Leaving Paradise Adam Shatz * BuyMemories of Eden: A Journey through Jewish Baghdad by Violette Shamash, edited by Mira Rocca
and Tona Rocca Forum, 326 pp, £14.99, February 2008, ISBN 978 0 9557095 0 0 * BuyBaghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew by Sasson Somekh Ibis, 186 pp, £9.50, November 2007, ISBN 978 965 90125 8 9 On 27 April 1950 a man whose passport identified him as Richard Armstrong flew from Amsterdam to Baghdad. He came as a representative of Near East Air Transport, an American charter company seeking to win a contract with Iraq’s prime minister, Tawfiq al-Suwaida, to fly Iraqi Jews to Cyprus. Only six weeks earlier, the Iraqi government had passed the Denaturalisation Act, which allowed Jews to emigrate provided they renounced their citizenship, and gave them a year to decide whether to do so. Al-Suwaida expected that between seven and ten thousand Jews would leave out of a community of about 125,000, but a mysterious bombing in Baghdad on the last day of Passover, near a café frequented by Jews, caused panic, and the numbers registering soon outstripped his estimate. The position of the Jews in Iraq had been deteriorating with alarming speed ever since the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli war in 1948: they were seen as a stalking horse for the Zionists in Palestine, and were increasingly rewarded for their expressions of loyalty to Iraq with suspicion, threats and arbitrary physical assaults. By the spring of 1950 the question was when, not whether to leave, and on 9 May NEAT signed a contract with the Iraqi government to organise their departure. For Richard Armstrong and NEAT, the uprooting of the Middle East’s most ancient Jewish community was not a mere business transaction: it was a mission. Armstrong was really Shlomo (né Selim) Hillel, an Iraqi-born Mossad agent; NEAT was secretly owned by the Jewish Agency; and Israel, not Cyprus, was the refugees’ ultimate destination. It’s unlikely that alSuwaida and the minister of the interior, Saleh Jabr, were fooled. Hillel claimed to be the ‘swarthy-skinned son’ of a British colonial official who’d worked in India, but he didn’t look much like an Armstrong. And he’d been arrested a few years earlier in Baghdad, where, under the alias Fuad Salah, he’d been training Zionist militants in attics and cellars. But if the Iraqis knew who he was, they didn’t call his bluff: they owned shares in the tourism agency in Baghdad through which NEAT had chosen to operate, and stood to benefit from the deal. ‘We parted on the most cordial terms,’ Hillel remembered in his memoir, Operation Babylon. By the end of 1952, almost all of Iraq’s Jews had fled, in what Mossad called Operation Ezekiel and Nehemiah. The exodus of Mesopotamia’s Jews, who traced their origins back to the destruction of the first temple in 587 BCE, would have seemed unthinkable at the beginning of the 20th century. As Violette Shamash
connected by maslak. ground-floor corridors. and as members of a non-Muslim ‘millet’ community they were obliged to pay a discriminatory tax. rather than
. the palace her merchant father built on the banks of the Tigris. however. apart from a handful of Kurdish Jews. life seems idyllic until things go bad. This tolerance. until ‘the poison of Arab nationalism and Nazism entered the bloodstream’. and further advance seemed inevitable.writes. they had become the country’s most powerful economic group.’ Jewish life under the Ottomans wasn’t without its hardships: few Jews lived in palaces like the Shamash family. something more tangible did: security and the promise of a good life. The vast majority lived in cities. the Mesopotamian Jews were the most integrated. kebabs were grilled in a tanoor. Not only had they freely practised their faith under the Ottomans. As in most memoirs by wealthy exiles. Now it all seems a little unreal. As bankers. ‘All the communities lived together peaceably. Memories of Eden provides as sumptuous an account of the world of the Baghdadi Jewish elite as we’re likely to get. But local traditions held their ground: women wore amulets to protect themselves from the Evil Eye and Muslim healers were consulted when children fell sick. the place where the Talmud was written and Jewish law codified. seeking to expose the ‘myth’ of Muslim tolerance. Shamash’s extended family lived in the qasr’s separate wings. is not alone in describing her family’s life before the arrival of British troops in World War One as ‘paradise’. a mango pickle that Baghdadi Jews working in India brought home with them. even to her: ‘I feel as if I am telling you a dream and that it will be very hard for you to join the pieces together. teasing each other good-naturedly and without inhibition about their religion. who was born in 1912 and spent the last twenty years of her life recording her memories of ‘my Baghdad. a wood-burning clay oven. And there was hardly an area of Mesopotamian culture on which Jews had not left their imprint. if not cruel Muslim overlords.’ Shamash writes. a French network established throughout the Middle East. tell a very different story: Shamash. facing what is now the Green Zone. the most Arabised. and Shamash was sent to a school run by the Alliance Israëlite Universelle. The memoirs of Iraqi Jews. It’s a portrait of the city as seen from inside a qasr. it’s argued. the most prosperous. my native land’. Babylon was the home of ‘our patriarch Abraham Abinou’. but they were mostly left to look after their own affairs. is a euphemism for dependence on the goodwill of capricious. the country’s first Western department store. Of all the Jewish communities in the Middle East. The fragrance of walnut and apricot trees pervaded the garden. Europe exerted a strong attraction: the family shopped at Orosdi-Beck. traders and money-lenders the wealthier members of the community had made themselves indispensable: so much so that Baghdad’s markets shut down on the Jewish Sabbath.[*] Recent polemics – and pro-Israeli websites – have made much of the indignities of Jewish life under Ottoman rule. And if distant memories weren’t enough to bind Jews to their ancestral home. from the style of music performed in Baghdad’s cafés to the wafting amba.
the Ezras. giving the distinct impression that they regarded themselves as separate from and superior to the emerging national community. Rangoon. For us Mesopotamia is a home. ‘The Jews of Baghdad were defeated from the start. ‘is a poor country and Jerusalem a bad town to live in’: Compared with Palestine. This is the Garden of Eden. with whom they had already had contact during a century of trade under colonial rule in India. Shanghai and Hong Kong. The British. a national home to which the Jews of Bombay and Persia and Turkey will be glad to come.’ Elie Kedourie. opium) that stretched all the way to Manchester.the Muslim day of rest. Shamash writes that Baghdad’s Jews and the British felt an ‘instant connection’: ‘the British saw that there was much to gain from befriending us. When the British conquered Baghdad in 1918. early on. a group of Jewish notables petitioned for British citizenship. leaving Mesopotamia for the kibbutz was the furthest thing from the minds of Baghdad’s Jews. Palestine. reported to the Foreign Office after a meeting with a group of Iraqi Jewish notables. in 1921. After this was rejected. where a mandate was established in 1919. seeking to harness – and neutralise – the energies of Arab nationalism. the civil commissioner in Baghdad. said one. with its special protections for non-Muslim minorities. to fateful miscalculations. would become the Arab kingdom of Iraq.’ Arnold Wilson. concluded in 1970 in The Chatham House Version. the Kadouries – with their empires in finance and imports (cotton. ‘The announcement aroused no interest in Mesopotamia. Baghdad’s Jews failed to grasp that the rules of the Ottoman game. Baghdad was famous for its Jewish dynasties – the Sassoons. Bombay. they had said. ‘The situation was completely beyond their understanding. Basra and Mosul. By the 19th century.’ Mesopotamia’s Jews resigned themselves to becoming Iraqis only when it was made plain to them that the alternative was not to become British subjects but to remain Ottomans and be treated as foreigners in their own
. it is from this country that Adam was driven forth – give us a good government and we will make this country flourish. Mesopotamia was paradise. Calcutta. Jewish fear of majority rule led. Singapore. on the grounds that their Muslim neighbours weren’t ready ‘to undertake with success the management of their own affairs’. no longer applied in the British-ruled provinces of Baghdad. nor did it leave a ripple on the surface of local political thought in Baghdad. the president of the Jewish lay council and the acting chief rabbi appealed for direct British rule. the Abrahams. silk. a British historian of Baghdadi Jewish origin. tea. When Balfour announced Britain’s support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. were in no position to grant this request. tobacco.’ True: but the wealthier members of the community expected more from this friendship than the British could offer if they hoped to maintain peaceful relations with the Muslim majority of what.
