Avi Shlaim: ‘Three Worlds – Memoirs of an Arab – Jew’
This beautiful, inspiring, elegiac book is the story of the author’s journey – a journey from Baghdad to Israel in 1950, aged five, and from Israel to England. But Avi Schlaim’s journey was at different levels. It was geographical and it was cultural. It also became a political journey to his own position today.

His personal experiences illustrate a bigger story of the Jewish exodus from Iraq to Israel in 1950 following the creation of Israel in 1948. His story and his words speak more eloquently than any reviewer can, and so for the most part, I quote directly from his memoir.

The book is “a glimpse into the lost and rich world of the Iraqi-Jewish community”. Perhaps, coming from what he describes as a prosperous, privileged family, he may see the past through rose-tinted glasses. But his memories are precious.

“We belonged to a branch of the global Jewish community that is now almost extinct. We were Arab-Jews. We lived in Baghdad and were well integrated into Iraqi society. We spoke Arabic at home, our social customs were Arab, our lifestyle was Arab, our cuisine was exquisitely Middle Eastern and my parents’ music was an attractive blend of Arabic and Jewish…We in the Jewish community had much more in common, linguistically and culturally, with our Iraqi compatriots than with our European co-religionists.

Of all the Jewish communities in the Ottoman Empire, the one in Mesopotamia was the most integrated into local society, the most Arabised in its culture and the most prosperous… When the British created the Kingdom of Iraq…the Jews were the backbone of the Iraqi economy”

Jewish lineage in Mesopotamia stretched as far back as Babylonian times, pre-dating the rise of Islam by a millenium.

“Their influence was evident in every branch of Iraqi culture, from literature and music to journalism and banking. Banks – with the exception of government owned banks – and all the big markets remained closed on the Sabbath and the other Jewish holy days.” By the 1880s there were 55 synagogues in Baghdad.

He describes how in Iraq there was a long tradition of religious tolerance and harmony. “The Jews were neither newcomers nor aliens in Iraq. They were certainly not intruders”. By the time of the First World War, Jews constituted one third of the population of Baghdad.

He contrasts Europe and the Middle East. “Unlike Europe the Middle East did not have a ‘Jewish Question’. “Iraq’s Jews did not live in ghettos, nor did they experience the violent repression, persecution and genocide that marred European history. There were of course exceptions, notably the infamous pogrom against Jews in June 1941, for which the actions of British imperialism must take substantial responsibility.

By 1941, antisemitism in Baghdad was on the increase but was more a foreign import than a home grown product. There was a violent pogrom against the Jewish community named the farhud. The Jews were seen as friends of the British. 179 Jews were murdered and several hundred injured. It was completely unexpected and unprecedented. There had been no other attack against the Jews for centuries. Avi gives many examples of Muslims assisting their Jewish neighbours.

And yet he writes: “The overall picture, however, was one of religious tolerance, cosmopolitanism, peaceful co-existence and fruitful interaction.”

The critical moment was the creation of Israel. “As a result of the Arab defeat, there was a backlash against the Jews throughout the Arab world. “What had been a pillar of Iraqi society was increasingly perceived as a sinister fifth column”, with Islamic fundamentalists and Arab nationalists identifying the Jews in their countries with the hated Zionist enemy.

Palestinians “were the main victims of the Zionist project. More than half their number became refugees and the name Palestine was wiped off the map. But there was another category of victims, less well known and much less talked about: the Jews of the Arab lands”.

The sub-title of the book refers to ‘Arab-Jews’. “The hyphen is significant. Critics of the term Arab-Jew see it as… conflating two separate identities. As I see it, the hyphen unites: an Arab can also be a Jew and a Jew can also be an Arab…We are told that there is a clash of cultures, an unbridgeable gulf between Muslims and Jews… The story of my family in Iraq -and that of many forgotten families like mine – points to a dramatically different picture. It harks back to an era of a more pluralist Middle East with greater religious tolerance and a political culture of mutual respect and co-operation.”

