The London Review of Books' latest issue (6 November) has published a lengthy review by Adam Shatz of two books about Iraqi Jews, Memories of Eden by Violette Shamash and Baghdad yesterday: the last Arab Jew by Sasson Somekh (with thanks: TandM).
While the LRB's focus on the Jews of Iraq is to be welcomed, the author's post-Zionism obfuscates the primary cause of the destruction of the Jewish community - Arab hostility - by spreading blame around. The Jews themselves are to blame for identifying too strongly with the colonialist British; and Zionism is to blame for making coexistence between Muslims and Jews in Iraq impossible. "If Israel was a sanctuary for the Jews of Iraq, it was also the reason why they desperately needed one," Shatz claims.
Perhaps his subtle rewriting of history is not surprising: recall that The London Review of Books was the only journal to accept Walt and Mearsheimer's 'Israel lobby ' essay, the basis for their controversial book of the same name.
I have 'fisked' some of the more controversial passages (italics) in the piece.
Recent polemics – and pro-Israeli websites – have made much of the indignities of Jewish life under Ottoman rule, seeking to expose the ‘myth’ of Muslim tolerance. This tolerance, it’s argued, is a euphemism for dependence on the goodwill of capricious, if not cruel Muslim overlords. The memoirs of Iraqi Jews, however, tell a very different story...Memories of Eden provides as sumptuous an account of the world of the Baghdadi Jewish elite as we’re likely to get.
Not exactly. By demolishing one myth, Shatz is creating another: paradise only really existed for the better-off Iraqi Jews towards the end of the 19th century, following the establishment of the Alliance Israelite Universelle school and the emancipation of Jews and Christians foisted on the Ottomans by the Western powers.
Shamash writes that Baghdad’s Jews and the British felt an ‘instant connection’: ‘the British saw that there was much to gain from befriending us, with whom they had already had contact during a century of trade under colonial rule in India.’ True: but the wealthier members of the community expected more from this friendship than the British could offer if they hoped to maintain peaceful relations with the Muslim majority of what, in 1921, would become the Arab kingdom of Iraq.
(Stop beating about the bush, Shatz!) The Jews feared Arab rule would be 'politically irresponsible, fanatic and intolerant', in the words of Professor Elie Kedourie.
Jewish fear of majority rule led, early on, to fateful miscalculations. When the British conquered Baghdad in 1918, the president of the Jewish lay council and the acting chief rabbi appealed for direct British rule, on the grounds that their Muslim neighbours weren’t ready ‘to undertake with success the management of their own affairs’. After this was rejected, a group of Jewish notables petitioned for British citizenship, giving the distinct impression that they regarded themselves as separate from and superior to the emerging national community. The British, seeking to harness – and neutralise – the energies of Arab nationalism, were in no position to grant this request.
In other words, Shatz promotes the (to my mind, outrageous) notion that the Jews petitioning for British citizenship sowed the seeds of their own downfall by appearing superior to the Arab Muslims.
Whatever pride some took in the creation of a Jewish ‘national home’ was more than offset by the worry that it would endanger them in Iraq. But the Zionists in Palestine claimed to speak in the name of the Jewish people, and thus in their name as well.
This crude side-swipe at Zionism is also a red herring. The issue here is the absence of minority rights in Iraq for Assyrians and Kurds, as well as Jews. How much more anti-Zionist could the behaviour of Iraqi Jews have been?
Note how only the Zionists have agency, never the Arabs. It was the Arabs who conflated the non- or anti-Zionist Jews of Iraq with Zionism, not the other way around. Later on in his piece, Shatz contradicts himself somewhat by describing how the anti-Zionist communist party had huge Jewish support.
The farhud continued for two days, an orgy of murder, rape and arson that left two hundred Jews and a number of Muslims dead.
(Who were these Muslims? Shatz does not tell us, but hints at a revisionist theory put about by some Iraqi Jews, including Somekh, that some Muslims died saving Jews.)
