Thursday, May 07, 2009

Fischbach slams 'controversial' Iraqi-Jewish WOJI

Michael R Fischbach, an academic writing in the Middle East Report (Fall 2008), argues that the newly-formed World Organisation of Jews from Iraq (WOJI) is controversial: it clashes with the interests of other Jewish organisations; it is not representative of Iraqi Jews in spite of its 120 General Assembly representatives (80 from Israel, 40 from the diaspora) ; it is on a collision course with American interests. Lastly, its Israeli-ness provokes antisemitism. Although his material is well-researched and detailed, Fischbach's conclusions are muddled and not a little tendentious. My comments in italics.

"On June 23, 2008, representatives of Iraqi Jewish communities in several countries met in London to form a new group, the World Organization of Jews from Iraq (WOJI). According to a press release issued shortly after the meeting, the purpose of WOJI was to “protect, preserve and promote Jewish communal assets remaining in Iraq and to protect, preserve and promote Iraqi Jewish heritage, including holy sites and shrines remaining in Iraq.”(..)

Fischbach downplays the persecution faced by the Jews of Iraq, seven of which remain today of 150,000. The Jews did not 'flee', they 'emigrated'. The 1941 Farhoud massacre is rationalised as 'attacks on Jews in the wake of the British invasion' . Mordechai ben Porat, a founder of WOJI, is portrayed as a rather dubious character engaged in cloak-and-dagger operations to smuggle Jewish artefacts out of Iraq. No mention of Ben-Porat is complete without the 'Zionist bombs' affair also being dredged up ( although, to be fair, Fischbach cites both pro- and anti- sources).

"Ben Porat took the first steps toward the formation of WOJI, and raised the issue of the fate of Jewish communal property in Iraq, in 2005. He and BJHC officials were likely influenced by the fierce intra-Jewish dispute over who should control the communal assets of the dwindling Jewish community in Egypt. In contention today are the hundred or so Jews still in Egypt and the various Egyptian Jewish heritage groups abroad, including the Historical Society of Jews from Egypt in New York, the World Congress of the Jews of Egypt in Israel and the Association Internationale Nebi Daniel in France.[2] No comparable group existed for Iraqi Jews, so Ben Porat and two other Iraqi Jews—former WOJAC Chairman Moshe Shahal and BJHC Deputy Chairman Aryeh Shemesh—arranged for meetings among Iraqi Jewish expatriates in Israel, New York and London to discuss the matter.[3]

"More controversial, however, is what another BJHC official, Zvi Gabay, claimed publicly: that WOJI intends to become “the official presentative of Jews of Iraqi origin in matters concerning the community as a whole” now that Jewish life in Iraq is virtually extinct.[4] Gabay stated that this will include submitting “an official claim to community property in Iraq,” a claim presumably to be made to the new Iraqi government.[5] According to Heskel Haddad, the Iraqi Jewish head of WOJAC’s office in New York, the plan is to sue the Iraqi government.[6] This could pit WOJI against a number of parties, not the least of which are the governments of Iraq and the United States, as well as other Jewish groups.

There is no evidence to suggest that WOJI will sue the government of Iraq.

"One of WOJI’s primary interests is control over and renovation of Iraqi Jewish communal properties, shrines and artifacts, both inside and outside Iraq. Ben Porat maintains that he and BJHC possess lists of Jewish communal real estate in Iraq, probably a reference to a report that he himself commissioned five decades ago while still operating as an underground Mossad agent in Iraq. In 1951, he arranged for three Iraqi Jews to conduct a survey of Jewish communal assets. Their March 1951 report detailed Jewish communal endowments (waqf) in Baghdad, and family endowments in al-Kifl, al-Hilla and al-Hindiyya. Among these properties were hospitals, cemeteries and synagogues. The report determined that the total value of these waqf holdings was 2,567,620 dinars or $10,347,508 (1 dinar was equal to $4.03 in 1951).[7]"

Islam has a history of appropriating Jewish sites: just because Muslims venerate a Jewish site does not give them a stake in its control. For instance, as early as the 19th century, there was a struggle for control at Ezekiel's tomb - a struggle which the Jews won until their mass exodus in 1950. Furthermore it is odd for Fischbach to claim that Chaldean Christians venerate the tomb of Nahum when this site has fallen into ruin.

