‘Oil’ ended the Eden of the Jews of Iraq – Guardian

Writing in The Guardian, Ian Jack evokes the pleasurable and harmonious life of the Jews of Baghdad under the British mandate and early years of Iraqi independence, as captured by the late Violette Shamash in Memories of Eden, a compilation of her notes and diaries. But this being The Guardian, Jack can’t help politicising a non-political book. While exonerating the Iraqi regime, that favoured left-wing mantra, the West’s pursuit of the ‘poisoned apple of oil’, ‘and that ‘most western import’, Zionism, are blamed for the destruction of the ‘multicultural’ Eden that Iraq could have been. Jack forgets that Arab nationalism too, was a western import, influenced by that most western of poisonous ideologies, Nazism, and culminating in the murder of hundreds of Jews in the 1941 Farhoud. And it had not been the Jews’ liking of the British that had engendered Muslim distrust of them, but the Jews’ distrust of the Muslims that had at first driven them closer to the British. (With thanks: Avril)

“Living in a rich and relatively stable continent, we are sometimes unaware of how quickly and absolutely history can vanish elsewhere; in the words of Violette Shamash, of how a people and a way of living can be “erased like chalk from a blackboard”. In her case, the people are the Iraqi Jews and the way of life that of the city of Baghdad before 1941, but it has happened in many other parts of the world. Even in Britain, in Durham, say, or Ayrshire, you can stumble across a pattern on a hillside that marks the site of an old pit village that lived and died in the 20th century leaving no monuments and only the barest of records. Witnesses are needed – preferably articulate witnesses. In Violette Shamash, old Baghdad has found one. How many people should care about that? I think anyone with half an interest in the Middle East.

‘Shamash’s book Memories of Eden is published later this month. She died two years ago, aged 94, and the book has been edited from her notes and diaries by her daughter and son-in-law. Perhaps no man could have written it. As Professor Shmuel Moreh of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, says in his foreword, memoirs of the Jewish community in Iraq have come chiefly from men and waver between “the sentimental and embittered”. Shamash has remarkably little bitterness. Even as she watches news reports of Saddam Hussein’s statue tumbling down in 2003, all she will say is that she was born 25 years before him, “before the creation of Iraq, before another foreign army, British this time, marched victoriously into the city in the name of bringing democracy to the people.” And yet one might think there is good deal to be bitter about.

“In 1941, Jews in Iraq numbered 300,000 out of a population of around 2 million (I think the true figure of Jews is nearer 150,000 – ed). Jews made up 40% of Baghdad’s population. Their ancestors had been in Iraq since the Babylonian captivity 2,600 years before.

“Shamash, who was born in 1912, grew up in a harmonious city that at the end of the first world war had barely changed since the 17th century. As an outpost of the Ottoman empire, modernity had hardly touched it. “My earliest memories are of water and heat,” she writes of a city where the summer temperatures could easily reach 122F and most goods came up the Tigris on a guffa, a kind of coracle waterproofed in bitumen. She was born into a prosperous family – her father, a trader and money-changer, built a big house across the river from where the Green Zone now lies – but the lavatory was still a repugnant slit in the ground. Simple things were unheard of; “when the first watches appeared, children would stand on the street corner, waiting to ask any prosperous-looking passer-by if he could tell them the time.” Houses had thick, windowless walls to keep out the heat and cold, and also to protect them from the great Baghdad problem, thievery. Doctors were few and medicine expensive; every year small plagues of cholera and dysentery claimed a crop of victims.

“Eden? Shamash concedes it was “primitive”, but then remembers the compensations: salads eaten with lemon and salt, orchards of oranges, pomegranates, peaches, almonds and walnuts, country excursions to see the shrine of Ezekiel. More important, the Jews felt themselves integrated. Her father wore a fez and a big moustache. Jewish women dressed like their Muslim counterparts in long robes, pantaloons, headscarves and veils. Their influence on the city’s life was so great that Saturday rather than Friday became Baghdad’s day of rest. Jews were virtually the only instrumentalists in the whole of Iraq. The Baghdad Symphony Orchestra was entirely Jewish from conductor down to kettle-drum, and when Radio Iraq got its own band going in 1936 it contained only one Muslim musician.

“But by then Iraq was changing very quickly, as a new country cobbled by the British in 1921 out of three Ottoman vilayets or provinces and rewarded with a king, Faisal, imported from Saudi Arabia. The Jews liked the British and that increased the distrust of the Muslims. Oil, the principal reason for British interest, was discovered in vast quantities near Kirkuk in 1927. Though the British mandate ran out in 1932, Britain perpetuated its political control through Faisal’s playboy son, Ghazi, who inherited the throne and ruled ineffectually until his sports car met a tree in 1939.