’ he assured his audience. who styled himself a Pan-Arabist and dabbled in Nazi doctrine. But the Zionists in Palestine claimed to speak in the name of the Jewish people. Yet they were to suffer increasingly from their association with Faisal and al-Said. worried about staying too long in the city. especially after the death of King Faisal in 1933. Faisal. who served as Iraq’s prime minister a total of 14 times. Britain’s man in Baghdad. Western-educated. The Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930. built on false pretences and kept going by a British design and for a British purpose’.’ Another powerful ally of the Jewish community was Nuri al-Said. allowed the British to keep control of Iraqi foreign policy. Faisal’s son and successor. a paramilitary brigade modelled on the Hitler Youth. For the first decade of Iraq’s existence. began to threaten Jews in the streets. Urbane. ‘there is simply a country called Iraq and all are Iraqis. Shortly after being installed by the British. Jews handled 75 per cent of imports – they were twice guilty by association. concluded three years after oil was discovered in Kirkuk. they fared well under the protection of the country’s new king. King Ghazi. itself partly directed by British advisers who stayed on after independence. before the mandate came to an end. Already resented for their enormous economic power – 2 per cent of the population. notably Sir Kinahan Cornwallis. ‘our men started coming home early. they were identified with the British mandate – and with Jewish colonisation – in Palestine. and thus in their name as well. imposed a tax on Jews whenever they left the country. Lawrence’s awe and Gertrude Bell’s unrequited love. The Germans had their eyes on the country’s oil. As Kedourie noted. a severe Arabist who had attracted T. Fritz Grobba. As friends of the British. Iraq’s Jews were an easy scapegoat for anticolonial fury. As Shamash recalls. the king met a group of Jewish leaders at the chief rabbi’s home. the former ruler of Syria and son of Hussein. for example. That design and that purpose found expression in a series of humiliating ‘agreements’ in which the country’s sovereignty was signed away. As if one mandate weren’t enough of a burden. the Iraqi political class disdained the monarchy as ‘a make-believe kingdom. and British dominance guaranteed. ran the economy and helped lay the foundations of the modern Iraqi state. Jews staffed the civil service. In fact. and shrewdly cultivated Arab nationalists in the Iraqi army by playing on anti-British and anti-Zionist sentiments. and often hostile. the sharif of Mecca. The Futuwaa. ‘There is no meaning in the words Jews. Muslims and Christians in the terminology of patriotism.E. until the overthrow of the monarchy – and his assassination – in 1958.country. and befriended Hitler’s assiduous ambassador to Baghdad. Nothing they said or did to oppose Zionism – even donations to Palestinian fighters – protected them from being portrayed in the Iraqi press and radio as a fifth column. to Zionism: whatever pride some took in the creation of a Jewish ‘national home’ was more than offset by the worry that it would endanger them in Iraq. as they were also doing in Jerusalem and Cairo.’
. often fluent in both Arabic and English. they were indifferent.
The farhud continued for two days. The mufti launched a campaign of incitement against the Jews. out of respect for Iraqi sovereignty. ‘recovery’ and ‘consolidation’. pan-Arab colonels led by Rashid Ali al-Gailani. In May the British invaded to restore the regent. who was born in 1933. Iraq was part of a larger Arab nation. the farhud (‘breakdown of law and order’) of June 1941. a group of pro-German. in which the ‘Jewish community
. some. Haj Amin al-Husseini. the British refused to secure the capital. and became a key adviser to the Golden Square. They were furious to see the Jews in all their finery. and the right to build naval and military bases. defeated but fully armed Golden Square soldiers were permitted to enter Baghdad. For the Golden Square. who remained on the right bank of the Tigris. Despite threats from al-Gailani’s supporters that the Jews would be punished for ‘treason’. they assumed they had dressed up for the regent. Indeed. The British invasion. remembers the 1940s as a ‘golden age’ of ‘security’. The presence of British bayonets. however. Ghazi was killed in a car accident – possibly an assassination engineered by Nuri al-Said and the British – and replaced by his pro-British uncle. ‘There will be many people killed if our troops do not enter. To preserve the fiction that Britain had not so much occupied Iraq as restored its legitimate government. the Golden Square overthrew the regent and concluded a secret treaty with the Axis that would have allowed them oil and pipeline concessions. No help came from the British. washed away by ‘the prosperity experienced by the entire city from 1941 to 1948’. the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. but Cornwallis ordered British soldiers to remain on the outskirts of Baghdad when the regent returned. Yet Sasson Somekh insists that the farhud was not ‘the beginning of the end’. led to the worst assault on Jewish life and property in the history of Iraq. Most Jews hid in their basements. however.) That same year. Somekh. in which Jews were an irremediably foreign element. an orgy of murder.’ one intelligence officer warned. some. the lease of ports. Iraqi oil might have fuelled Operation Barbarossa. Had they not done so. After the farhud wealthy Jews began to leave Iraq. not the Jewish Sabbath. As these soldiers crossed the Khir Bridge to the western side of Baghdad that morning. In April 1941. (Ghazi’s four-year-old son was too young to serve as king. like Shamash and her family. he claims it was soon ‘almost erased from the collective Jewish memory’. It was 1 June. in 1939. would be ‘lowering to the dignity of our ally’. they passed small groups of Jews walking in the opposite direction after prayer services to welcome the regent. he argued. took refuge in Baghdad after the defeat of the Arab revolt in Palestine. and since it was Sunday. like Shamash’s family. Emir Abd al-Ilah. where there were entire communities of Baghdadi Jews.Jewish nerves were calmed somewhat when. then knives. were given shelter by Muslim neighbours. the mufti of Jerusalem. singly rather than in formation. joined relatives in India. rape and arson that left two hundred Jews and a number of Muslims dead. first with fists. The Jews were set upon.
