Thursday, November 13, 2008

London Review of Books skews Iraqi Jews' story

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.

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


Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Bataween, I wouldn't call Shatz "post-Zionist" but I see him rather as rolling along in the old groove of Communist anti-Zionism. Somekh too is an old Communist. I don't know whether or not Shatz mentioned Somekh's political background but surely he should have.

Shatz apparently doesn't discuss the age-old Muslim laws of dhimma that governed non-Muslims' status in Muslim lands unitl the late 19th century. As you say. It was only then that "paradise" emerged, after the Western powers [inc. Russia] had demanded equalization of the dhimmis' status. These powers were not entirely sincere in their demand, since in Russia and Germany Jews were also inferior by law, as Jews, Christians, etc. were in the Muslim states. Nevertheless, both Christians and Jews often asked to be rid of Ottoman dhimmi subjecthood and receive citizenship in Western states. This new status gave them a more equal standing in the Muslim states in view of both Muslim law and practice [even after the tanzimat].

It should also be pointed out that Muhammad Ali of Egypt had introduced more equality for dhimmis into Syria, Lebanon, and Israel in the 1830s when he seized these lands from Ottoman control. However, his rule ended on a threatening note for the Jews with the 1840 Damascus Affair when, apparently trying to please both France and local Christians, he persecuted Damascene Jews for alleged murder of a Roman Catholic monk and his servant. [Note that at the start of the Affair, the British and Austrian consuls in Damascus also supported persecuting the Jews].

Shatz' article is horribly superficial at best. He should be asked to explain both his failure to expound the dhimma laws and to explain the Ottoman Armenian genocide, which began in the late 19th century --during Paradise-- and culminated during WW One.

I don't think that Shatz' article can be fully understood without knowing something about the favoritism toward Islam of both Bolsheviks and the British foreign policy establishment, like Arnold Toynbee. See link:

bataween said...

It is sad that memoirs like 'Memories of Eden' have been manipulated for political purposes to distort the true nature of Arab-Jewish relations. Shatz has seized on the 'paradise' depicted in the book without bothering to explore the historical background. The article is rather superficial.

Anonymous said...

Adam Shatz has a long history of this kind of propaganda. It is no surprise that he has ended up working for the London Review of Books. The two are well suited to each other.

Anonymous said...

This rebuttal is too important to be posted only on a couple of blogs.

It should be posted on a site were many more people could read it.


bataween said...

Thanks for the compliment, anonymous.
I've tried, but without too much success. What do you suggest?

Anonymous said...

some sentences out of a "Letter from Israel", from Mary Kreutzer, published in d e m o c r a t i y a
(Winter 2006)

(...)After Karl flew back to Vienna we stayed on and explored Iraqi Israel. My friends and I co-founded a NGO strengthening women-rights in Northern Iraq and we have visited the country three times since the liberation of 2003. We have Iraqi friends in Vienna, from northern Iraq, from Baghdad, and from the south. Not all of them could be described as great friends of Israel, but all of them gave us the assignment to look for Iraqis. Some remember their Jewish neighbours who were expelled from Iraq in 1951-2. 'Tell us what they are doing now and what they think about Iraq - search for them!' [See Rayyan Al-Shawaf's review of Abbas Shiblak's Iraqi Jews: A History of a Mass Exodus, in this issue of Democratiya – Ed.]

The security situation being calm, we took the public bus to the suburb of Gilo and visited the House of the Zionist Movement in Iraq to meet Avraham Kehila, the founder of the small documentation center. He was twelve years old in 1941 when pogroms terrorised Baghdad's Jewish community. The mob organised by Rashid Ali al-Gaylani murdered and raped Iraqi Jews, and destroyed their houses. But, like many others, Kehila's family was protected by Muslim neighbours.

After the traumatising experience of the pogroms the reactions of the Jews were diverse. Some dreamt of a socialist revolution which would automatically end discrimination and so became communists. Others joined the Zionist youth movement. Kehila opted for the latter, but says 'I´m Iraqi. I was born in Iraq. But I'm also Israeli.'

Shimon Ballas, on the other hand, did become a communist. We visited him in his apartment in a very nice suburb of Tel Aviv. He left Iraq in 1951, and is now an author. Actually, we had already 'seen' Shimon - in the film Forget Baghdad the tale of four Jewish Iraqi communists living in Israel. A wonderful film, but I remember not being convinced by the documentary's claim that Mossad had organised a series of bombings in Baghdad in 1950 that killed three persons in the Shemtov Synagogue and which finally led to the emigration of around 130.000 Iraqi Jews to Israel. But Ballas insists on the Mossad theory. He is a brilliant intellectual, but I still can't believe it.