“Westernisation had arrived and was dividing the country between modernisers and traditionalists. Shamash chronicles its impact in small, specific ways: bobbed hair on women, the first cigarettes, cinemas showing Chaplin.

“The western import with the most far-reaching effect, however, was Zionism. Iraqi Jews were anti-Zionist, perhaps out of a self-interested desire not to rock their own boat, but that didn’t stop the “Save Palestine” movement spreading to Iraq and with it a rash of anti-semitic violence. Then the war broke out and, as Shamash writes, “its contagious sickness spread to Baghdad”. Arab nationalism was pro-Nazi. She was married by now – an arranged marriage – and desperate to leave with her husband and child.

“A coup brought a pro-Nazi group led by a lawyer, Rashid Ali, to power in 1941 and sent the regent (the new king was only five years old) packing. The farhud, or pogrom, came soon after. In the first days of June, 1941, during the celebration of the Pentecost, at least 187 people died when mobs attacked Baghdad’s Jewish homes and businesses.

“In an appendix to Shamash’s book, her son-in-law, Tony Rocca, shows clearly that it should never have happened. The new Iraqi regime had crumbled and the British army was already encamped on the outskirts of Baghdad, under orders from Churchill and Lt. General Wavell to take the city. If the army had entered as they wanted to, there would have been no massacre*. Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, the British ambassador, was the obstacle. He had signed a generous armistice which declared (not for the last time) that Britain’s enemies were not the Iraqi people but a particular personage: Rashid Ali. To re-install the regent with the support of British troops would have rubbed Iraqi noses in their defeat, and made the truth – that Britain ran the show – too obvious.

“Shamash and her family escaped to India later that year and moved eventually, via Palestine and Cyprus, to London. Thousands followed them. Between 1951 and 1952, about 120,000 Jews were airlifted from Iraq to Israel. In 2006, according to her book, about a dozen families remained in Baghdad, still with a rabbi.

“Reading Memories of Eden, a book not so much about politics and history as about vanished pleasure, it is hard to resist the thought that everything could have been different were it not for the poisoned apple of oil. Iraq had for a time at least the roots of a harmonious, multicultural state, which in the Middle East is now only to be dreamed of. In this way, Shamash’s book is both a memorial and an instruction saying: “See, it is not impossible.”

· Memories of Eden by Violette Shamash is published by Forum on February 21

Read article in full

**In my view the evidence shows that there still would have been a massacre, but the British should not have allowed it to go on for as long as it did – ed.


  • Does this sound familiar? On Sunday Nov 4th, 1945, violence erupted in Libya. Thousands poured into the Jewish quarter and bazaar of Tripoli and went on a looting beating and killing rampage.130 dead, incl 36 children. Throughout the first three days of rioting the civil police stood by and did nothing. The BRITISH MILITARY AUTHORITY WAITED INEXPLICABLY until Tuesday afternoon before sending in the troops.(‘The fighting could have been stopped in 5 minutes flat’ – irate US Air Force sergeant.)
    Norman Stillman, p145

  • In an appendix to Shamash’s book, her son-in-law, Tony Rocca, shows
    clearly that it should never have happened: I am not clear what message
    Jack is trying to convey by this view of the event. Is he making a case
    for “humanitarian intervention” by the British in this instance, despite
    the fact that this would “unmask” that Britain was the imperial force
    controlling Iraq? Is he saying that they ought to have acted

  • Bataween, There is a lot of malice and deceit and ignorance in Ian Jack’s article. Where do we begin?? His claim that “oil” is responsible for everything wrong [nice of him not to blame Zionism and the Jews for everything!!] reminds me of the story about Abram, our forefather in Ur Kasdim. You recall that his father Terah left him alone in the idol shop to wait on trade and watch the idols for sale while his Dad was away. But Abram smashed the idols in the meanwhile. When Dad came back, he asked little Abram: Who busted all of these idols that I was going to sell? Abram answered: Daddy, one idol picked up a hammer and started busting all the others. His Dad retorted: How can the idol do that?? He can’t walk and he can’t move his hands!!

    Likewise, I ask just how Oil –something like an idol apparently– could do all that?? Can Oil move his hands or his feet??

    Just by the way, I believe that Abram’s Ur Kasdim was probably Urfa in northwestern Mesopotamia, not Ur in southern Mesopotamia as many archeologists and historians believe today. It was a Britisher named Leonard Wooley who made the mistaken identification, as I recall.