"WOJI also intends to “salvage” and “repossess” moveable Jewish assets such as Torah scrolls and marriage registers.[8] Many Jewish religious artifacts remained in Iraq after the mass exodus of Jews in the early 1950s. Some were placed in museums; others were confiscated and warehoused by Iraqi security officials. After the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, a number of them disappeared. A number of Torah scrolls were stolen from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in the looting after the US invasion. Some were later returned; others resurfaced in New York. The Shi‘i cleric Sa‘id Kamal al-Din al-Muqaddis al-Ruwayfi issued a call to Shi‘a to relinquish stolen museum goods; twenty-two scrolls and other manuscripts, plus dozens of other items, were subsequently returned to museum officials.[9] Saad Eskander, a Kurdish exile who returned to become director of the Iraq National Library and Archive, further managed to locate and collect a large number of Jewish books that Saddam’s regime had removed from synagogues.[10]"

Fischbach appears to see the Jewish heritage of Iraq as belonging to Iraq and that any claim to recover it for the Iraqi Jewish community might alienate the Americans and the new Iraqi government. But American sources have argued that the Iraqi claim is not absolute and Iraqi Jews outside the country have a perfectly valid claim to their communal property.

"WOJI also seeks to gain control of the Jewish community’s marriage and death registers, as well as property lists maintained by the community’s office in Baghdad that continues to oversee the assets of the tiny Jewish community still living there. At the time of the US invasion, the office was staffed by Naji Diwaniyya, the acting rabbi of the Jewish community in Baghdad, along with representatives of Iraqi intelligence and the Ministry of Awqaf (the Arabic plural of waqf). Persons residing in properties still registered in the names of the original Jewish owners paid rent to the office.[11] By 2005, they were paying the rent to an elderly Jewish woman.[12]

" Ben Porat and the BJHC themselves possess other Jewish artifacts that they arranged to be smuggled out of Iraq in recent years. Ben Porat admitted in June 2008 that the BJHC paid approximately $25,000 for some 300 old Jewish books in Iraq, having dispatched an agent to purchase them from what he called “thieves.” After American occupation authorities, anxious to stem further smuggling of Iraqi cultural items, put a stop to the agent’s direct shipments to Israel, Ben Porat’s operative resorted to more shadowy methods to send the items to Israel.[14]

"Potentially even more controversially, WOJI has sought to claim a cache of Jewish books and documents that American occupation officials shipped out of Iraq to the United States. On May 6, 2003, US soldiers from the Army’s Mobile Exploration Team Alpha, along with members of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), descended into the flooded basement of the bombed-out Department of General Intelligence in Baghdad. (...) What they had found were the archives of two offices within the General Intelligence Department: the Israel-Palestine and Jewish Sections.[15]

"As they were not official government documents, the National Archives solicited private funds to aid in the process. Donors were hesitant to commit, however, because of the uncertain future of the manuscripts. The future of these religious artifacts thus remains in limbo. Doris Hamburg, the National Archives official who was overseeing their restoration, stated in late 2007 that the American government had taken the documents with “the expectation of the return of the materials to Iraq,”[17] but final arrangements for their repatriation have yet to be made.

"However legitimate WOJI’s campaign may be, making a public claim to Jewish communal assets is certain to stir up considerable opposition in Iraq. The fact that Israelis play a major role in WOJI will only add fuel to that fire. In fact, the prospect of Jewish property compensation and Jews buying up land in Iraq already has engendered a hostile reaction. Rumors of “foreign Jews” (presumably former Iraqi citizens) seeking to buy land were rife in Iraq in mid-2003. Sunni Muslim clerics in Mosul issued a fatwa in July 2003 forbidding the sale of real estate to non-Iraqis for fear it might end up in Jewish hands.[18]

"Exiled Shi‘i cleric Ayatollah Kazim al-Husayni al-Ha’iri issued a fatwa in June 2003 from Qom, Iran demanding death for any Jew seeking to buy land in Iraq.[19] And in late 2003 and early 2004, the Iraqi Turkmen Front claimed that Kurdish Jews in Israel were repurchasing their former properties with the help of the Kurdish Credit Bank.[20] The veracity of these reports aside, they indicate the depth of hostility to Jews seeking the restitution of properties abandoned long ago.

