Following Adam Shatz’s piece in the London Review of Books (fisked here),the LRB (4 December) have published the letter below in response. But Adam Shatz could not resist having the last word, which I have again ‘fisked’. If you can, please write a letter to the LRB yourself([email protected]).
Adam Shatz casts a spotlight on the destruction of one of the oldest Jewish diasporas, but his article contains errors and subtle distortions whose effect is to minimise the proximate cause of the Jewish exodus from Iraq: anti-semitism (LRB, 6 November). The rich man’s paradise Shatz evokes only really existed towards the end of the 19th century. Before the Ottomans were forced by the Western powers to emancipate their Jews and Christians, the Jews were despised, persecuted and never really secure; the Sassoons, Ezras and Kedouries fled the tyrannical rule of Daoud Pasha to make their fortunes outside Meso-potamia in India and the Far East. The Jews of Iraq petitioned for British citizenship not out of an ‘instant connection’ with Britain, but out of fear that Arab rule would be ‘politically irresponsible . . . fanatic and intolerant’, to quote Elie Kedourie. And so it proved.
The Jews did not leave because they were pushed by Zionist rumours or bombs. Bombs and murders in 1936 had not led to a mass exodus, and sixty thousand Jews had registered to leave before the only fatal bombing in January 1951. Until Iraq permitted legal emigration, Jews were being smuggled out at a rate of a thousand a month – because they were banned from higher education, could not travel abroad, were denied work and suffered restrictions in business. ‘But for these severe handicaps, Iraqi Jews would not have gone so far as to attempt large-scale flight from the country,’ the Jewish senator Ezra Daniel said, making his last futile appeal against the Denaturalisation Bill in March 1950.
Shatz implies that Israel encouraged the Jewish exodus, but already in 1949 the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Said, had floated the idea of a population exchange and threatened to expel the Jews as revenge for the Iraqi army’s defeat in Palestine. He schemed to bring Israel to its knees by dumping thousands of stateless and destitute Jews on Israel’s borders. The Jewish Agency could not cope with the influx and told the Zionist movement in Baghdad not to rush. It was only when Iraq passed a law in March 1951 freezing Jewish assets that Israel said it would be forced to confiscate the property of Palestinian refugees. Iraq reneged on its part of the exchange, accepting only fourteen thousand Palestinian Arabs, while Israel took in 120,000 Iraqi Jews.
The Iraqi Jews had every right to be bitter when they arrived in Israel, having lost everything. They were housed in dusty refugee camps for up to 12 years. At the time, they did experience prejudice, but so did Holocaust survivors, taunted on arrival as ‘sabon’ (soap). Today the Iraqi community is one of the most successfully integrated in Israel. Iraq-born Palestinians, meanwhile, have been denied citizenship and expelled from Iraq.
Incidentally, the airlift to Israel was named Operation Ezra (not Ezekiel) and Nehemiah. It ended in 1951, not 1952.
Here is Adam Shatz’s rebuttal, with my comments in italics:
Adam Shatz writes:: The evocation of Mesopotamia as a lost paradise can be found not only in Violette Shamash’s book but in countless memoirs by Iraqi Jews.
And I bet none of these ‘countless memoirs’ predate the colonial era, when the Jews ‘never had it so good’.
Like all non-Muslim minorities, Jews experienced periods of difficulty and injustice, but if they had been persecuted to the degree Lyn Julius suggests, it’s not likely so many would have continued to describe themselves as ‘Ottomans’ long after the empire’s collapse.
A non-sequitur, in my humble opinion.
It was Shamash who said that Iraq’s Jews petitioned for British citizenship out of an ‘instant connection’ with their new rulers. And while Elie Kedourie cited the concern of Jewish notables that the Arabs would be fanatical and intolerant, he went on to deride the petition for British citizenship for its ‘pathetic caution’ and ‘anxiety to pay lip-service to the shibboleths of the age’.
Elie Kedourie proves my point. The petition must have pussyfooted around the subject, using euphemisms instead of words like ‘fanatical’ and ‘intolerant’.