    I believe that British policy in the Middle East was anti-Jewish throughout the mandatory period and through Israel’s War of Independence, in which British forces actually took part on the Arab side on several occasions. See writings of Efraim Karsh, Rory Miller, Elie Kedourie, as well as quotations from Majid Khadduri’s book, Independent Iraq on my blog. Also, Christopher Mayhew, no friend of the Jews himself, admitted in one of his books that Ernest Bevin was antisemitic. None of this is in Jack’s review, nor is it even hinted at.

    B, you brought up the issue of collective responsibility, collective guilt, and collective punishment in your response to me. The whole notion of the “innocent civilian” has been destroyed by the Arabs and their supporters in recent years. After all, anybody who supports attacks on Israeli civilians [as in Sderot or as victims of suicide bombings] is denying that those civilians are innocent or that they deserve to be protected. On the other hand, the “human rights” fakers are willing, even eager, to blame Israel for perpetrating “collective punishment” on Arab civilians in Gaza. Further, some exponents of the Arab cause said that French Jews were rightfully victims of attack by Arabs in France because they supported Israel. Again, the death of the “innocent civilian” notion. You probably know that several Jews have been murdered in France since 9-2000 by Arabs for nationalistic/religious reasons. The “left” and the “human rights” crowd have already murdered the “innocent civilian” unless he’s an Arab in Gaza or Judea-Samaria. On the other hand, Arabs murdered in Baghdad by the so-called “Resistance” do not count as victims, in the leftist view.

    Further, Islamic law does stipulate collective guilt by dhimmi groups justifying collective punishment by Muslims. In other words, if an Armenian in the Ottoman Empire harmed a Muslim, then all Armenians were responsible, were guilty, and deserved punishment for the act of one member or a few members of the group.

  • Eliyahu, you are quite right. The Sassoons left Baghdad to escape after the oppressive reign of Daoud Pasha, soon after the 1828 massacre and the assassination of the head of the Jewish community.
    Even if Zionism had been a purely western import, Jack himself admits that the Jews of Iraq were not Zionist. How can Zionism be blamed for repercussions on people who themselves did not believe in it?

  • Bataween, how the British Left can lie!!! Of course, I don’t know what Baghdad was like when Violet Shamash was born in the late Ottoman period. However, Jews had emigrated from Baghdad –or from elsewhere in what was to become Iraq– in the 19th century. Families like the Sassoons went to India. Others came to Israel. Among the latter were the families of Professor A S Yahuda and of David Yellin’s mother. Some of the wealthy Baghdadi Jews in India contributed to Jewish institutions in Israel in the late Ottoman period, such as the Kadoorie agricultural school and to the Habad movement’s institutions in Israel. If those financial contributions were not exactly Zionism, then they were pretty close, probably too close for the self-righteous “leftist,” Mr Jack.

    Of course, I don’t know why those Iraqi Jews emigrated in the 19th century. Maybe they were not happy with paradise.

    As to the Farhud, according to a British officer, Somerset de Chair, quoted by Bernard Lewis, the order for the British army not to save the Jews of Baghdad came from Anthony Eden, foreign secretary at the time, not directly from Churchill. Eden was also involved in minimizing news of the Holocaust on the BBC during the same period. Here is a link to the quote from de Chair:

    As to the Guardian’s lies:
    1- some Iraqi Jews did immigrate or make aliyah to Israel while the country was under the ottoman Empire, and some contributed funds, as I point out above;
    2- Zionism in the sense of a Jewish return to Zion is an age-old idea, not a modern one or a “Western import.”
    3- Jack’s notion that Iraq could have become a “harmonious, multicultural state,” is dubious. Working against such a future was British policy in general which encouraged Arab nationalism [and Islam] against non-Muslim [ie, Jews, Christians, Mandaeans, Yazidis] and non-Arab [Kurds, Turkomans] peoples, plus the Arab-Muslim tradition of subjugating non-Muslims as dhimmis.

    Further, we have seen very graphically in the last five years that Sunni Arabs have a hard time accepting Shi`ite Arab predominance even when the Shi`ites are the overwhelming majority, let alone accepting the equality of dhimmi peoples. Now, it may well be that UK and US policy over the years exacerbated and encouraged Sunni Arab-Muslim bigotry, but they did not create it. How ignorant Jack is of the real political history of Iraq, before and after the British takeover!!

    Then his use of “oil” as an explanation for the many problems is both simplistic and in fact stupid. He does not explain how this thick, smelly liquid substance could or did cause Iraq to become less of a paradise. He merely says that “oil” was “the principal reason for British interest.” But then he adds that oil was discovered in Iraq only in 1927, whereas the British had conquered the country ten years before. Oil is hardly a sufficient explanation for either British policy or Arab massacres of fellow Iraqis, even fellow Arabs.


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