Culture could not save the Jews of Iraq

Jewish merchants, 1920s Iraq: hardly anti-colonial

It has become fashionable for academics in Middle East Studies
departments to redefine the identity of Jews in Arab countries as
‘hyphenated’ Arab-Jews, conflicted by the Arab–Israeli dispute, itself
an aberration after centuries of peaceful coexistence. But nothing the Jews could have done would have prevented their ethnic cleansing from Iraq, argues Lyn Julius in her review of New Babylonians by Orit Bashkin (Jerusalem Post):

Orit Bashkin,
the Israeli-born associate professor of modern Middle East history at
the University of Chicago, is the new kid on the block in the field of
the history of the Jews of Iraq. She has painstakingly trawled through
source material in Arabic, Hebrew and English to support her thesis:
until their mass displacement in 1950, the Jews of Iraq, she maintains,
were actually patriots and Arab nationalists.

              Once the three Turkish provinces of the state had been thrown
together by the British in the wake of the post-First World War collapse
of the Ottoman empire, Jewish writers and intellectuals of the Arabic Nahda (Renaissance)
in 1920s Iraq fully expected to have a hand in shaping the new nation’s
culture. During King Faisal’s reign – the Hashemite monarch was
installed by the British – some, she writes, began calling themselves
‘Arab Jews’.

             Jews ‘appropriated (classical) Arabic’ and wrote using ‘Islamized’
terminology, references and pride in the Muslim past, and even viewed
the Quran as a shaper of identity. As evidence, Bashkin quotes from
newspapers edited by Jews, and stories written by them. Jews adopted
‘the anti-colonial interests of the Arab world’, emphasized their
differences with western Jews, repudiated Zionism and proclaimed their
support for the Palestinians. The Effendia, the urban Jewish middle
class, propagated nationalism, she claims.

            In the 1940s, disappointed with the way their nation was turning
out, younger Jews especially, Bashkin argues, found another authentic
expression of their patriotism when they joined the Iraqi Communist
party, in what Bashkin (in contradiction to Batatu, the historian ‘par
excellence’ of Iraqi communism) alleges were large numbers. Although the
Jews were forced to emigrate from Iraq, even today their Muslim
neighbours and friends, inspired by the writings of Jewish authors and
the music of Jewish composers and singers, cherish the memory of a
shared coexistence at variance with the current ‘binary’ view of Jews
and Arabs as enemies.

              Perhaps it is to emphasize the ‘Arabness’ of Iraqi Jews that
Bashkin uses a bizarre spelling of proper names: Renee Dangoor becomes
‘Reene Dangur’ and Meir Basri becomes ‘Mir Basri’.

             Bashkin draws much inspiration from non- or anti-Zionist academics
such as Joel Beinin, Sassoon Somekh, Ella Shohat and Yehuda Shenhav. Her
book carries a commendation by the Palestinian Columbia University
professor Rashid Khalidi.

             One historian whose writings patently had little influence on
Bashkin is the late Iraq-born political scientist Elie Kedourie. ‘They
[the Jews] were utterly without interest in this absurd attempt to form a
nation’, he contradicts Bashkin in his Minorities essay in The Chatham House Version. 

              Bashkin’s title is New Babylonians, but there is little
sense in Bashkin’s book that the shapers of the new Iraqi culture should
incorporate myths and references from the country’s pre-Islamic and
ancient Jewish and Christian roots. To her, the only authentic elements
of nationhood are Arab and Muslim. She assumes that the Jews should
adapt, adopt and appropriate these: yet their 2700-year-old culture was
indigenous, and the Judeo-Arabic dialect they spoke was a purer form of
Arabic than the adulterated Muslim speech brought into Baghdad by
Bedouin migrants.

               Kedourie narrates a significant episode in 1918 which barely rates a
mention in Bashkin’s history. The collapse of the Ottoman empire had
left the dhimmi Jews
adrift as second-class citizens without the saving graces of communal
standing and autonomy. A delegation of Jews petitioned the civil
commissioner in Baghdad and asked to be allowed to become British
subjects. They complained that the Arabs were politically irresponsible,
they had no administrative experience and they could be fanatical and
intolerant. The Jews made this demand, not once, but three times. The
petition was not granted.

                The Jews’ petition hardly suggests that most Jews were
anti-colonial. Quite the contrary, Jewish clerks, merchants and
administrators became the mainstay of British rule throughout the 1920s
and 1930s. Furthermore, Bashkin underestimates the revolutionary impact
of the Alliance Israelite school system, which oriented Jews decisively
towards modernity and secularism. Alliance alumni felt just as at home
in English and French as in Arabic, and absorbed western culture and

                Jewish nationalists did undoubtedly exist, but Bashkin seems to exaggerate their numbers and influence. The Nahda, when
the Jewish Effendia aspired to be Iraqis first, and Jews second, lasted
barely ten years under King Faisal (1883–1933). Thereafter,
Nazi-inspired anti-Semitism began to make inroads. It was the fear of
being identified with Zionism that forced the community leaders and
public intellectuals, under duress, to make increasingly desperate but
futile protestations of loyalty to the regime. The most desperate
expression of all was the (Communist) League for Combating Zionism,
applauded by Bashkin as the ultimate expression of Iraqi patriotism. It
was nevertheless banned.

                The author prefaces her book with the famous poem by Anwar Shaul:

I live under the protection of Muhammad’s religion,

I take refuge in the tolerance of Islam,

And my inspiration is the sublime language of the Quran, 

I love of the nation of Muhammad. . .

                    Bashkin evidently takes this poem as a literal expression of how
far Jews wholeheartedly identified with the majority Iraqi Muslims, but
neglects to tell us that Shaul wrote the poem while his friend Meir
Basri was in jail. The poem was actually a fawning attempt to flatter
the government into releasing Basri.

                   Jewish writers could have adopted Arab and Muslim terminology and
figures of speech not to show how Arabized they were, but because they
saw their role as westernized agents of change. If they sought equality
in the new Iraq, it is because they were unequal dhimmis in the past. But such vital context is missing in Bashkin’s book.

                  Kedourie considers that the Jews were doomed right from the start
of the Iraqi experiment, but the conventional view among Iraqi-Jewish
historians is that the cataclysmic event known as the Farhud –
two days of murder, looting and rape in June 1941 – marked the decisive
failure of the Jews to become accepted and equal citizens of Iraq.
Thereafter younger Jews looked to either Zionism or Communism as their
salvation. Claiming that Zionism attracted only a minority of Jews,
Bashkin devotes a whole chapter to Jews and Communism.

                    Muslims who saved Jews in theFarhud, Bashkin
believes, represented the triumph of friendship and good neighbourly
relations. The turning point for Iraqi Jewry came much later – when
state- sanctioned persecution began in earnest. She claims that the
Zionist movement did not become popular until 1947 when it began to help
smuggle Jews out of Iraq.

                      But what greater trauma can anyone experience than a massacre?
Relying for your survival on the good will of your neighbour (Bashkin is
honest enough to admit that neighbours also joined the rioters and
looters) to defend you is hardly a mark of acceptance and success. It is
more plausible that the Zionist underground began its resurgence
immediately after the Farhud, offering training in self-defence, and stockpiling weapons. 

                     To her credit, however, Bashkin does a thorough job documenting the
mounting persecution of Jews at the end of the 1940s, culminating in
the law criminalizing both Zionism and Communism.  Refreshingly, she
discounts the significance of the 1950–51 bombings of Baghdad beloved of
Arab propagandists: the bombs were not enough to trigger the Jewish
mass exodus. The leftist Bashkin blames ‘brutal right-wing nationalist
activity’ and ‘the ineptitude of the Iraqi leadership’ for this campaign
of ‘collective punishment’ of the Jewish community.

                     Bashkin’s approach, to detach social and cultural history from
politics, can only lead up a blind alley. ‘The departure of Jews from
Iraq is puzzling in retrospect’, she concludes, ‘considering the degree
to which the Iraqi Jews were immersed in Iraqi life and culture.’

                     But it is not puzzling at all. Cultural affinities alone were never
enough to guarantee peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews, any
more than the acculturation of German Jews prevented their ethnic
cleansing by the Nazis.

                     Anwar Shaul and Meir Basri
were the epitome of Arabized Jewish culture. They stuck it out to the
bitter end – enduring persecution, harassment and imprisonment until the
1970s, when they were among the last Jews to leave Iraq. Shaul went to
Israel, Basri to England.

The question Orit Bashkin should be asking is why nothing the Jews
did could have prevented bigoted Arab nationalism from treating even the
most acculturated Jewish neighbour as an enemy, and destroying the
world’s oldest diaspora community. New Babylonians does not provide the answer.

Abridged from a review in the Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, March 2014

Read article in full

Crossposted atHarry’s Place


  • Bashkin seems to think that the Iraqi Communists were patriots. Maybe so but the Iraqi Arab nationalists did not think so. Recall how the Baathists slaughtered Communists in 1961 and/or 1963

  • Bashkin's mentor was Khalidi. It is interesting that Khalidi is a pet of the NYTimes. Khalidi's role and favoritism for him in the Establishment in the USA show that the problem is not only corruption among the academics but among those who promote them and appoint them and publicize them. Khalidi has enjoyed a lot of favors in the academic world from the administrations and from the press and politicians like Obama. Here is Martin Kramer on how Khalidi is favored and protected by the NYT:

    Kramer on Khalidi's "scholarly standards":

    Kramer also wrote an expose on scholarly corruption in the ME studies field in the USA, Ivory Towers on Sand.

  • Good criticism. Bashkin's book is a good example of what happens when historians don't even mean to aim for objectivity. Her personal sympathise with the Anti-Zionists and the Communists leads her to exaggerate their influence. Both groups were miniature in their size, but her personal bias obviously prevants her from seeing it.

    Like in most Jewish communities in the new era, there was a tiny group of intellectuals that saw themselvs as "Arab (locals) of the religion of moses". At the highest point of their inner-conflict some even considered converting to Islam (see Nissim Qazaz article, pe'amim 42). They were also the ones filling the communists ranks. But this got nothing to do with how the vast majority of Baghdadi and Basrawi Jews saw themselvs.

    Iraqi Patriotism is a different thing. Jews were indeed very patriots, but the binary that Baskin sees between "zionist" and "iraqi patriot" didn't exist in their eyes. they were both.


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