Yet the Zionists portray the Jews as the victims of endemic Arab persecution and this is used to justify the atrocious treatment of the Palestinians. Thus the narrative of the ‘Jewish Nakba’ to create a ‘false symmetry between the fate of two communities. This narrative is not history; it is the propaganda of the victors.”

On 29th November 1947 the General Assembly of the United Nations voted for the partition of mandate Palestine into two states: one Arab, one Jewish. The General Council of the Iraqi Jewish community sent a telegram to the UN opposing the partition resolution and the creation of a Jewish state. “Like my family, the majority of Iraqi Jews saw themselves as Iraqi first and Jewish second; they feared that the creation of a Jewish state would undermine their position in Iraq… The distinction between Jews and Zionists, so crucial to interfaith harmony in the Arab world, was rapidly breaking down”.

Iraq’s participation in the war for Palestine fuelled tensions between Muslims and Jews. Iraqi Jews were widely suspected of being secret supporters of Israel. With the defeat of Palestine a wave of hostility towards Israel and the Jews living in their midst swept through the Arab world. Demonstrators marched through the streets of Baghdad shouting “Death to the Jews.” And the government needing a scapegoat did not simply respond to public anger but actively whipped up public hysteria and suspicion against the Jews.

At this point official persecution against the Jews began. In July 1948 a law was passed making Zionism a criminal offence punishable by death or a minimum sentence of seven years in prison. Jews were fired from government jobs and from the railways, post office and telegraph department, Jewish merchants were denied import and export licences, restrictions placed on Jewish banks to trade in foreign currency, young Jews were barred from admission to colleges of education and the entire community was put under surveillance.

The number of Jewish immigrants leaving Iraq to the end of 1953 numbered almost 125,000 out of a total of 135,000. The Jewish presence going back well over 2,000 years was destroyed.

And yet for all this the mass exodus did not occur till 1950/1951 in what was known as the ‘Big Aliyah”. The majority of Iraqi Jews did not want to leave Iraq and had no affinity with Zionism. Most who emigrated to Israel did so only after a wave of five bombings of Jewish targets in Baghdad. It has long been argued that the bombings were instigated by Israel and the Zionists to spark a mass flight of Iraqi Jews to Israel, needed as they were to do many of the menial jobs and to boost numbers in the army.

The author makes a forensic examination of the evidence – based on examination of documents and on interviews – and concluded that three out of the five bombings were carried out by the Zionist underground in Baghdad, a fourth – the bombing of the Mas’uda Shemtob synagogue, which was the only one that resulted in fatalities – was the result of Zionist bribery and there was one carried out by a far right wing, anti-Jewish Iraqi nationalist group.

When the Iraqi Jews arrived in Israel, their experience fell short of the Zionist myth. At the airport in Israel, many were sprayed with DDT pesticides “to disinfect them as if they were animals.” They were then taken to squalid and unsanitary transit camps. Some camps were surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by policemen. The immigration and settlement authorities had no understanding of their customs and culture. “They thought of them as backward and primitive and expected them to take their place at the bottom of the social hierarchy and be grateful for whatever they were given… The lens through which the new immigrants were viewed was the same colonialist lens through which the Ashkenazi establishment viewed the Palestinians.”

“We were Jews from an Arab country that was still officially at war with Israel. European Jews.. looked down on us as socially and culturally inferior. They despised the Arabic language…I was an Iraqi boy in a land of Europeans.”

For his grandmothers, Iraq was the beloved homeland while Israel was the place of exile. “Migration to Israel is usually described as Aliyah or ascent. For us the move from Iraq to Israel was decidedly a Yeridah, a descent down the economic and social ladder. Not only did we lose our property and possessions; we also our lost our strong sense of identity as proud Iraqi Jews as we were relegated to the margins of Israeli society.” The experience was to break his father.

“The unstated aims of the official policy for schools were to undermine our Arab-Jewish identity… A systematic process was at work to delegitimise our heritage and erase our cultural roots” It was a clash of cultures. The Mizrahim were earmarked to be the proletariat – the fodder to support the country’s industrial and agricultural development. As one author put it, “We left Iraq as Jews and arrived in Israel as Iraqis.” They were clearly, to borrow from current jargon, “the wrong kind of Israeli”.

