Sunday, June 18, 2023

  • Sunday, June 18, 2023
  • Elder of Ziyon
The Spectator writes:

Avi Shlaim’s family led the good life in Baghdad. Prosperous and distinguished members of Iraq’s Jewish minority, a community which could trace its presence in Babylon back more than 2,500 years, they had a large house with servants and nannies, went to the best schools, rubbed shoulders with the great and the good and sashayed elegantly from one glittering party to the next. Shlaim’s father was a successful businessman who counted ministers as friends. His much younger mother was a socially ambitious beauty who attracted admirers, from Egypt’s King Farouk to a Mossad recruiter. For this privileged section of Iraqi society, it was a rich, cosmopolitan and generally harmonious milieu. And for the young Shlaim, born in Baghdad in 1945, these were halcyon days.

They were not to last. In 1950, during a series of bombings targeting the Jewish population in the Iraqi capital, he and his family fled their ancient homeland to begin new lives in the fledgling state of Israel. His father, by then in his fifties, could not speak Hebrew and was completely undone by the move. After a couple of failed attempts to start a business, he never worked again. Shlaim’s vivacious mother was forced to take up the slack, exchanging the gilded life of a society hostess in Baghdad for a mundane job as a telephonist in Ramat Gan, east of Tel Aviv, where they lived in much diminished circumstances. The couple drifted apart and divorced, and Shlaim’s father died in 1970.

At the heart of this riveting and profoundly controversial book is Shlaim’s investigation into the Baghdad bombings against Jewish targets in 1950 and 1951. Between those years around 110,000 Jews of a population of approximately 135,000 emigrated from Iraq to Israel. Although Israel has consistently denied any involvement in these attacks, suspicion has hung over the clandestine activities of Zionist agents tasked with persuading the Jewish community to flee Iraq and settle in Israel. Shlaim’s bombshell is to uncover what he terms “undeniable proof of Zionist involvement in the terrorist attacks,” which helped terminate the millennial presence of Jews in Babylon. It is quite a charge — and will always be hotly disputed.
The review does not say what the "undeniable proof" is, so I cannot investigate whether what he says is true or not.

Here is what we do know.

There were seven bombings in Iraq against Jewish targets or Jewish owned businesses in 1950-51. Only one was fatal, which was the only one targeting a synagogue - the January 1951 hand grenade to the courtyard of the Masouda Shem-Tov Synagogue that killed three or four Jews. By that time already 86,000 Iraqi Jews had registered to go to Israel and the exodus was full blown. It makes no sense that Jews would have thrown that bomb when it wouldn't have added to the exodus. Indeed, the Jews killed that day were themselves waiting in line to register to emigrate to Israel.  

From the parts of Shlaim's book that can be seen online, he appears to say that this only fatal bombing was done by a Syrian Muslim, not Jews:

So, at worst, Shlaim is claiming (at least according to this review) that some of the earlier bombs that didn't kill anyone were the main impetus to cause Jews to leave Iraq. 

That is simply not true. 

By all accounts, Iraqi Jews - at least up until the 1930s - were prosperous and secure, living in the same country for 2500 years. They felt at least as secure as Jews in the US and Canada do today. Does it make sense that nearly all of them would emigrate en masse from a series of non-fatal bombs? It would make more sense that millions of Americans would move to Israel in response to the Tree of Life synagogue attack where 11 Jews were murdered. 

Clearly the bombings had little or no impact on Iraqi Jews, at least not compared to the real persecution that they suffered from the Iraqi government itself.  And  there were other Jews killed in Iraq between Israel's declaration of independence and the Iraqi exodus. 

Newspaper stories at the time of the Iraqi exodus gave many reasons that a secure and mostly prosperous community would decide to leave suddenly - and leave everything behind. And when you look at the news stories from 1949-1951 about Iraqi Jewry, plenty of examples of persecution are given - and almost none of them even mentions bombings.

Here is a 1951 account by a UJA official, Morris W. Berinstein proud of his organization's role in airlifting the Iraqi Jews:

 In the early nineteen thirties, when British controls were relaxed in Iraq, and the Arabs were beginning to form their own state, the Jews of Iraq, theretofore secure, began to worry for their safety. Although the government never' passed an overtly anti-Jewish law, Arab nationalism created an ugly atmosphere for Iraq's minorities. 