newspapers in Iraq were calling for a boycott of Jewish shops. This suspicion of Jews was encouraged by a weak and reviled government for whom Arab nationalism was a crude but effective weapon. and though he doesn’t shy away from the strains of Arab-Jewish relations in Iraq. at Bretton Woods. who did not take their ingratitude lightly. And Jews marched in the demonstrations of February 1948 known as the Wathba. which ensured Britain’s dominance over Iraq’s economy and foreign policy for the next 25 years. allowing Jews to join ranks with other Iraqis – even in opposition to the British and Nuri al-Said.had regained its full creative drive’. which braved threats from the Zionist underground and would later. were also Arabs. three months after the Wathba. In 1946. Until 1948. leading protests against the British and strikes in the oil industry. Jewish integration was doomed by the war in Palestine. his wry. a world in which it would be possible for a young man like Somekh to consider himself both a Jew and an Arab. Many of the writers Somekh knew in Iraq were in the orbit of the Communist Party. be accused of being a Zionist front itself by Nuri al-Said. Somekh grew up in a mixed neighbourhood of Baghdad known as the Lettuce Beds. showing every sign of wanting to stay. the state of Israel was proclaimed. his literary mentors. Liberal nationalists and Communists rallied people behind a conception of national identity far more inclusive than the Golden Square’s Pan-Arabism. Baghdad. Jews built new homes. browsed in the same bookshops and dreamed of an independent. A week later. absurdly. schools and hospitals. and al-Said imposed martial law. wistful memoir is an elegy for an experiment in coexistence. distracting attention from its colonial docility. He has written a gentle book about one of the least gentle of historical relationships. Some joined the Zionist underground. His subtitle is ‘The Making of an Arab Jew’. who felt betrayed by Jewish involvement in the Communist opposition. to ‘liberate’ Iraqis from the ‘economic slavery and domination imposed by the Jewish minority’. and developing an Iraqi civic identity that transcended sect. and from its poor military
. but many more waved the red flag. the Communists succeeded in ‘channelling popular anger against “imperialism” and “Zionism” rather than specifically towards the Jews’. which became the most powerful opposition force in the 1940s. modern state. They took part in politics as never before. in which Iraqis of all sects protested against the Portsmouth Treaty. The league published a newspaper that had a readership of six thousand. larger than the entire Zionist movement in Iraq. secular. On 15 May 1948. to whom he pays tribute. according to Somekh. the Arab armies invaded. Yesterday evokes a world in which Arab and Jewish writers met in cafés on al-Rashid Street. Iraq was represented by Ibrahim alKabir. He studied Arabic under a Shia cleric from the al-Sadr dynasty and began writing Arabic poetry in his teens. rather than a Zionist parable about its impossibility. or ‘leap forward’. a group of Jewish Communists formed the League for Fighting Zionism. the Jewish finance minister.