His journey was a political one too. His message and his warnings are unequivocally universalist. “The Holocaust stands out as an archetype of a crime against humanity. For me as a Jew and an Israeli therefore the Holocaust teaches us to resist the dehumanising of any people, including the Palestinian ‘victims of victims’, because dehumanising a people can easily result, as it did in Europe in the 1940s, in crimes against humanity.”

He had previously argued that it was only after the 1967 war that Israel became a colonial power, oppressing the Palestinians in the occupied territories. However, “a deeper analysis… led me to the conclusion that Israel had been created by a settler-colonial movement. The years 1948 and 1967 were merely milestones in the relentless systematic takeover of the whole of Palestine… Since Zionism was an avowedly settler-colonial movement from the outset, the building of civilian settlements on occupied land was only a new stage in the long march… The most crucial turning point was not the war of 1967 but the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.”

And more: “the two-state solution is dead or, to be more accurate, it was never born… The outcome I have come to favour is one democratic state… with equal rights for all its citizens regardless of ethnicity or religion.” He is absolutely right in my view.

His family’s story “serves as a corrective to the Zionist narrative which views Arabs and Jews as congenitally incapable of dwelling together in peace and doomed to permanent conflict and discord… My experience as a young boy and that of the whole Jewish community in Iraq, suggests there is nothing inevitable or pre-ordained about Arab-Jewish antagonism… Remembering the past can help us to envisage a better future… Arab-Jewish co-existence is not something that my family imagined in our minds; we experienced it, we touched it.”

Optimistic? Yes, perhaps over-optimistic. But towards the end of this masterpiece, Avi Schlaim justifies his message. “Recalling the era of cosmopolitanism and co-existence that some Jews, like my family, enjoyed in Arab countries before 1948 offers a glimmer of hope… It’s the best model we have for a better future.”


