Abbas Shiblak’ s book Iraqi Jews: a history of Mass Exodus (re-issued in 2005) tends to play down Arab responsibility for the Jewish exodus, but shows that ‘transfer’ schemes, exchanging Palestinian Arabs for Iraqi Jews, were being discussed at the time:
"If Israel had not been established nothing would have happened to the Iraqi Jews. They could have stayed as any other religious minority," says Meir Basri, the last leader of the Jewish community, quoted in Abbas Shiblak's book, Iraqi Jews: a history of mass Exodus. (re-issued in 2005)
But the thesis soon unravels if the Jews compare notes with the persecuted Christian Assyrians, or the Mandaeans, or the Yazidis, who had no Israel with which to enrage the Iraqi state.
Abbas Shiblak is an Oxford academic and a Palestinian refugee from Haifa. He is commended by Peter Sluglett in the book's preface for his empathy with the Iraqi Jews, fellow "victims of Zionism". I suppose that we should be grateful that Shiblak does not attempt to deny that Jews were forced to leave Iraq. But 'push' factors 'played a smaller role' in Iraq than in other Arab countries, he argues.
As 'Arabs of the Jewish faith', the Jews were an indigenous religious grouping, and identified with their fellow Iraqis rather than fellow Jews. But Shiblak likes to have it both ways: when Jewish leaders in 1919 asked the British High Commissioner for British citizenship, they were not speaking for the community as a whole, but when the Jewish leaders proclaimed their loyalty to Iraq and dislike of Zionism, Shiblak claims, they were speaking the truth.
On the other hand Shiblak can't help seeing the Jews as agents of colonialism. The Jews in Arab countries aided and abetted the British and the French, acquired foreign nationality, and were awarded special privileges under the Capitulation system. (Shiblak is not clear how Iraqi Jews, none of whom had foreign nationality, benefited from the Capitulation system.)
Shiblak will never condemn Arab conduct towards the Jews, he only finds excuses for it. The Jews 'must take some of the blame which this behaviour ( i.e finding varying degrees of special favour with their British and French masters) generated against them'. In other words, the Jews are are least partly to blame for their own oppression and murder. The 1941 Farhoud, which claimed at least 180 lives, was pay-back for Jewish profiteering out of the Arab masses and for showing 'too much joy' at the imminent arrival of the British. No, it was not an explosion of anti-Jewish hatred, just anti-British.
A familiar pattern of minimisation and whitewash emerges from Shiblak's book. For example, in the 1930s, there were no restrictions on Jewish student numbers in schools and colleges, although the preferential quotas for scientific and medical colleges 'may have' adversely affected Jewish chances of entering these colleges. He then quotes a source arguing that these quotas were never filled. There is nothing about the politicisation of schools in the 1930s to make them a vehicle for anti-Jewish indoctrination.
Shiblak says no evidence exists that 'serious harm' was done in May 1941 when the pro-Nazi Rashid Ali was in power, ' except for a few cases of harassment'. (As Violette Shamash in Memories of Eden explains, that harassment extended to rapes, pillage and murders). Even when the government started persecuting the Jews in earnest in 1948 - civil servants dismissed from their posts, education and travel bans, arrests, extortion, internment and hangings - Shiblak says that no specific official laws could be called discriminatory. The restrictions were temporary and aimed not only at Jews but at communists and democratic forces. They were not as bad as what the US government imposed on Japanese enemy aliens. The Iraqi governments of the time were 'tolerant and moderate'. The Prime Minister Nuri al-Said's threat to expel the Jews should not be taken seriously. It was only rhetoric.
Shiblak quotes Sir Henry Mack, the British ambassador to Iraq, as saying: "in the light of the new situation brought about by the state of Israel, it is fair to remark that the Iraqi government has shown tolerance in its dealings with Iraqi Jews." Nine months later, Sir Henry Mack wrote the exact opposite: Jews were being treated like negroes in the American Deep South. So which is it?
Shiblak portrays Zionism as an alien, manipulative, exploitative and colonialist movement that only saw the oriental Jews as a useful reserve of manpower and exaggerated the persecution to which Jews were subject in Arab countries. Shiblak's verdict is that the Iraqi Jews did not want to leave, until 'cruel Zionism' - the infamous bombs - forced them to.
What I found most interesting - particularly now that advocates of the Arab cause continually insist on treating the issue of the Palestinian refugees separately from that of the Jewish exodus from Arab countries, was Shiblak's description of the various 'transfer' schemes mooted after the flight of the Arabs from Palestine. Predictably, Shiblak claims that the Arabs never instigated such schemes. The driving force behind them were the British and the US. It is not hard to see why, as Shiblak tells it, the Israelis were reluctant to agree - not only were they expected to pay for the resettlement of the Arab refugees, they would have had to compensate the Iraqi Jews for their abandoned property.
It was only when it became apparent that following the denaturalisation law of March 1950 stripping emigrating Iraqi Jews of their nationality (followed a year later by the freezing of their property) most of the community had decided to leave, that Israel agreed to a linkage between the Iraqi Jews and the Palestinian Arabs. But even Shiblak admits there was never an official deal.