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New Texts Out Now: Orit Bashkin, Impossible Exodus: Iraqi Jews in Israel

Orit Bashkin, Impossible Exodus: Iraqi Jews in Israel. Stanford Studies in Middle Eastern and Islamic Societies and Cultures: Stanford University Press, 2017.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Orit Bashkin (OB): Impossible Exodus tells the story of 123,000 displaced Iraqi Jews who immigrated to Israel during the years 1949-1951. I wanted to challenge the notion that Israel served as a melting pot for Jewish communities and to illustrate instead how the adoption of Israeli citizenship was a long, excruciating and traumatic experience. I also wished to write a history that did not focus on the ways in which Israeli institutions discriminated against Jews who previously resided in Middle Eastern states (Mizrahim). I preferred examining the history of individuals; I turned to the Iraqi Jews themselves: their daily life in tents and shacks; their attempts to support their families; and the resistance of Iraqi children, women, and workers to the state's policies. Similarly, I was motivated by a desire to challenge the romantic notion, prevalent in the Arab Middle East today, that all Jews of Middle Eastern descent could function as a bridge to Israel's Arab neighbors and the Palestinians, and that these Middle Eastern Jews wish to return to their countries of origin. If given the option, this narrative suggests, Iraqi, Egyptian, and Moroccan Jews will come back to their old Arab motherlands. I emphasize, alternatively, that many of these Iraqi Jews, because of enormous pressures of the state, became Israeli patriots, focusing, for example, on those Iraqi Jews who used their Arabic speaking skills in order to work in the state's intelligence, security and propaganda apparatus.  And as I was writing about poor, devastated and displaced Iraqi Jews, it was difficult not to think about the present – the Iraqi, Syrian, Yemenite, and other refugees, who, like the people I depicted, face the traumas of displacement and dehumanization.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

OB: Impossible Exodus looks at the Iraqi "exodus" to Israel to underscore the dual processes of dehumanization and rehumanization involved in migration. The book shows how in their first years in Israel Iraqi Jews were dehumanized; the state's elites treated them (as well as other migrants) as "human material" (homer enoshi), a word quite common in state documents of the time, referring to Iraqi Jews as a faceless collective whose settlement and livelihood should be determined by national considerations regarding Judaification, territorial expansion, and demographic battle against the Palestinians. I show, then, how an urban and educated Iraqi community became a transferable, silenced material. But I also analyze mechanism of rehumanization, the victories in the battle to maintain human dignity the Iraqis managed to win under impossible conditions. Inspired by literature on African American life in the USA, I underline the significance of everyday experiences of Iraqi Jews and their culture of resistance. Another important theme challenges, once again, the state's perception as "the only democracy in the Middle East." Adding to an exciting literature about Israel of the 1950s, especially by Shira Robinson and Maha Nassar, I illustrate how the ruling labor Zionist party at the time controlled the life of Iraqi Jews; I examine its corrupt electoral campaigns, the hegemony of its representatives of the transit camps where Iraqi Jews resided in shacks and tents, and its ability to determine what Iraqi Jews ate, drank, and wore, where they worked and how much they got paid. At the same time, the book argues that despite the near impossibility of powerless immigrants to challenge labor Zionism, Iraqi Jews did join Israeli political parties, wrote petitions to the ministers and politicians, and participated in electoral campaigns. While they achieved some measure of agency, Iraqi members in all parties, Iraqi Jewish activists repeatedly complained that the Israeli parties’ Eastern European leaderships were unsympathetic to their concerns, their pains, and their sufferings. Even in the a-Zionist Israeli Communist Party, where Iraqi Jewish activists forged amazing connections with Palestinian activists and intellectuals like Emile Habibi, the Eastern European leadership belittled the significance of ethnic tensions in Israel. Finally, I suggest that the term “sectarianism”, used to describe religious and ethnic relations in states like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, is more than apt to understand Israel of the 1950s. Iraqi Jews themselves used the term "sectarianism" (Arabic: ta’ifiyya) to describe how the state generated a separation between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews or between Arabic speaking Jews, Muslims and Christians. Evoking scholarship by Ussama Makdisi and Max Weiss, then, I demonstrate that with the existence of Palestinians forced to become Israeli citizens, and with the presence of large group of extremely poor Mizrahi Jews, Israel became a place where one's housing, political affiliations, and employment were often determined by one's ethnic and religious identity.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

OB: Impossible Exodus is by now a part of trilogy. I definitely did not intend to write a trilogy as I set to write my Ph.D. thesis, but I think now all parts fit thematically together: my first book, The Other Iraq, dealt with radical, democratic and progressive voices in the public sphere of monarchic Iraq, and explained how such voices were crushed by colonialism, anticommunist campaigns, and dictatorship. My second book, New Babylonians, depicted one community whose members operated within the monarchic public sphere, the Iraqi Jewish community. I analyzed its Arab culture, its Iraqi patriotism, and its democratic and left leaning activists, writers and politicians, and I explained the reasons for its eventual displacement by the Iraqi state and by the Iraqi state's irresponsible dealings with Israel. Impossible Exodus shows what happened to these Iraqi Jews in Israel. In a sense, it is the continuation of the tragedy depicted in the last chapter of New Babylonians which focused on the displacement of Iraqi Jews and their leaving Iraq. Impossible Exodus starts in the minute when these Iraqi Jews arrive to Israel and find themselves in the state's largest absorption and classification camp, called The Gate of Aliya [Sha'ar ha-Aliya].   

