Clementine's large house, and murdered her, her husband and three of her children. I think often of the Kashkush family."

Read article in full

Sasson Somekh: how Jewish life in Baghdad ended

The last Arabic Jew

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