“All of Israel is Iraqi,” the Israeli tabloid Israel Ha-Yom declared following the sell-out concert of musician Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis, where the audience sang Tassa’s Arabic lyrics in unison. His revival of the al-Kuwaiti brothers’ music has been part of a cultural renaissance among Jewish communities of Arab descent in Israel since the turn of the century. Once upon a time, Israel’s nation-building project was desperate to erase any ethnic markers which could undermine a unified national identity. Although Jews lived in Mesopotamia for over 2500 years and formed an inseparable part of the social and cultural life of the Middle East, it took only a few generations for their Arab identities to be erased, or at least to be reconstituted into the Israeli definition of “Mizrahim.” Among this group, 25.6 percent of the first generation were fluent in spoken Arabic, falling to just 1.3 percent in the third generation. After years of de-Arabization, suppressed ethnic identification has re-emerged in Israel, albeit in a more benign and depoliticized form. What does this new Iraqi-Jewish identity look like? And what have been its political consequences?
“Preserving the Iraqi Language”
At the center of this revival has been the 67,000-strong Facebook group, Meshamrim et Ha-Śafah Ha-’Iraḳit (Preserving the Iraqi Language). The group has been described as “an archive” due to the extensive collection of historical documents posted by its members. It has also expanded into other arenas, such as recipes, matchmaking, proverbs, music, and even has a poetry section. To date, Meshamrim has published two books, with three more books in the works. Avraham Rachamim’s 2018 play Nazima and Menashe, a first-of-its-kind play in Iraqi-Jewish dialect, was produced under the auspices of the group and attended by over 550 people. The first-ever film in Iraqi-Jewish dialect, Nissim Dayan’s adaptation of Eli Amir’s The Dove Flyer, was conceived by group member Ahuva Keren. Contrary to expectation, however, this revival has not raised alarm bells in the Israeli establishment. This is largely because the return to “Arabness” internalizes key precepts of Zionism, blunting any subversive potential.
This is produced in the very administration of Meshamrim. The founder, Zahava Bracha, has the self-appointed task of deleting all posts which contain misinformation or spam, as well as posts that are considered “political.” This a task which requires vigilance and at its peak involved removing “sixty to seventy posts a day.” In our interview, Bracha claimed she has rebuffed approaches from political parties for advertisements and claims that “both sides” of the political spectrum have attempted to utilize her group. She claims this depoliticization naturally moved discussions away from the Palestinian issue, which were primarily initiated by Iraqi members in the earlier years. Most Iraqis were happy to relinquish this line of questioning to remain involved in the group. Overall, the clear majority of twenty-nine remaining posts in Hebrew, and forty-five in Arabic, which even mention the word “Palestine”/ “Palestinian” in the last seven years are more likely to use the words in their biblical or Mandatory meanings (data collected 01/06/2019).
Although the group facilitates criticism of Ashkenazi discrimination, it does not seem to permit anything that challenges homogenous Jewish nationhood. Many posts criticize the early establishment for its remarks about their Eastern compatriots, and even the legacy of their discrimination today. The group is built on a degree of ideological consensus, and its depoliticization means that underlying presumptions rarely require reinforcement. Thus, when one Iraqi non-Jewish member calls for the renaturalization of Iraqi Jews–a realignment on the basis of Iraqiness, rather than Jewishness–he is met with unanimous reprimand.
When these boundaries are transgressed, a backlash seems almost inevitable. Academic Almog Behar (1/1/18) posted an article and petition in opposition to the Nation State Law. His post protested the downgrading of the Arabic language to a special status language, which he claimed would impact the group members. When debates become politicized, there is often a period of engagement, followed by pleas to stay away from politics from group members. This led to extensive criticism (and some support) before one member pleaded to “refrain from politics [. . .] in order not to hurt anybody in the group,” while another asked “why has this post not been deleted yet?” It is necessary to understand what is considered divisive and what is considered acceptable in the logic of the imagined community. In fact, this has historically been used to suppress ethnic grievances in Israel. It is, therefore, clear that divisiveness is one of the criteria for something being considered “political,” which allows shared assumptions to go unchallenged. Hence, the parameters of the “political” are inescapably political. The backlash reveals how their identity is constructed: vis-à-vis the national collective, as “Mizrahim” or “Iraqis,” but never as Arabs. The comments display a mutually exclusive understanding of “Jewishness” and “Arabness": “I didn’t realize we were Arabs? We are Jewish and proud of the Hebrew language and the State of Israel” gained eleven likes, the most on the thread, while another post exclaimed “Enough . . . and what about Israeliness?”
The Facebook group is not a monolithic entity, yet dominant currents within the group explain why this post elicited vitriol. In reaching across the national boundaries, positioning themselves alongside Palestinians in a joint struggle for preserving the Arabic language, the post is crossing over into the “political.” While many members revel in their identities in an apolitical or cultural context, there is an immediate retreat into clearly-defined, reified categories of identity as soon as this undermines national unity. In this process, the group shapes and solidifies the boundaries of acceptable political discourse, with the Palestinian question located outside this perimeter.
