‘The last Jews in Baghdad’, by Nissim Rejwan

The following book review by Lyn Julius of Nissim Rejwan’s The last Jews in Baghdad was published in the Rosh Hashana 2006 issue of Sameah:

The last Jews in Baghdad is really the story of the last intellectuals of Baghdad. The storyteller is Nissim Rejwan, who is now in his 80s.

Rejwan had a very tough childhood. His father being both blind and housebound, the family breadwinner was Nissim’s elder brother Eliahu. The family moved house constantly in Baghdad. The roles were later to be reversed when Eliahu arrived penniless in Israel, and Nissim, by then an academic with a steady income, helped pay Eliahu’s rent in a Ramat Gan slum.

Life in Baghdad during the 1920s and 30s is vividly described, although some readers may find Nissim’s account of his romantic adventures embarrassing. He lived through the cataclysmic Farhoud pogrom which killed around 180 Jews, but, disappointing perhaps for the reader, saw nothing of it. We do, however, get a clear sense of how politics and discrimination managed to close in on this apolitical, non-Zionist, who was eventually sacked – purely for being a Jew – from his job at a bookshop and excluded from writing eclectic reviews for the Iraq Times. He was wrenched from his cosy bubble of an intellectual circle, forced to dispose of his cherished library, smuggle out his savings and join the mass exodus of Iraqi Jews to Israel in 1950.One senses that even now he is at a loss to explain how the deeply-rooted Jewish community of Iraq came to such a swiftly dramatic end.

One cannot but admire Nissim Rejwan: unlike the rest of the Alliance-educated Jewish elite, he attended government schools, supported and taught himself English and French. A voracious reader, he immersed himself in the English literature of the day. He flirted fashionably with Marxism and Communism. After 1950 his Jewish friends went their separate ways: Elie Kedourie, his close friend and literary mentor, became a celebrated professor of political science in London. Naim Kattan became a novelist in Canada. Only Charles Horesh stayed on in Baghdad, and ended up hanging from Saddam’s gallows in 1969.

The other members of Rejwan’s circle were mainly Shi’a intellectuals with whom he rarely discussed politics. Rejwan tried to re-establish contact with them after moving to Israel.

There is little about Rejwan’s life in Israel except an appreciation that the ‘Iraqi Jews came to Israel ill-equipped for the kind of political power struggle which awaited them’. The Zionist leadership of the Iraqi community in Israel failed to translate its almost mystical Zionism into influence within the Israeli establishment.

This is a well-written memoir with a somewhat banal title, but one cannot help feeling that Nissim Rejwan has padded out an earlier essay with reminiscences, a potted history of the Jews of Iraq and assorted esoteric reviews he wrote for the Iraq Times. The book does not come to any definite conclusions but the author epitomises the apolitical Iraqi Jew, uprooted by historical forces stronger than himself.


  • Bataween, you may be interested in exploring the matter of Jewish disunity.

    Earlier in the year, I commented (above) on your blog on the Giladi phenomenon — an Iraqi Jew who has created a mass of conspiratorial drivel to express his bitterness at Israelis not having bowed down to him upon his aliyah.

    In following up Giladi, I see that he has been referenced by one Sharon Komash, an Israeli academic, in her “scholarly” attempts to turn Mizrachim against Ashkenazim and to push her pro-Palestinian agenda:


    Though I do not endorse Masada2000’s politics, Komash is named in Masada2000’s useful “self-hating Jew” list:

    I am particularly incensed at Komash’s casual claim that life was so wonderful for Mizrachim in Muslim countries.

    Would you consider beginning a thread about the intellectual trend by those like Giladi and Komash to exaggerate such internal issues (Zionist role in Iraq exodus, ostensible Mizrachi-Arab affinity, etc)?

  • Dear anonymous
    Thanks for your comments about the dishonesty of post and anti-Zionist Jews. I hesitate to sully my blog with their names, but of course they are doing a tremendous amount of damage by rewriting history.
    To your question, why so many Iraqi self-haters, one explanation is that many were, and still are, Communists.

  • Bataween, God bless you for your blog!

    Israel does not lack for self-hating Jews. But why do there seem to be so many among the Iraqis? Is it displaced resentment at mis-treatment by Ashkenasim?

    Are Jews any more likely than any ethnicities to succumb to self-hate?

    Why are so few of the post-Zionists honest? Look at my comment right above, concerning the obviosly suspect chain of hearsay in the Segev article, and Segev’s dishonest conclusion.

    There is nothing wrong with honest research, nor with some sympathy for the Palestinians. But why do so many Jews seem determined to undermine Israel’s moral standing as well as its morale?

    Here is some criticism of self-hating Jews:

    Does the mainstream Israeli left buy the self-hater’s anti-Zionism?

    Why do so many Jews emphasize that “we were treated better by Muslims than by Christians”? Is simply not murdering Jews now considered “good treatment”? What about 1300 years of second-class status, dhimmitude, insecurity, and discrimination in the Arab lands?

    If Israel has some moral obligation to the Palestinians for their suffering these past 48 years, why don’t the Muslim countries have a moral obligation to Mizrahi Jews for 1300 years of discrimination and often violent persecution?

    How can one ever expect Muslim countries to recognise this obligation, if self-hating Jews themselves find reasons to minimise it?

  • I agree with bataween.

    Look at the article carefully.

    Neslen says Tager says Halahmi’s widow says Halahmi said (speculated) that bombing would show his arrested comrades innocent. From this string of hearsay spanning half a century, Segev concludes “Yosef Beit-Halahmi, did apparently carry out several terror attacks after the arrest of his comrades, in the hope of proving to the Iraqi authorities that the detainees were not involved in these actions.”

    The scale of such dishonesty by the post-Zionists is mind-boggling. Is there nothing at which they will stop in their politically-correct zeal to destroy Israel?

  • Thanks for your comment about Naim Giladi, I can only say that what he writes is a travesty of the truth. It is a shame that most people who Google ‘Jews of Iraq’ come across his malicious nonsense. Other Iraqi Jews who are not representative are Yehuda Shenhav, David Shasha, Ella Shohet and Avi Shlaim.

    About the Farhoud, it is true that there were plenty of Muslims who tried to save their Jewish neighbours. It is equally true that there were plenty of Muslims who sympathised with the pro-Nazi Rashid Ali regime and were willing to kill and loot. Thus Jews recognised their assailants as their milkman or the gardener. By blaming the British Giladi lets the Muslims off the hook.
    Likewise, the article in Haaretz seems convincingly to discredit the ‘Zionist bombs’ thesis.The bombs were in any case a minor issue. Giladi never addresses the main issue: that the Iraqi Jewish population had been subject to a process of nazification which actually began in the 1930s – quotas, dismissals, punitive taxes and finally a law which made Zionism a crime (conflating Jews with Zionists).

  • Hi, Bataween. Saw a link to you on Harry’s Place.

    I would be genuinely interested to hear what you think of this. I’ve had it cited to me a few times when discussing this subject. I haven’t seen his book reviewed by any recognised historians, which would lend it more credibility in my eyes. And what he has to say about events in Iraq in 1950-1 seem to conflict with
    this article in Haaretz
    . But anyway, over to you.


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