Julius cites Ezra Daniel’s protest against the Denaturalisation Bill, but she doesn’t quote his plea to ‘restore to Iraqi Jews their sense of security, confidence and stability’,
I don’t see any contradiction… Alright then, the Iraqi government removed the Iraqi Jews’ sense of security as well as their basic rights.
and while Daniel was speaking out against the bill, the Israeli government and Mossad were doing everything in their power to speed its passage.
With 1,000 Jews fleeing illegally every month, even the Iraqi government could see that it had a serious problem on its hands, with law and order breaking down in the South. Something had to be done. Both the Iraqi government and the Israeli government and Mossad( to which Shatz attributes disproportionate influence) never imagined that more than 10,000 Jews would leave after the Denaturalisation Bill was passed.
Shlomo Hillel, Mossad’s man in Baghdad, makes no secret of the fact that in setting up Zionist cells, he had only one objective: to promote mass emigration.
So what? The Zionist Federation in the UK would also like to promote mass emigration to Israel. The crucial difference is that in Iraq in 1949 Jews felt insecure, were denied work, travel and the means to earn a living. All they were missing previously was a country willing to take them in.
He collaborated covertly with the Iraqi government to co-ordinate Operation Ezra and Nehemiah (as Julius rightly calls it). ‘We are carrying on our usual activity in order to push the law through faster and faster,’ the Mossad office in Baghdad reported to Tel Aviv before the Denaturalisation Act was passed, according to Tom Segev in 1949: The First Israelis. Israel wanted to populate the land with Jews, and their emigration from Arab countries had the advantage of supplying a further alibi for denying Palestinians their right of return.
Writers often contrast Israel’s generous absorption of more than a hundred thousand Iraqi Jewish refugees with Iraq’s paltry acceptance of ‘only’ fourteen thousand Palestinian Arabs. But the situations are not symmetrical: Israel was determined to settle the Iraqi Jews in the Jewish state, while Iraq had no interest in settling Palestinian refugees (who for their part wanted to return home).
So Iraq was perfectly justified in not resettling Palestinian refugees – instead it politically exploited people with whom they shared a common language, religion and culture, denying them and their children citizenship, and eventually summarily expelling them.
And though Nuri al-Said flirted in 1949 with the idea of a population exchange, an idea that had been circulating in Zionist circles for two decades, the Iraqi government’s position was that Palestinians should return home or be compensated by Israel. It could not ‘renege’ on an agreement it had never reached with Israel.
More feeble excuses from Adam Shatz.
Restrictions on movement and employment, and the rise in anti-Jewish incitement and violence, certainly encouraged Jews to emigrate. But these developments were not unrelated to the British presence and the war in Palestine – or to the pressures exerted by Israel and its intelligence services.
Well Adam – you’ve read Tom Segev’s book so you must know best. However, some of us had parents and relatives actually living in Baghdadat the time. The British government had precious little to do with the Jews’ pitiful situation – the restrictions were pretty serious if you wanted to earn a living, pursue your higher education or travel abroad.
We may never know whether the bombs were laid by Zionist agents, but we do know that Mossad’s responsibility is taken for granted by many Iraqi Jews: Morad Qazzaz, a leader of the Iraqi-Jewish underground, was known as Morad Abu al-Knabel, or ‘Morad, Father of the Bombs’. Folklore or not, it’s an indication that Iraq’s Jews have long believed that Israel had a hand in their exodus.
Why suggest that the Iraqi government might have had a hand in the Jewish exodus when it can all be blamed on the Zionists? Could not Iraq have deliberately intended the massive despoliation of its Jews? Of course Iraq was responsible for the official theft of Jewish land and property on a massive scale when it passed the Nationalisation Act in March 1951 – a fact barely mentioned by Shatz. And never mind that three of the five bombing incidents happened after the legal emigration window had closed. Never mind that Morad Qazzaz, aka Mordechai ben Porat, went to court to fight the ‘bombs’ libel, and won.