Israel warned. The Israeli government circulated stories about Iraqi ‘pogroms’ and ‘concentration camps’ and denounced the hanging of seven Jews charged with Zionist activism in March 1949 – executions that Mossad’s own agents in Baghdad insisted had never occurred. The event that shook Iraq’s Jews most profoundly was the show trial and execution in 1948 of a businessman with strong connections to the monarchy. The Jewish population grew more receptive to the overtures of Mossad. They praised his essay. The US
. some agents entering the country as volunteers with the British army during the 1941 invasion. invoking Stalin’s support of partition. elimination of awkward minorities is likely to cool rather than fan the flames. Pamphlets appeared discouraging Jews from mixing with Arabs. it would back armed resistance to alSaid’s government. By 1950. an idea quietly encouraged by the Foreign Office: ‘National exuberance is a phenomenon which is going to last a long time in the Middle East. thousands of Jews had fled. no one was. who was hanged outside his Basra mansion before cheering crowds. the Iraqi government declared Zionism a capital offence. The Israelis also began to promote the idea of a ‘sorting out’ of populations. found another pretext to round up Communists of all sects. but to hasten their departure. Shafiq Adas.performance in Palestine. or find itself unable to prevent Iraqi Jews already in Israel from killing Palestinians in revenge. Embarrassed by this ‘wildcat immigration’. fired Jews in government positions and. The freezing of Palestinian assets by the Israeli government and the arrival in Iraq of eight thousand Palestinian refugees in the summer of 1948 did nothing to calm things. it was also among the reasons they were in such desperate need of one. Somekh remembers his terror when. On the whole. many crossed into Iran on horseback with the help of Arab and Kurdish smugglers.’ If Israel was a sanctuary for Iraq’s Jews. and arguing that any attempt to do so ‘leads to butchery’. on charges of supplying British army scrap to Israel. Among the Jewish victims of anti-Communist repression was the brother of one of Somekh’s friends. Responding to a wave of popular anger. Mossad’s objective was not to improve the position of the Jews in Iraq. Unless Iraqi Jews were allowed to emigrate. which had become increasingly active in Iraq since the Golden Square took power. who was hanged in Baghdad’s main square. the Iraqi Chamber of Deputies decided to take matters into its own hands with the Denaturalisation Law of 4 March 1950. involving a swap of Iraqi Jews for an equal number of Palestinian refugees. was by all accounts an apolitical man: if he wasn’t safe. after answering an exam question about Iraq’s recent history with a Marxist analysis of the country’s subordination to British interests. he found ‘three official-looking men’ waiting for him outside the classroom. but the next day the principal warned him to ‘avoid such opinionated displays because they put both you and the school at risk’.
was Israel’s goal. But soon after the Baath Party seized power in 1963.Embassy in Baghdad agreed with Tawfiq al-Suwaida that mass emigration was unlikely. About six thousand Jews chose to remain in Iraq. not a peace settlement. but he ‘saw no one kneeling down to kiss the
. or of anyone else’s. and it needed more Jews to settle the land. who abolished the monarchy and espoused a cosmopolitan vision of Iraqi identity. though there is no proof of Mossad’s responsibility. it was one of these tacit. in a CIA-backed coup. had to be pushed into leaving. As Kedourie bitterly remarked. Sasson Khedourie. Israel had conquered 20 per cent more territory than it had been allotted under the partition agreement. Saddam Hussein urged listeners to Baghdad Radio to ‘come and enjoy the feast’. Israel ‘set out to help the Iraqi government to achieve its national unity. About a dozen Jews remain in Iraq today. fearing that neither the economy nor the state itself could survive the transfer of capital to a country that had expelled most of its Arab population. in a series of attacks which began with the Abu Nawas bombing in April 1950 and resumed in 1951. Somekh flew to Israel on 21 March 1951 with two hundred other Jews. responsible leadership of Iraqi Jews believed this to be their country – in good times and bad – and we were convinced the trouble would pass?’ Iraq’s Jews. as the deadline to register to leave Iraq approached. who had tended to wait for trouble to pass. so long as Israel ‘pursues a policy of moderation and agrees to a peace settlement considered not too unreasonable by the Arabs’. and hundreds of thousands duly turned out. By 8 March. when the deadline was due to expire. more than one hundred thousand Jews had registered. Their lot improved fleetingly in the late 1950s under the revolutionary government of General Abdel Karim Qassem. Their ‘exile’ had ended. And pushed they were. But the ‘ingathering of the exiles’. The British and the Americans weren’t pleased about this decision. wondered. particularly along the border. Jews were forced to carry yellow identity cards. ‘Why didn’t someone point out that the solid. for strategic as much as sentimental reasons. It’s long been rumoured – and many Iraqi Jews fiercely believe it – that Israeli agents orchestrated these bombings in order to drive the Jews to emigrate. The Arab defeat in 1967 led to an ‘anti-Zionist’ campaign that culminated in the 1969 hanging of eight Jewish ‘spies’ in Liberation Square. not Baghdad. The next day the Iraqi Chamber of Deputies froze Jewish assets. ‘Why didn’t someone come to see us instead of negotiating with Israel to take in Iraqi Jews?’ the chief rabbi of Baghdad.’ The Foreign Office learned of the agreement between al-Suwaida and ‘Richard Armstrong’ of Near East Air Transport through its channels in Tel Aviv. monstrous complicities not entirely unknown to history. Jews would be allowed to leave with only 50 dinars. but saw no way of protesting the Jews’ expropriation when Israel had refused to compensate Palestinian refugees.
which thought it unwise to revive such memories. who were now determined to erase any trace of the East.’ the novelist Samir Nakkash recalls in Forget Baghdad. their homes occupied: scenes with which the Jews who remembered the farhud were all too familiar. 1925-29 (Honest Jon’s Records). Somekh was temporarily held at an absorption camp on the coast near Haifa. An elite in their own country. We angrily protested the fact that overnight we had been transformed from people into goods. That Abraham and Jonah had lived in Mesopotamia was irrelevant to Ben-Gurion: ‘we don’t want Israelis to become Arabs. But it wasn’t the conditions that caused the Iraqi Jews to despair so much as the denigration of their culture in Ashkenazi-dominated Israel. Before they could leave the plane. most brutal expulsions of the war. they were now cast as a ‘primitive’. while immigration officials decided which transit camp he would be sent to – a process known as siddur. descendants of the despised Ostjuden. an arresting documentary about Iraqi-Jewish writers in Israel. And though many Iraqi Jews. where. bitter at their treatment at the hands of Arabs. which means “the exporting of goods”.sacred ground’. became supporters of the political right in Israel. imported and exported by Yiddish-speaking clerks. on 13 July 1948. Scores of refugees from Lydda and the neighbouring town of Ramleh died of hunger and thirst on the forced march eastwards to Ramallah. Give Me Love: Songs of the Brokenhearted – Baghdad. They landed in Lydda.’ The transit camps were open-air holding centres with tents made of corrugated tin: ‘We lived in palaces and they put us in tents. ********* Letters
.’ he said with his usual bluntness. and the Iraqi Jews were dangerously close to being Arabs in Israel. Israeli forces led by Yitzhak Rabin had driven more than thirty thousand Palestinians from their homes in one of the largest. Somekh tried to establish a solidarity association with the Iraqi people with the aim of documenting ‘the co-operation and good neighbourliness between the Jews and other Iraqis. a potential ‘source of Saddamist subversion’.’ His application was rejected by the Registrar of Non-Profit Associations in Jerusalem. requiring tutelage from Ashkenazi Jews. since it ‘sounded very much like the Arabic tasdir. the racism they encountered made it impossible for them to identify fully with the movement that brought them ‘home’. inferior people. passengers were told to remain seated while a man sprayed them with DDT – a greeting none of them forgot. He hated the word. The towns were looted afterwards. [*] The contribution of Iraqi Jews to Arabic and Kurdish music is surveyed in a startling new anthology of archival recordings. In the early 1990s. so that the coming generations would know about this wonderful connection that had characterised Jewish life in the Arab world for 1500 years.