Of all Fischbach's attempts to discredit WOJI this argument must be the lamest. Jews sticking up for their rights risk provoking antisemitism. So Jews had better not, and perhaps Arab hostility might go away. The involvement of Israelis in WOJI (even though 96 percent of Iraqi Jews went to Israel) is a particular red rag to a bull.

"The WOJI claim to the Jewish documents at the National Archives further puts the Americans in a quandary. Claimants to the artifacts could include WOJI, the few remaining Jews in Baghdad and the Iraqi government. Given high-profile international efforts to return Iraqi cultural heritage items plundered after the invasion, the US cannot avoid this quandary by maintaining possession of the items.

"Finally, WOJI’s efforts are controversial within Jewish circles as well, particularly as many Jews (Iraqi or otherwise) might not recognize WOJI as their representative. Moreover, WOJI’s claims collide with parallel property compensation and restitution efforts by other Iraqi Jewish groups. In September 2005, the Iraqi-Israeli lawyer David Nawi filed a suit with the Israeli High Court of Justice on behalf of the group Shemesh-Shalom ve Shilumin. The suit seeks to force the Israeli government to enter into compensation negotiations with the new Iraqi government.[22] Other Iraqi Jews, like WOJAC officials ‘Oved Ben ‘Ozer in Israel and Heskel Haddad in the United States, are similarly against WOJI’s efforts, believing that suing Iraq would only stir up anti-Semitic feeling.[23]"

There is every reason to believe that Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC) supports WOJI. Indeed WOJI have publically acknowledged their help. JJAC's primary aim is recognition, not restitution, but nothing suggests that WOJI could 'fall foul' of JJAC. When all's said and done, the only people who really object to WOJI (and have been willing to talk to Fischbach) seem to be WOJAC, who are known to have fallen out with JJAC.

"Since its inception in New York in 2002, it (JJAC) has mounted a vigorous campaign to categorize all Jewish emigrants from the Arab world after 1948 as “refugees” whose fate, and property losses, should be linked to any diplomatic discussion about the 1948 Palestinian refugees. JJAC is supportive of Israel’s long-standing assertion that any Israeli obligation to the Palestinians should be connected to property losses sustained by Jewish emigrants from Arab countries. JJAC has argued that there was an irreversible Jewish-Arab population and property exchange during and after 1948. Insofar as former Jewish citizens of Arab states are not seeking a “right of return,” JJAC asserts, neither should the Palestinians demand a right of return to Israel.[24] The efforts of WOJI and other Arab Jewish groups seeking property compensation and restitution thus threaten Israel’s justification for not compensating Palestinians for their losses. On the other hand, WOJI’s efforts might strengthen JJAC’s claim of a population and property exchange by offering an example of Jews demanding property restitution from Arabs."

So perhaps WOJI is not that controversial after all?

Read article in full

1 comment:

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

this fischbach and his view are repugnant. Their tendentiousness is underlined by the article's venue, the MERIP Report, long a pro-Arab publication in Washington that may enjoy some support from Arab govts and individuals, pro-Arab US officials, and parts of the oil industry.

Several terms used by Fischbach or his anti-restitution sources are repugnant:
"repatriation" to Iraq used by a US official, Doris Hamburg. This is as if the communal property, movable and fixed, belongs to Iraq and not to the Iraqi Jewish community, whereas the near totality of that community left Iraq under duress. What right does the Iraqi state have to hold on to Torah scrolls. If I am not mistaken, after WW2 and the Holocaust, German Jews could recover communal property of both sorts. If so, then that precedent should be used on behalf of restitution of property to Iraqi Jews.

Next, we have Fischbach's use of "emigrants" rather than "refugees."
Maybe he seems unaware that Nuri Said talked of his plans to dispossess Iraqi Jews to both a British and a Palestinian Arab representative. Etc Etc. How does Fischbach judge the ongoing exodus of Assyrian-Chaldean Iraqis, Mandaeans, Yazidis and even Muslims. Many many Iraqis have fled in the past 6 years. How does he label them?? Are they not refugees?
Jews moreover had suffered oppression as dhimmis for more than 1000 years.

It is also curious that Fischbach is so concerned about American policy and interests. Are the Jews wrong to stand up for their rights and demand restitution of communal property to the community to which it belongs even if it causes inconvenience to American policymakers??

There is a certain inescapable odor of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Fischbach's article, especially when writing about formation of the new organization.