When Hitler came into power, Nazi propaganda flourished in Iraq. Soon Jewish civil servants were being discharged from their jobs. Anti-Jewish feeling pervaded the country. 

In 1937, there were violent anti-Jewish demonstrations in Baghdad. In 1938, nitric acid was poured on Jewish passers-by. In 1938, there were riots and the police did nothing to prevent rioters from firing on Jewish homes. During the riots, 150 Jews were killed and more than 700 wounded. Throughout the next ten years, the economic status of the Jews in Iraq steadily deteriorated. 

...Then, in 1948, Iraq joined the other Arab states in the war against Israel. And Iraq's Jews found themselves being subjected to searches, arrest, denunciation, torture, mass imprisonment, fines, impoverishment, and the slow destruction of all rights. Iraq declared martial law during this period. The Jews of Iraq found out that for them this meant searches of homes at night, confiscation of valuables, arrests and "trials" by martial courts.

On the Day of Atonement in 1949, 150 soldiers surrounded a synagogue in El Amara, seized the men wrapped in prayer shawls worshipping there—and arrested them. The charge? There were Stars of David on their prayer shawls. For it was now a crime — a capital crime — to be a Zionist in Iraq, to emigrate to Israel, .to help others emigrate. 

And every Jew in Iraq was considered a Zionist. The unofficial persecution became worse and worse . The judge in a martial court would slap and kick the defendant before pronouncing the sentence. Young men where kidnapped, beaten, forced to confess they were taking part in "Zionist" activities. Shops were looted. Homes were unsafe for Jews. Men were sentenced to years of hard labor for receiving a letter from Palestine! 

Jews were not only forbidden to emigrate to Palestine, but even to visit there. Iraq passports were stamped, "Not valid for travel to Palestine." 

After the establishment of Israel in 1948, this policy continued. And then, suddenly, in March, 1950, the government of Iraq reversed its stand on emigration. Both chambers of the parliament passed a law authorizing Iraqi 'Jews to leave by May 31, 1951. The price was relinquishment of Iraq nationality. 
The Guardian, April 13, 1951, also enumerates a litany of injustices to the Jews of Iraq, and blames it on  Iraqi nationalism that excluded Jews from their country:

This movement has the aspect of a stampede, and it is not to be assumed that a people so deeply rooted in the place as the Iraqi Jews would, except under the most compelling necessity, uproot themselves as completely as they are doing and give up all they have: their positions, their educational and communal organisation, and their own way of life. The stampede, then, is a result of an acute feeling of insecurity. The feeling became acute as a result of the war in Palestine, but it must not be supposed that it was not there before the events in Palestine brought it to the surface. The feeling of insecurity was there for perhaps the last twenty years; it dates, in fact, from the time when the death of Faisul removed the one person of influence in Iraqi politics capable of tolerance and fair-mindedness. 

One can see now in retrospect the slow but sure process whereby a minority was made to feel unwelcome in the land it had inhabited for something like two thousand years. The "numerus clausus" in schools and colleges, the gradual elimination of all Jews whose services could be dispensed with from Government employment, the tightening control over the educational system of the community, the molestations, murders, and bomb-throwings which went unpunished, the discrimination against Jews in administrative action, the pogrom of 1941, the increasing restrictions on the movements of Jewish citizens—the record is curiously like the dreary and familiar history of European anti-Semitism. That the Jews of Iraq were not loyal and useful citizens cannot be maintained; neither can it be .maintained that there was ever among any class of the Moslem population a hate or a dislike for their Jewish neighbours, so that the conclusion at the present moment seems inescapable : if you introduce, foster, and encourage nationalism " a l'europeenne" in an area where it was previously unknown the life of minorities becomes intolerable. 

Soon after the kingdom of Iraq got its full independence from the mandatory in the early thirties, its officials in the Ministry of Education devised a curriculum in modern history for the use of primary and secondary schools The perspective given by this curriculum was somewhat peculiar for it consisted in large part of the story of the attainment of national unity and independence by Germany. Italy, and Japan in the nineteenth century There seems to be an intimate connection between this kind of curriculum and the fortunes of the Jews of Iraq in the last twenty years. The Palestine war provided the culmination of a long story initiated by a nationalism introduced, " de toutes pieces," from Europe. And the culmination, too, owes a great deal to Europe, for it was the kind of treatment that European Jewry received at the hands of the anti-Semites of Europe which set up the tremendous pressures ending in the clash between Arabs and Jews which was to prove so catastrophic both for the Arabs of Palestine and for the Jews of Iraq.
Stories like the Guardian's emphasize that Iraqi Jews were reluctant to leave. This is emphasized in this article from Philip Toynbee, from the London Observer Foreign News Service, published in US newspapers December 30, 1950:

The Jewish community of Iraq is the oldest in the world, its origin traceable to that small remnant of the Captivity which never returned to Israel. Two and a half millennia later, the greater part of this antique community---they have been here at least 1,100 years longer than their Arab masters—have decided to reverse the decision of their ancestors. ...
Those who leave with, comparatively speaking, the blessings of the Iraqi government, are stripped of their belongings, even down to a spare new suit of clothes, and allowed to take only 50 pounds with them for each adult emigrant. They are also, and not unnaturally, deprived of their Iraqi passports and nationality. The temptation to slip across the frontier isito Iran, where Jewish emigrants to Israel are treated with far more tolerance and generosity, is naturally a strong one. Yet another 75.000 Iraqi Jews have made official applications to leave, in spite of the hardships and uncertainties which this change must involve. 

Even during the Palestine war of 1948 there was little in Iraq which we, by our bitter standards, would call persecution. Once, a prominent Jew, accused of sending material to Israel, was summarily hanged and his body dragged on a rope's end through the streets of Basra. Three hundred boys and young men were arrested without trial, and kept for 18 months in sufficiently brutal captivity. But physical violence has not been widespread. The tragedy of the present situation is that for so many centuries Jews and Arabs lived here in peace together, mutually respectful of each other's religion, mutually unconscious of any subtle racial effluvia. The Jews of Iraq are Arabic-speaking. and, to an outsider, quite indistinguishable in appearance from their Arab neighbours. Only religion distinguishes the two groups. 

 Yet today, though at least 50 per cent of the Baghdad retail trade is still in Jewish hands. life in Iraq has become so difficult and painful for the Jews that more than half of them have elected to face the known austerities of life in Israel. 

It would be quite unjust to see in this development a wanton aggression on the part of the Arab majority. Since the prelude and aftermath of the Palestine war, Iraq's Jews have been regarded as a potential fifth column, a group whose prime loyalty must be to the new, hated state which has been established in Zion. 

The tragic process is a spiral. Being so regarded, it is natural that the Jews of Iraq, however devoted they may have been to their ancient place of settlement, should come to see themselves primarily as Jews, not as Iraqis. 

By now the wound has been cut too deep to be easily healed. Iraq's remaining Jews live in huddled and self-conscious communities, apprehensive that they and their children may be mocked or slighted in the streets, rapidly developing that spirit of suspicious introversion which has been long imposed on the Jews of Europe. 

...Meanwhile, the Jews of Iraq are being quickly squeezed out of all official positions in the country. The board of the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce, which was one-third Jewish two years ago, is now without a single Jewish member. Jews have been summarily dismissed from government positions, and life in Iraq is becoming daily more difficult for all of them. No doubt they are right to choose hardships which will at least be suffered among their own people and without any accompanying indignity. 

Again, I don't know Shlaim's "undeniable proof" so I cannot say with certainty that no Zionists were behind some of the 1950 bombs. It is certainly true that some resentful Iraqi Jews, who did not want to leave Iraq and were not Zionist, blamed Zionists for the bombings, without any proof. We know that a 1960 Mossad inquiry requested by David Ben Gurion - whose results remained secret until 1996 - found "that no entity in Israel gave an order to perpetrate such acts of sabotage."

What is clear that Iraqi Jews didn't leave Iraq because of these bombings. They left because there was no future for them in Iraq. 

Some of them remained bitter at being forced out, and that seems to include Shalim's own wealthy family.  This book must be read through the prism of resentment towards Israel that Avi Shlaim clearly harbors, because the facts do not support his thesis that Israel was responsible for the Iraqi Jewish exodus.

UPDATE: The excellent Adin Haykin has written extensively about this.

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Elder of Ziyon - حـكـيـم صـهـيـون

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