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Could Jews have stayed in Iraq?
A new book shows how Iraqi Jews tried, then dispaired of, integration
Sasha Goldstein-Sabbah’s book Baghdadi Jewish Networks in the Age of Nationalism is this year’s most entertaining read. If, like me, you pair music with what you are reading, I suggest you listen to Israeli Dudu Tassa’s performance of the songs of his Baghdadi Jewish grandfather and granduncle, Saleh and Daoud, known as the Kuwaiti Brothers.
The Kuwaiti Brothers received their first musical instruments, a violin and an oud, as gifts from their uncle who had arrived in Baghdad from a business trip to India. Goldstein-Sabbah skillfully details the connection between Jews of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Lebanon — known collectively as Baghdadi Jews — and their satellite communities in India, China and other countries in the Far East. She argues that these satellite communities contributed significantly to the modern history of Baghdadi Jews, mostly through their donations that funded the construction and operation of schools, clinics, social clubs and religious institutions.
This connection also accelerated the exposure of Baghdadi Jews to worldwide intellectual, social and consumerist trends. Secular schools in Iraq taught Jews foreign languages, especially English and French.
Foreign languages allowed Baghdadi Jews to connect with a transnational network of world Jewry, mainly by giving Iraqi Jews tools to access non-Arabic literature and to communicate with non-Arabic speaking Jews around the world.
Foreign languages also gave Baghdadi Jews an advantage over non-Jewish Iraqis, especially as Iraq’s British mandate, and the nascent Iraqi government, sought civil servants with foreign language skills to staff the bureaucracy.
The only weakness in this book is its organization along thematic lines with little regard to chronology. Goldstein-Sabbah could have offered a brief sketch of the history of Baghdadi Jews. But without a clear chronological order, a reader is left to construct his own history from information scattered across the book. Below is my sketch.
To my surprise, Zionism was legal in Iraq until 1935. Between 1920 and 1935, Baghdadi Jews enjoyed rights that ranked them a close second to their Muslim compatriots. In 1935, however, over 60,000 non-Iraqi Jews migrated to Palestine (not in the book), despite Arab protest. That year also saw the British kill Syrian Islamist activist Izzildin al-Qassam in a gunfight. By 1936, the Arabs in Palestine had been in full rebellion that resulted in the spilling of Jewish and Arab blood.
This is why 1935 marked a turning point for Jews in Iraq, after which their situation started deteriorating. With the outbreak of WWII, Iraq saw a surge in Nazi propaganda. In 1941, the Farhud — a pogrom against Baghdadi Jews — took place. By 1948, Jews were no longer able to leave Iraq “without their families posting bond, enrollment in higher education was no longer possible; Jews employed in the civil service were dismissed; and individuals could be accused of Zionist activities for letters that had been sent or received from family members in Palestine as far back as the 1920s (when Zionism was not yet illegal).”
Such conditions made it clear for Baghdadi Jews that staying in Iraq had become unsustainable. Philanthropic resources were hence reoriented from investing in social and economic infrastructure (which continued until after 1945) to sponsoring the mass exodus of Jews from Iraq.
Goldstein-Sabbah writes that Jewish exodus from Iraq “was quite complicated and not as organized as Zionist historiography portrays it when referring to the immigration as Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.”
In late 1949, “when thousands of Jews wanted to leave Iraq, their motivation, as Esther Meir-Glizenstern notes, included ‘some (who) were Zionists who wanted to move to Israel for ideological reasons; others had simply despaired of Jewish integration’ in Iraqi society.”
When conditions allowed it, tens of thousands of Iraqi Jews “crossed into Iran. Neither the Iraqis [nor] the Israelis were prepared for this, and the mass immigration caused political and economic turmoil in Iraq.”
On March 5, 1950, “the Iraqi Senate passed Law No. 1 of 1950, which allowed Jews to renounce their citizenship in exchange for the right to emigrate.” Goldstein-Sabbah says that the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) played an important role in this process, financing the emigration, “the transit camp in Iran, and the airlifts to Israel in 1951 and 1952, also acting as intermediary, at times, between Israel and Iraq.” The airlift was estimated to cost $2.3 million.
The 2003 documentary Forget Baghdad substantiates Goldstein-Sabbah’s argument that neither Israel nor Baghdadi Jews were prepared for such mass migration. Upon arrival in Israel, Iraqi Jews were sprayed with anti-insect compounds and housed in camps. They had lost their property in Iraq and their lives’ savings, in addition to having to sever their emotional connection with the city that they had been born and raised in.
Yet Baghdadi Jews — including the Kuwaiti Brothers — picked up their pieces, found jobs in Israel, rebuilt their lives and integrated. To Israelis, such was the cost of population swap between their new country and the Arabs.
All said and done, over 120,000 Jews migrated from Iraq to Israel, representing 18 percent of the total number of the 700,000 Palestinians who left (or were forced to leave) what became Israel. Palestinians never accepted the swap, and still insist today that they be allowed to return.
In 2002, when the Arab League passed the Beirut Peace Initiative stipulating the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel, and the return of Palestinians, not to the to-be-created Palestine but to Israel itself, Israeli authorities started compiling a list of all the property that Jews had lost when they left (or were forced to leave) Arab countries.
Israel estimated the number of Arab Jews who moved to Israel — during the early days of the state — at 700,000, a number that equals that of Palestinians who had moved out of Israel. Such is the conversation (population and territory swap) that takes place when peace becomes a possibility. But this is a conversation for another article, perhaps a review of Lyn Julius’s book Uprooted, or a future Goldstein-Sabbah book.