Mossad’s objective was not to improve the position of the Jews in Iraq, but to hasten their departure. Pamphlets appeared discouraging Jews from mixing with Arabs, and arguing that any attempt to do so ‘leads to butchery’.
The Israeli government circulated stories about Iraqi ‘pogroms’ and ‘concentration camps’ and denounced the hanging of seven Jews charged with Zionist activism in March 1949 – executions that Mossad’s own agents in Baghdad insisted had never occurred. Unless Iraqi Jews were allowed to emigrate, Israel warned, it would back armed resistance to al-Said’s government, or find itself unable to prevent Iraqi Jews already in Israel from killing Palestinians in revenge."
I don't know where Shatz got this from, but his introduction into the picture of Zionist scaremongering and the infamous bombs beloved of Arab propaganda obviously mitigates the effect of Arab hostility by making Israel at least partly responsible for the plight of Iraqi Jews. Absent from Shatz's account is any suggestion, documented in Elie Kedourie's essay in The break between Jews and Arabs, that it was the Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Said who was the driving force behind the expulsion of the Jews and the idea of an exchange of populations. Also absent is the fact, sorrowfully stated by the Jewish senator Ezra Daniel, that by 1950 the Jews had been deprived of their rights.
But soon after the Baath Party seized power in 1963, in a CIA-backed coup, Jews were forced to carry yellow identity cards.
Note how responsiblity for putting the Ba'ath in power (and thus the treatment of the Jews) devolves away from the Arabs on to the Americans.
Shatz's article ends with a long paragraph about the shoddy treatment of the Iraqi Jews by the Ashkenazi establishment in Israel. This was no doubt true then, but is no longer true now. Its only purpose is to denigrate Israel's ruling elite as racists and snobs:
We don’t want Israelis to become Arabs,’ (Ben Gurion) said with his usual bluntness, and the Iraqi Jews were dangerously close to being Arabs in Israel. An elite in their own country, they were now cast as a ‘primitive’, inferior people, requiring tutelage from Ashkenazi Jews, descendants of the despised Ostjuden, who were now determined to erase any trace of the East. And though many Iraqi Jews, bitter at their treatment at the hands of Arabs, became supporters of the political right in Israel, the racism they encountered made it impossible for them to identify fully with the movement that brought them ‘home’.
If resentment of Ashkenazim was as significant as Shatz makes out, the Iraqi Jews in Israel would have been expected to vote for the Left or in alliance wiht the Arabs. But this is not the case, as Shatz admits. The Israelification of immigrants was not confined to Mizrahim. Yiddish-speaking Jews were encouraged to jettison their language and change their names to Hebrew ones. And prejudice was demonstrated to other Ashkenazim too - Holocaust survivors were taunted as 'sabon' (soap). Harping on about Ashkenazi contempt for Mizrahim tends to seem hopelessly out-of-date in today's Israel, where intermarriage is at an all time high, Mizrahim have reached the highest echelons of power, and Middle Eastern culture is all the fashion.
In the early 1990s, Somekh tried to establish a solidarity association with the Iraqi people with the aim of documenting ‘the co-operation and good neighbourliness between the Jews and other Iraqis, so that the coming generations would know about this wonderful connection that had characterised Jewish life in the Arab world for 1500 years.’ His application was rejected by the Registrar of Non-Profit Associations in Jerusalem, which thought it unwise to revive such memories, a potential ‘source of Saddamist subversion’.
Shatz ends on this indignant note. Earlier he describes Somekh's memoir as an 'experiment in coexistence, rather than a Zionist parable about its impossibility'. Here in a nutshell is Shatz's own philosophy: Zionism is confrontational. No word about Arab aggression preventing coexistence. No understanding that at the time Somekh was promoting 'la-la land' solidarity with the Iraqi people, Saddam's brutal regime was in a state of war with Israel, having just fired dozens of missiles at Tel Aviv.
There is a time for peace, and a time for war.
Crossposted on Z-word blog