https://www.jewishvoiceforlabour.org.uk/article/avi-shlaim-three-worlds-memoirs-of-an-arab-jew/
Avi Shlaim: ‘Three Worlds – Memoirs of an Arab – Jew’ This beautiful, inspiring, elegiac book is the story of the author’s journey – a journey from Baghdad to Israel in 1950, aged five, and from Israel to England. But Avi Schlaim’s journey was at different levels. It was geographical and it was cultural. It also became a political journey to his own position today. His personal experiences illustrate a bigger story of the Jewish exodus from Iraq to Israel in 1950 following the creation of Israel in 1948. His story and his words speak more eloquently than any reviewer can, and so for the most part, I quote directly from his memoir. The book is “a glimpse into the lost and rich world of the Iraqi-Jewish community”. Perhaps, coming from what he describes as a prosperous, privileged family, he may see the past through rose-tinted glasses. But his memories are precious. “We belonged to a branch of the global Jewish community that is now almost extinct. We were Arab-Jews. We lived in Baghdad and were well integrated into Iraqi society. We spoke Arabic at home, our social customs were Arab, our lifestyle was Arab, our cuisine was exquisitely Middle Eastern and my parents’ music was an attractive blend of Arabic and Jewish…We in the Jewish community had much more in common, linguistically and culturally, with our Iraqi compatriots than with our European co-religionists. Of all the Jewish communities in the Ottoman Empire, the one in Mesopotamia was the most integrated into local society, the most Arabised in its culture and the most prosperous… When the British created the Kingdom of Iraq…the Jews were the backbone of the Iraqi economy” Jewish lineage in Mesopotamia stretched as far back as Babylonian times, pre-dating the rise of Islam by a millenium. “Their influence was evident in every branch of Iraqi culture, from literature and music to journalism and banking. Banks – with the exception of government owned banks – and all the big markets remained closed on the Sabbath and the other Jewish holy days.” By the 1880s there were 55 synagogues in Baghdad. He describes how in Iraq there was a long tradition of religious tolerance and harmony. “The Jews were neither newcomers nor aliens in Iraq. They were certainly not intruders”. By the time of the First World War, Jews constituted one third of the population of Baghdad. He contrasts Europe and the Middle East. “Unlike Europe the Middle East did not have a ‘Jewish Question’. “Iraq’s Jews did not live in ghettos, nor did they experience the violent repression, persecution and genocide that marred European history. There were of course exceptions, notably the infamous pogrom against Jews in June 1941, for which the actions of British imperialism must take substantial responsibility. By 1941, antisemitism in Baghdad was on the increase but was more a foreign import than a home grown product. There was a violent pogrom against the Jewish community named the farhud. The Jews were seen as friends of the British. 179 Jews were murdered and several hundred injured. It was completely unexpected and unprecedented. There had been no other attack against the Jews for centuries. Avi gives many examples of Muslims assisting their Jewish neighbours. And yet he writes: “The overall picture, however, was one of religious tolerance, cosmopolitanism, peaceful co-existence and fruitful interaction.” The critical moment was the creation of Israel. “As a result of the Arab defeat, there was a backlash against the Jews throughout the Arab world. “What had been a pillar of Iraqi society was increasingly perceived as a sinister fifth column”, with Islamic fundamentalists and Arab nationalists identifying the Jews in their countries with the hated Zionist enemy. Palestinians “were the main victims of the Zionist project. More than half their number became refugees and the name Palestine was wiped off the map. But there was another category of victims, less well known and much less talked about: the Jews of the Arab lands”. The sub-title of the book refers to ‘Arab-Jews’. “The hyphen is significant. Critics of the term Arab-Jew see it as… conflating two separate identities. As I see it, the hyphen unites: an Arab can also be a Jew and a Jew can also be an Arab…We are told that there is a clash of cultures, an unbridgeable gulf between Muslims and Jews… The story of my family in Iraq -and that of many forgotten families like mine – points to a dramatically different picture. It harks back to an era of a more pluralist Middle East with greater religious tolerance and a political culture of mutual respect and co-operation.” Yet the Zionists portray the Jews as the victims of endemic Arab persecution and this is used to justify the atrocious treatment of the Palestinians. Thus the narrative of the ‘Jewish Nakba’ to create a ‘false symmetry between the fate of two communities. This narrative is not history; it is the propaganda of the victors.” On 29th November 1947 the General Assembly of the United Nations voted for the partition of mandate Palestine into two states: one Arab, one Jewish. The General Council of the Iraqi Jewish community sent a telegram to the UN opposing the partition resolution and the creation of a Jewish state. “Like my family, the majority of Iraqi Jews saw themselves as Iraqi first and Jewish second; they feared that the creation of a Jewish state would undermine their position in Iraq… The distinction between Jews and Zionists, so crucial to interfaith harmony in the Arab world, was rapidly breaking down”. Iraq’s participation in the war for Palestine fuelled tensions between Muslims and Jews. Iraqi Jews were widely suspected of being secret supporters of Israel. With the defeat of Palestine a wave of hostility towards Israel and the Jews living in their midst swept through the Arab world. Demonstrators marched through the streets of Baghdad shouting “Death to the Jews.” And the government needing a scapegoat did not simply respond to public