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

OB: Impossible Exodus, I hope, will be read by individuals interested in Middle Eastern history, Jewish history, history of migration and immigration, and scholars of ethnicity and minority cultures. I certainly want Iraqi Jews to read this book; it tells their story in Israel, perhaps for the first time. I hope Iraqis read it; I don't think many Iraqis living in Iraq and in the Diaspora know the degree of suffering of Iraqi Jews in Israel; they should know about it. I hope Israelis, and scholars of Israel, read it to learn more about the sordid history of the state. I especially hope that liberals, who believe that Israel was a functioning democracy until 1967, will face some challenges, as they discover the less-than-democratic features of the state. At the same time, I wish the book to appeal to larger audiences, to scholars of African American histories or scholars of migration and displaced peoples. Despite the great emphasis in Israeli historiography on the exceptionalism of the Jewish state, readers will find in the book many parallels to global cases concerning communities of migrants and refugees elsewhere in the world. The Iraqi Jewish struggle to obtain civil rights also has important global parallels. Finally, I hope that when readers ponder about the pains of Iraqi Jews, they will take a moment to consider the present refugees, those who still suffer as I write these lines.  

J: What other projects are you working on now?

OB: Impossible Exodus inspired me to continue writing the histories of Israel during the 1950s, and initially I thought of writing a new project about poor Mizrahi and Palestinian children in Israel during the years 1948-1967. However, since the state changed its archival policies, making it more and more difficult to access files from this period, I dropped this project. I am engaged in two projects at the moment; one which deals with the image of Jews in the nahda's press and prose fiction, and another, which studies the relationship between Arab and Islamic movements, on the one hand, and the Irish national movements, on the other; from the early pro-Irish essays of Islamic reformers like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad ‘Abduh, to the relationship between the IRA and the PLO. I have done much work on the former, and only beginning to explore the latter. 

J: How is your book related to contemporary Israeli realities and politics?

OB: Impossible Exodus might explain why Mizrahi Jews vote for right-wing parties, despite the fact that the neoliberal policies of Israeli right marginalize further poor Mizrahim. First, the book sheds light on labor Zionism's discriminatory attitudes towards the Iraqis, elucidating why many still resent the Israeli labor movement. When writing my book, I often asked myself if I had been born to Iraqi Jewish Israeli parents, what my own political inclinations might have been. The book, then, seeks to underline the paradox of labor Zionism. On the one hand, Labor Zionism created the communities that led to its demise rather than cultivating faithful Mizrahi voters. On the other hand, if the goal was to Zionize Iraqi and other Mizrahi Jews, the success is well beyond what the state leadership could have hoped for. In the rightwing narrative, Mizrahim became (or discovered they always were) more Zionist than those Zionist socialists who wished to Zionize them. But I also wanted to tell a silenced history, that of the Mizrahi Israeli left. While today many Israelis associate the Israeli left with wishy-washy, politically uncommitted, whiteness, against which Mizrahim are positioned, I turned to the historical Mizrahi left, focusing on Iraqi communists who faugh with Palestinians and other progressive Jews for the creation of a just and progressive state. I integrated into the book their articles in Hebrew and in Arabic, especially in al-Ittihad and al-Jadid, their posters, and their works of poetry and prose, protesting the discrimination of all those whom the state categorized as belonging to the wrong race, religion or color.  

Finally, in Israel today, a Mizrahi revival is taking place with the appearance of many new history, poetry, and prose books, and renewed political and cultural activities. This revival is important, especially because of its critique of the liberal Zionist left, or what is called “the white left,” and its lack of commitment to uncover the horrors of the 1950s or to close socioeconomic gaps within Israel society today. Yet while a minority of Mizrahi activists champions a joint alliance with Palestinians, other focus on a more sectarian position, turning, for example, to rightwing politicians who promote the Mizrahi cause, while denying Palestinians’ rights. Perhaps the most glaring example is Israel's minister of culture, Miri Regev. While fostering her own image as a Mizrahi black panther, devoted to undo Israeli ethnic divisions amongst Jews, she is nonetheless relentless in her commitment to anti-Palestinian politics and to a vision of greater Israel (captured recently in a hideous dress she wore at the Cannes film festival designed as the united city of Jerusalem). Impossible Exodus locates the roots of these ideological divisions in Israel of the 1950s when most Iraqi Jews chose to struggle the state as discriminated Jewish citizens in a Jewish state. I am afraid that the book suggests that eventually the state was very successful in its divide-and-conquer policies, and it offers a very bleak vision of the future of Israel-Palestine. While I am proud of the past histories I have uncovered, when it comes to the future of Israel-Palestine, I hope I am mistaken.