“Israel in the Iraqi Dialect”
This new identity, however, is not contained within Israel’s national borders. It is packaged and exported to the Arab world. Founded in 2018 by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Isrāʾīl bāl-Lahjat al-ʿIrāqīa (Israel in the Iraqi Dialect) draws on “the long history” of Iraqi-Jews to “encourage dialogue between Israelis and Iraqis” and to “deepen the feeling of friendliness, closeness, and understanding to serve the two peoples.” The page is administered on behalf of the MFA by Linda Menuhin, an Iraqi-born and raised digital media consultant at the MFA. As of the beginning of July 2019, the group had 136,428 likes and 165,941 followers. By December 2019, the page accumulated 173,060 likes and 220,083 followers.
Menuhin told me that their flagship page, Isrāʾīl Tatakallam bālʿArabīa (Israel Speaks Arabic), which was founded in 2011 and is now approaching two million likes, was alert to trends among Iraqis, who were the second biggest group on the page and, unlike the skeptical responses from most followers from other Arab countries, approximately a third of the responses from Iraqis were supportive. This prompted the MFA to establish Lahjat in 2018. While the MFA’s survey, which found that forty-three percent of participating Iraqis want to recognize Israel, should be taken with a pinch of salt, the findings are corroborated elsewhere: The Arab Barometer found that seventy-nine percent of surveyed Lebanese perceived Israel to pose the greatest threat to them, while Iraqis had the second-lowest percentage of all Arab states at just twenty-one percent. A similar survey conducted by an Iraqi Facebook group found that seventy-seven percent of a 62,000-person sample would favor the renaturalization of Iraqi Jews.
Both Meshamrim and Lahjat emphasize a depoliticized realm of “culture” separated from politics. A post celebrating 150,000 likes on the page involved a poll, asking whether they viewed Israel through politics or through “society and science,” with the eighty-seven percent opting for the latter (16/6/19). This depoliticization hinges on a silence on the Palestinian issue. While Lahjat contains some oblique references to Palestinians, such as to “Israeli Arabs” (23/6/19) and to Hamas terrorism (8/6/18), the page eschews the topic whenever possible. This also reflects Israel’s strategy to bypass the Palestinian question to establish diplomatic relations with Arab states, and with Iraq in particular. In January 2019, The Times of Israel reported on a delegation of fifteen Iraqi communal leaders to Israel, who met with officials, academics, and several Iraqi Jewish organizations. Quoting a TV report on the trip, they were of a ‘“social-cultural nature”’ and their purpose was ‘“to build the infrastructure for future ties” between Iraq and Israel, with these delegates going back to Iraq as “kinds of future ambassadors” for Israel there. The emphasis on a shared history and Iraqi Jews within Israel has permeated debate in Iraq. Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, Farid Yassin, pointed to ‘“an important Iraqi community in Israel, which still observe traditions from the days before they left their country”’ when he claimed there were ‘“objective reasons”’ for establishing bilateral ties between Israel and Iraq.
While there is a clear separation in the audience, intention, and language of the two groups, they are closely related and mutually reinforcing. Bracha has appeared on the MFA page talking in Iraqi-Jewish dialect with Modern Standard Arabic subtitles about her group (07/06/2018), making the post accessible to a pan-Arab audience and moving the group beyond its imagined Jewish community and into Arab contexts. Conversely, Bracha shared a Lahjat post with over 2.1 million views on Meshamrim which displayed several group members, including both Bracha and Menuhin, eating Iraqi food in Israel and conversing in Arabic, advertising the state outlet and its work on her group (30/06/2019). Bracha has also shared an old video by the MFA’s flagship Isrāʾīl Tatakallam bālʿArabīa (23/11/2017) with over one million views, before Lahjat was founded. This became the first post of Lahjat and consisted of several Iraqi Jews, including Bracha, talking about their favorite Iraqi songs (18/3/18). It seems that this ever-expanding partnership has been present from the outset of the MFA group.
This overlap has a double effect. Firstly, the independent grassroots initiative authenticates the state-run outlet, and therefore drives rapprochement. The average number of likes for a post on Lahjat is 1831 and the average number of comments is 511 (for 350 posts until 09/07/2019). In contrast, posts that included Bracha or Meshamrim by name (10 in total) had an average of 4514 likes and 1381 comments. As opposed to other faceless state-backed pages, on Lahjat Menuhin frequently comes to the forefront on Lahjat. She is received with almost unanimous warmth. Only four percent of comments on an interview clip with Menuhin (07/11/18) were negative, while two percent of comments use a variation of the Arabic root “asil” (authentic) to describe Menuhin. It is no coincidence that when Menuhin appears (03/10/18) advertising a trip to Israel, she receives 17,000 likes and 7,300 comments. This trip is run by JawlaʿIrāqīa fī Isrāʾīl (Iraqi Tour in Israel). Founded in September 2018 by Menuhin, in collaboration with Charly Atrakchi, the group organizes tours for Iraqis to Israel. It had 6349 follows, 4836 likes, and 35 posts as of 3 July 2019. Menuhin told me she was working on funding to turn it into a similar structure to “Birthright trips.” Although the program is organized by Menuhin personally, this overlap equivocates official diplomacy and the relationship between the two groups. In fact, Jawla’s first tour in June 2019 included fifty Meshamrim members. This participation infuses the membership with a connection to the original contexts of Iraqiness but also, building on one description of the group as an “embassy,” places them in the position of ambassadors, consolidating their identity in relation to the national whole.
The second effect of this connection is the validation and reshaping of this grassroots “ethnic’ identity, which was once rejected by the state. On a discursive level, the analysis of Meshamrim revealed that Iraqi-Jewish identities not only subordinate themselves to a national identity, but are actively geared towards achieving national belonging. On a more practical level, Meshamrim has always sought approval from and worked with state officials. Lahjat’s posts have been shared forty-eight times in total (data collected 29/08/2019), reconnecting Meshamrim with their Iraqi context. When Bracha reposts Lahjat’s version of the video (29/06/2019) where Iraqi-Jews are singing their favorite Arabic songs, on Meshamrim one member comments: “Whoever has not yet followed us is invited to follow and be impressed by the affection from our user from Iraq,” followed by a link to Lahjat. Bracha encourages him “to share everything relevant in Meshamrim.” The leveraging of Iraqi-Jewish identity for Israeli diplomacy therefore sanctions the identity. This is reflected by two activists in this arena who rejected an Arabized identity despite heavy involvement in these channels of communications. Tsionit Fattal Kuperwasser, an author whose Hebrew novel about Iraq was translated into Arabic, leading to regular contact with Iraqi intelligentsia and even parliamentarians, plays down the same Arabness that allowed her to form these connections. While she was flattered by the warmth she received, she publicly rejected attempts to label her as an “Iraqi writer.” Previously employed by the military, Fattal Kuperwasser is well acquainted with state interests and pursues them of her own accord. Charly Atrakchi, an active member of Meshamrim and the co-founder and co-organizer of JawlaʿIrāqīa fī Isrāʾīl told me that he is “only Iraqi for the State of Israel.” He begun the interview unequivocally: “I am a Jew and then an Israeli, in that order.” Iraq, where he lived for fourteen years, is incidental to his identity. His involvement in these groups and other recent developments–such as contact over WhatsApp with his former classmates in Iraq–have not changed his conception of identity in any way. He has always listened to Iraqi music and eaten Iraqi food, but he feels no more Iraqi now. He cites the utility of this identity for the State of Israel as a significant factor in his increased engagement with his heritage. “Arabization” is, in part, conjured by its political economy; this identity is a way to contribute to the state and consolidate personal Israeliness.
The story of the Jewish musicians Saleh and Daoud al-Kuwaiti, the great uncle and grandfather of Dudu Tassa respectively, is microcosmic of broader trends in Iraqi-Jewish identity. The al-Kuwaiti family were deeply embedded in Arab culture: they were celebrated lyricists in the Arabic language and contributed to the embryonic state in several ways, establishing the Iraqi broadcasting authority. Their success, however, did not spare them from the crossfires of exclusivist Arab nationalism and Zionism. Their relative status and wealth in Iraq rendered their arrival at the ma’abarot (transit camps) in Israel especially ignominious. The al-Kuwaiti brothers went from dining with King Ghazi of Iraq to selling houseware. The limited breakthrough of the al-Kuwaiti brothers in Israel eventually came under the auspices of a state-run Arabic-language media outlet Sawt Isrāʾīl (The Voice of Israel), which was designed to influence Arab public opinion on Israel. In this context, Iraqi culture was encouraged to authenticate state messaging, and in turn, reinforced their Iraqi identities. The same can be said of the attempted rapprochement with Arab states. In 2013, among the first tweets of MFA’s account, “Israel in the Gulf,” the social media epoch’s incarnation of Sawt, concerned Dudu Tassa’s revival of his eponymous grandfather’s musical project (Twitter 2013) and produced a video about this entitled “Tel Aviv and Baghdad, one through music” (YouTube 2016). However, it is wrong to overstate the state in the production of this Arabized identity: the far-reaching belief in an ethnically homogenous Jewish state has led to a more diffuse and co-constitutive production of this new identity where “Arabness” and “Iraqiness” have consolidated a Zionist identity. What is therefore produced was once an impossibility—Zionist Iraqis, with the Zionist coming first.