The next evening we are invited to an extraordinarily delicious Iraqi dinner at the house of a friend, in Tel Aviv. These are Zionist Iraqis and I try to find a polite way of asking our host about the bombings as I am told he worked for the Mossad and helped organise the evacuation of the Iraqi Jews in 1951 and 1952. He smiles. 'Nobody knows, there has been no proof, and most probably there never will be.' After the 1967 war, the Ba'athists started executing a large number of the remaining Jews. In his book Republic of Fear Kanan Makiya describes the public hangings of Jews in Baghdad's public squares in 1969.

The visit passes in a whirl of conversations. Conversations with Avraham Kehila about his niece who still lives in Baghdad, having converted to Islam in the early 1950s to marry her beloved husband. After the regime fell, Kehila tells us, he could finally get in contact with his niece and exchange letters and phone-calls – but the terrible security situation in Baghdad has thrown it's shadow over their shared joy about the new Iraq.


bataween said...

Thanks for posting the v. interesting Democratiya link.
It is a shame the question of the bombs (which has been debunked here - see sidebar) deflects attention from the full weight of Arab antisemitism.

Anonymous said...

Great comments, Bataween!

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Rereading an early post on my own blog, I realized how unspeakably dishonest Adam Shatz was. Professor Majid Khadduri, an Arab nationalist historian who held a respected chair at Johns Hopkins Univ in the USA, reported that the mob in Baghdad was calling for the massacre of the Assyrians in 1933 at the time that the so-called "Assyrian uprising" took place. In Khadduri's words, the mob was

demanding the elimination of the entire Assyrian community.

Sounds like they wanted genocide to me, although Prof Khadduri doesn't use that word. Moreover, General Bakr Sidqi who led the massacre of 1933, was a hero to the Baghdad mob. See link:

Now, where is Shatz' "paradise" now?? I don't want to deprecate the memories of Mrs Shamash. But she was a girl at the time, perhaps somewhat sheltered. Her book is not a comprehensive history but a personal memoir. As to Prof Sasson Somekh, he is a Communist, ipso facto his historical account is liable to be unreliable, although I have not seen his book. Yet Shatz seems to praise it without mentioning any mention by Somekh of the distasteful "Assyrian Affair", as Khadduri called it.

Also, Shatz is to be faulted --to put it mildly-- for reaching sweepiing conclusions without taking into account the full account of Iraqi history in the period before the Jewish flight from the country.

Lastly, Shatz seems at the end to excoriate in principle any subject national group that wants to separate and have its own independence. While separatism might not be wise or justified in the case of the Basques, for example --indeed Basques were never persecuted in Spain as Jews and Assyrians were in Iraq [as dhimmis]-- given the severe oppression, exploitation, and persecution under the laws of dhimma by Jews, Assyrians, Chaldeans, etc. in Iraq and in Muslim lands generally, then separation seems quite justified. It's curious how Communists like to take the side of the historic oppressor, to take the side of Muslims in almost any situation. See link:

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Sorry. The last link entered at the bottom of my previous post should have been:

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Sorry again. I'm not much of a tekkie. The link below should be the FIRST link in my earlier post today referring to Khadduri's book

Anonymous said...

Great post. Below is the letter to the editor I sent to LRB for publication:

It’s a testament to Adam Shatz’s skill as a polemicist that his account of the persecution and dispossession of Jews from Iraq ("Leaving Paradise," Nov. 6) leaves readers feeling bothered — not by Iraqis who mistreated their Jewish neighbors, but rather by one of Shatz’s favorite targets: Israel.

His every description of discrimination and violence against Iraq's ancient Jewish minority is accompanied by rationale meant to explain, or even justify, the hostile acts. When Iraqi Muslims behave badly, readers are told that it was often Jewish "miscalculations" — poorly-chosen alliances, economic power, and even their holiday dress — that spurred the behavior.

By contrast, Zionist and Israeli actions are never cast in such an exculpatory light.

One particularly telling example of the author’s double standard would be comical if it weren't so likely to skew reader understanding of the Iraqi Jewish experience. On one page, we are told that the farhud — the brutal, murderous pogrom carried out by Iraqis against the Jewish community — "was soon 'almost erased from the collective Jewish memory'". But just a few pages later, we are meant to believe that the delousing by Israeli authorities of new Iraqi immigrants was "a greeting none of them forgot".

Only an irrational people would quickly brush aside a murderous rampage but bitterly remember an uncomfortable experience during immigration. But Iraqi Jews as a whole are not so irrational. Much of my family was forced out of Baghdad, and, whatever gripes they may have about the imperfect reception in the new Israeli state, it is clear to all that Iraq is ultimately responsible for the loss of their cherished homes, property and community.

Gilead Ini
Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America
Boston, MA

bataween said...

An excellent letter, Gilead, hope the LRB publish it.

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Great letter, Gilead! Kol haKavod!
Hit 'em hard, otherwise they don't pay attention.

By the way, another British anti-Israel media outlet has been shown up as lying, by Swedes no less!
See link: