If you’ve been reading the Times of Israel, you will have learnt that an exhibition has now opened at the National Archives building in Washington D.C. featuring the highlights of a collection of 2,700 Jewish documents.
These documents were miraculously discovered, rescued from a waterlogged Baghdad basement in 2003, shipped to the US and painstakingly restored. They call it the Iraqi-Jewish Geniza: school records, prayer books, precious Bibles, letters, official documents – a unique record of an extinct community. However, controversy stalks the archive: it was stolen by the dictator Saddam Hussein and seized from its Jewish owners. Its return to Iraq would be tantamount to returning looted artworks to the Nazis.
Pleading in the New York Times for the archive not to be sent back to Iraq, Cynthia Kaplan Shamash begins by describing the 1941 Farhud, ‘the forgotten pogrom of the Holocaust’. The murder of over a hundred Jews, seven years before the establishment of Israel, caused Iraqi Jews to conclude that they had no future in the country.
Cynthia’s family, however, stayed in Iraq on until the 1970s. She was eight years old when an officer accused her of being a spy. Her doll was taken apart to see if it contained a bugging device. She still has the doll. In their desperation to escape Iraq’s anti-Jewish human rights abuses, the family had to leave behind almost all their other possessions. The archive represents essential ‘lost luggage’: it reconnects them with the life they left behind.
In December, a historian called Orit Bashkin is scheduled to give a talk as part of a programme of events associated with the National Archives exhibit. Ms Bashkin is the ‘new kid on the block’ in the field of the history of the Jews of Iraq. Her book “New Babylonians“, “chronicles the lives of these Jews, their urban Arab culture, and their hopes for a democratic nation-state. It studies their ideas about Judaism, Islam, secularism, modernity, and reform, focusing on Iraqi Jews who internalized narratives of Arab and Iraqi nationalisms and on those who turned to communism in the 1940s.”
The blurb on the book jacket of “New Babylonians” continues:
”The ultimate displacement of this community was not the result of perpetual persecution on the part of their Iraqi compatriots, but rather the outcome of misguided state policies during the late 1940s and early 1950s. From a dominant mood of coexistence, friendship and partnership, the impossibility of Arab-Jewish coexistence became the prevailing narrative of the region.”
Let’s run that again, Ms Bashkin.
‘Late 1940s and 1950s’ implies that the Iraqis reacted to the establishment of the state of Israel by making their Jews suffer. Ms Bashkin makes these ‘misguided’ policies sound incoherent, bumbling, almost accidental. Until the late 1940s. Bashkin views Iraqi Jews as ‘patriots’ building the new independent state of Iraq – or seeking a universalist solution in Communism – until Zionism tore their relationships with their Muslim partners asunder.
After the vast majority of Iraqi Jews had voted with their feet, joining the airlift to Israel, how does Orit Bashkin explain why Iraq continued its ‘misguided policies’ against the few thousand Jews, including Cynthia Shamash and her family, who remained behind? From the mid-1960s, these Jews were forced to carry special ID papers, were not allowed to travel or leave the country, had their bank accounts frozen and their telephones cut off. Such was the anti-Jewish campaign of terror unleashed by Saddam Hussein and his thugs, that the Jews were compelled to risk arrest by escaping the country. If this is not ‘perpetual persecution’, what is?
By pegging the start of the Jews’ troubles to the late 1940s and early 1950s, Bashkin downplays the deleterious effects of the 1941 Farhud. The rising influence of Nazism in 1930s, resulting in the sacking of hundreds of Jewish public servants, quotas and restrictions and a deadly antisemitic cocktail of propaganda and incitement culminating in the 1941 pogrom, hardly feature in Ms Bashkin’s book. For her, the Farhud was most notable for the numbers of Muslims who saved the lives of Jews from the raging mob, demonstrating age-old friendship and shared coexistence.
In reality, the Jews of Iraq had a sense of foreboding about their place in an independent Iraq as soon as the British had marched into Iraq after the defeat of the Ottomans in World War l. Between 1918 and 1921 a delegation of Baghdad Jewish notables visited Sir Percy Cox, the British High Commissioner, on three occasions. They requested British nationality, fearful of what Arab rule might bring. This significant episode barely rates a mention in Bashkin’s book.
There persists a real disconnect between how individuals such as Cynthia Shamash experience events and how academics, in their ivory towers, interpret them. As evidenced by a recent conference at the Yale Center for the Study of Antisemitism, Ms Bashkin is not alone, but one of a new crop of rising young stars in the field of Middle Eastern Studies. These scholars emphasise the points of connection between Arab and Jews, while erasing from the historical record, or glossing over, politically-incorrect human rights abuses. Some are eagerly redefining the identity of Jews in Arab countries as ‘hyphenated’ Arab-Jews, conflicted by the Arab-Israeli dispute, itself an aberration after centuries of peaceful coexistence. So desperate are post-modern academics to believe in the pre-Zionist ‘dominant mood of coexistence and friendship’ between Jews and Arabs, that they are willing to give ideological, Nazi-inspired, Arab Muslim antisemitism a free pass.
Thus, while the National Archives exhibit presents the West with a stark reminder of how Iraqi Jews were robbed of their books, they are simultaneously being robbed of their history. And the culprits in this case, are not the thugs of a despotic Middle Eastern regime, but our very own, mild-mannered academics.