30 No. but already in 1949 the Iraqi prime minister. The Jews did not leave because they were pushed by Zionist rumours or bombs. have been denied citizenship and expelled from Iraq. could not travel abroad. accepting only fourteen thousand Palestinian Arabs. but so did Holocaust survivors. The Jewish Agency could not cope with the influx and told the Zionist movement in Baghdad not to rush.000 Iraqi Jews. having lost everything. making his last futile appeal against the Denaturalisation Bill in March 1950. they did experience prejudice. 6 November). had floated the idea of a population exchange and threatened to expel the Jews as revenge for the Iraqi army’s defeat in Palestine. Iraqi Jews would not have gone so far as to attempt large-scale flight from the country. 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. ‘But for these severe handicaps. They were housed in dusty refugee camps for up to 12 years.’ the Jewish senator Ezra Daniel said. Until Iraq permitted legal emigration. and sixty thousand Jews had registered to leave before the only fatal bombing in January 1951. 23 · 4 December 2008 From Lyn Julius Adam Shatz casts a spotlight on the destruction of one of the oldest Jewish diasporas. were denied work and suffered restrictions in business.Vol. Iraq-born Palestinians. the Jews were despised. to quote Elie Kedourie. Before the Ottomans were forced by the Western powers to emancipate their Jews and Christians. Today the Iraqi community is one of the most successfully integrated in Israel. Bombs and murders in 1936 had not led to a mass exodus. Nuri al-Said. Jews were being smuggled out at a rate of a thousand a month – because they were banned from higher education. while Israel took in 120. The Jews of Iraq petitioned for British citizenship not out of an ‘instant connection’ with Britain. He schemed to bring Israel to its knees by dumping thousands of stateless and destitute Jews on Israel’s borders. The Iraqi Jews had every right to be bitter when they arrived in Israel. persecuted and never really secure. Shatz implies that Israel encouraged the Jewish exodus. At the time. And so it proved. Iraq reneged on its part of the exchange. but out of fear that Arab rule would be ‘politically irresponsible … fanatic and intolerant’. The rich man’s paradise Shatz evokes only really existed towards the end of the 19th century. taunted on arrival as ‘sabon’ (soap).
. Ezras and Kedouries fled the tyrannical rule of Daoud Pasha to make their fortunes outside Meso-potamia in India and the Far East. 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. meanwhile. the Sassoons.
It ended in 1951. 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’. and the rise in anti-Jewish incitement and violence. But these developments were not unrelated to the British presence and the war in
. Mossad’s man in Baghdad. Jews experienced periods of difficulty and injustice. an idea that had been circulating in Zionist circles for two decades. confidence and stability’.’ the Mossad office in Baghdad reported to Tel Aviv before the Denaturalisation Act was passed. the airlift to Israel was named Operation Ezra (not Ezekiel) and Nehemiah. and while Daniel was speaking out against the bill. Shlomo Hillel. He collaborated covertly with the Iraqi government to co-ordinate Operation Ezra and Nehemiah (as Julius rightly calls it). the Iraqi government’s position was that Palestinians should return home or be compensated by Israel. the Israeli government and Mossad were doing everything in their power to speed its passage. And though Nuri al-Said flirted in 1949 with the idea of a population exchange. 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 if they had been persecuted to the degree Lyn Julius suggests. while Iraq had no interest in settling Palestinian refugees (who for their part wanted to return home). not 1952. according to Tom Segev in 1949: The First Israelis. Restrictions on movement and employment. but she doesn’t quote his plea to ‘restore to Iraqi Jews their sense of security. Julius cites Ezra Daniel’s protest against the Denaturalisation Bill. And while Elie Kedourie cited the concern of Jewish notables that the Arabs would be fanatical and intolerant. Israel wanted to populate the land with Jews. It was Shamash who said that Iraq’s Jews petitioned for British citizenship out of an ‘instant connection’ with their new rulers. it’s not likely so many would have continued to describe themselves as ‘Ottomans’ long after the empire’s collapse. ‘We are carrying on our usual activity in order to push the law through faster and faster.Incidentally. It could not ‘renege’ on an agreement it had never reached with Israel. Lyn Julius London SW5 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. he had only one objective: to promote mass emigration. Like all non-Muslim minorities. But the situations are not symmetrical: Israel was determined to settle the Iraqi Jews in the Jewish state. makes no secret of the fact that in setting up Zionist cells. and their emigration from Arab countries had the advantage of supplying a further alibi for denying Palestinians their right of return. certainly encouraged Jews to emigrate.
Father of the Bombs’.Palestine – or to the pressures exerted by Israel and its intelligence services.
. We may never know whether the bombs were laid by Zionist agents. it’s an indication that Iraq’s Jews have long believed that Israel had a hand in their exodus. was known as Morad Abu al-Knabel. a leader of the Iraqi-Jewish underground. Folklore or not. or ‘Morad. but we do know that Mossad’s responsibility is taken for granted by many Iraqi Jews: Morad Qazzaz.