Excerpt from the Chapter: "Israeli Babylonians"

Autobiographies, press items, and petitions sent from Iraqis to different government bodies unpack the meanings of Mizrahi in various Israeli contexts. First, the word, as uttered by Ashkenazim, signified Arabness and at times blackness. In the press, the skin color of Iraqis and Mizrahim in general was “dark-brown” (Hebrew: shahum; plural: shhumin), a blend between the word “black” (shahor) and “brown” (hum). While Jews from Middle Eastern countries were also called a variety of derogatory terms meaning “black,” the coining of a term to describe a black-brown color indicated something new: something in between the color of the dark Arabs and the Ashkenazi Jews. Ashkenazi Jews, who had often been perceived as dark and black in Europe, now reenvisioned themselves as white and European vis-à-vis the Arabs and the Jews of the Middle East. Iraqis recall the unbelievable ignorance regarding their culture: Ashkenazim assumed they came from desert lands where camels roam the streets and where Western culture was virtually unknown. They report that Ashkenazim were placed in better jobs, that teachers and professors made derogatory remarks to Iraqi students and humiliated them in class, and that promotions in the workplace were denied based on origin. They also noted that they stayed longer in the transit camps, while Ashkenazi families were evacuated to other neighborhoods. In some cases, this long stay formed bonds of friendship between Iraqi, Egyptian, Tunisian, and Iranian Jews who stayed with them in the transit camps, especially among children. These experiences, be it that of a young Iraqi woman begging an Ashkenazi professor to let her continue with her studies in the university, or a woman being told that her children would amount to nothing more exalted than carpenters and welders, made them realize that their problem was not only an Iraqi problem, it was a Mizrahi problem.

Iraqi Jews addressing the state’s officials and institutions during the 1950s protested discrimination and identified themselves as Mizrahim. As early as 1950, Eliyahu Nissan, writing to the journal of the Association of Aram Naharayim, called for “awakening, unity, and the formation of an ideological, political, and militant force for changing the political, one-sect-based [had-‘adati] order, which reigns in the state, which hurts us and all the other non-Ashkenazi communities. Your slogan in your journal should be: equal rights, in law and in practice.” If not, cautioned Nissan, we will become “the dirt of the land.”

Iraqis buttressed their arguments about the discrimination they faced with facts. A fellow Iraqi, Ephraim Nahum, similarly complained that the name Iraqi had become a slur. They are being called Schwarze Juden (Black Jews). As an example he cited the Ministry of Religious Affairs, “which is more Ashkenazi than Israeli in its conduct and manners.” Young Iraqis began to collect data not only on the number of Iraqis with positions in state institutions but also on the number of Mizrahim, whom they believed were beginning to constitute the majority of the country’s population. The historian Avraham Ben Ya‘aqov noted that the Mizrahi communities in Israel made up about 42 percent of the population, but were not represented proportionally. He acknowledged that the prime minister was trying to rectify the situation, but that low-level bureaucrats were thwarting the rise of the new generation. Shlomo Ben Menachem ‘Eini represented the discrimination in the Israeli Internal Revenue Service in numerical terms: it employed only three Sephardi clerks out of a hundred (in addition to twelve supervisors). When he recommended an Iraqi trainee he was told there was no job for her.

Iraqi-Jewish educator Victor Mu‘allim explained in 1957 how race divided Jewish Israel into a first and second Israel. Israel was composed of two branches: European and Eastern. Mu‘allim also pointed to the demographic paradox of Mizrahi life in Israel. On the one hand, Mizrahi families were told to have many children in the interest of national security (so that a sizeable Jewish majority will come into being). On the other hand, the state did nothing to support these children. He proposed that gap between second Israel and Ashkenazi Israel was deepening; the second Israel consisted of thousands of souls, living in densely populated apartments and in slums, who did not graduate from high school or attend universities. In a letter to the newspaper ‘Al ha-Mishmar following the riots in Wadi Salib, he denounced the violence of the rebels, yet added:

For years we warned the heads of the majority party of to stop classifying people based on their country of origin. . . . In Wadi Salib, Migdal ha-‘Emek, and Beersheba, there were days of tensions as a result of the existence of poverty, destitution, unemployment, bitterness, ignorance, and sickness. The problem of the discrimination of the people of the East is a problem of a social nature.

The riots about which Mu‘allim is speaking here involved North African Jews for the most part. While he did not condone the violence, he was sympathetic to the participants’ concerns as Mizrahim: they were discriminated against and deserved the support of fellow Iraqis. Being Mizrahi signifies here being victimized by the state despite being Israeli citizens.

[Excerpted from Impossible Exodus: Iraq Jews in Israel with author permission, (c) 2017.]  

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