anger but actively whipped up public hysteria and suspicion against the Jews. At this point official persecution against the Jews began. In July 1948 a law was passed making Zionism a criminal offence punishable by death or a minimum sentence of seven years in prison. Jews were fired from government jobs and from the railways, post office and telegraph department, Jewish merchants were denied import and export licences, restrictions placed on Jewish banks to trade in foreign currency, young Jews were barred from admission to colleges of education and the entire community was put under surveillance. The number of Jewish immigrants leaving Iraq to the end of 1953 numbered almost 125,000 out of a total of 135,000. The Jewish presence going back well over 2,000 years was destroyed. And yet for all this the mass exodus did not occur till 1950/1951 in what was known as the ‘Big Aliyah”. The majority of Iraqi Jews did not want to leave Iraq and had no affinity with Zionism. Most who emigrated to Israel did so only after a wave of five bombings of Jewish targets in Baghdad. It has long been argued that the bombings were instigated by Israel and the Zionists to spark a mass flight of Iraqi Jews to Israel, needed as they were to do many of the menial jobs and to boost numbers in the army. The author makes a forensic examination of the evidence – based on examination of documents and on interviews – and concluded that three out of the five bombings were carried out by the Zionist underground in Baghdad, a fourth – the bombing of the Mas’uda Shemtob synagogue, which was the only one that resulted in fatalities – was the result of Zionist bribery and there was one carried out by a far right wing, anti-Jewish Iraqi nationalist group. When the Iraqi Jews arrived in Israel, their experience fell short of the Zionist myth. At the airport in Israel, many were sprayed with DDT pesticides “to disinfect them as if they were animals.” They were then taken to squalid and unsanitary transit camps. Some camps were surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by policemen. The immigration and settlement authorities had no understanding of their customs and culture. “They thought of them as backward and primitive and expected them to take their place at the bottom of the social hierarchy and be grateful for whatever they were given… The lens through which the new immigrants were viewed was the same colonialist lens through which the Ashkenazi establishment viewed the Palestinians.” “We were Jews from an Arab country that was still officially at war with Israel. European Jews.. looked down on us as socially and culturally inferior. They despised the Arabic language…I was an Iraqi boy in a land of Europeans.” For his grandmothers, Iraq was the beloved homeland while Israel was the place of exile. “Migration to Israel is usually described as Aliyah or ascent. For us the move from Iraq to Israel was decidedly a Yeridah, a descent down the economic and social ladder. Not only did we lose our property and possessions; we also our lost our strong sense of identity as proud Iraqi Jews as we were relegated to the margins of Israeli society.” The experience was to break his father. “The unstated aims of the official policy for schools were to undermine our Arab-Jewish identity… A systematic process was at work to delegitimise our heritage and erase our cultural roots” It was a clash of cultures. The Mizrahim were earmarked to be the proletariat – the fodder to support the country’s industrial and agricultural development. As one author put it, “We left Iraq as Jews and arrived in Israel as Iraqis.” They were clearly, to borrow from current jargon, “the wrong kind of Israeli”. His journey was a political one too. His message and his warnings are unequivocally universalist. “The Holocaust stands out as an archetype of a crime against humanity. For me as a Jew and an Israeli therefore the Holocaust teaches us to resist the dehumanising of any people, including the Palestinian ‘victims of victims’, because dehumanising a people can easily result, as it did in Europe in the 1940s, in crimes against humanity.” He had previously argued that it was only after the 1967 war that Israel became a colonial power, oppressing the Palestinians in the occupied territories. However, “a deeper analysis… led me to the conclusion that Israel had been created by a settler-colonial movement. The years 1948 and 1967 were merely milestones in the relentless systematic takeover of the whole of Palestine… Since Zionism was an avowedly settler-colonial movement from the outset, the building of civilian settlements on occupied land was only a new stage in the long march… The most crucial turning point was not the war of 1967 but the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.” And more: “the two-state solution is dead or, to be more accurate, it was never born… The outcome I have come to favour is one democratic state… with equal rights for all its citizens regardless of ethnicity or religion.” He is absolutely right in my view. His family’s story “serves as a corrective to the Zionist narrative which views Arabs and Jews as congenitally incapable of dwelling together in peace and doomed to permanent conflict and discord… My experience as a young boy and that of the whole Jewish community in Iraq, suggests there is nothing inevitable or pre-ordained about Arab-Jewish antagonism… Remembering the past can help us to envisage a better future… Arab-Jewish co-existence is not something that my family imagined in our minds; we experienced it, we touched it.” Optimistic? Yes, perhaps over-optimistic. But towards the end of this masterpiece, Avi Schlaim justifies his message. “Recalling the era of cosmopolitanism and co-existence that some Jews, like my family, enjoyed in Arab countries before 1948 offers a glimmer of hope… It’s the best model we have for a better future.” https://www.jewishvoiceforlabour.org.uk/article/avi-shlaim-three-worlds-memoirs-of-an-arab-jew/
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