״Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab Jew״ by Avi Shlaim. One World Publications. London. 2023
This autobiographical narrative by the Israeli-born revisionist historian Avi Shlaim has already caused a lot of controversy. That contention is the result of both his declared anti-Zionist bias, and his provocative theory that Zionist agitation, rather than the combination of institutional and popular racist anti-Semitism, was principally responsible for the sudden exodus of about 110,000 Jews from Iraq during 12 months from June 1950-June 1951:
My advice to potential readers is that, irrespective of your views on those topics, this book is definitely worth reading. Much of the text is a beautifully written account of a very young Shlaim growing up in an upper middle class Jewish family in Baghdad from 1945-1950. And post-the mass Jewish exodus to Israel, the text provides an equally compelling story of the challenges faced by Iraqi Jews in their new country from 1950 till 1966 when Shlaim leaves permanently to study in England.
But his arguments about the causes of the abrupt mass Jewish exodus (what is often considered to be a case study in ethnic cleansing) from Iraq seem to be highly contentious, and based on the most flimsy of evidence. Shlaim, who identifies as an ‘Arab Jew’ whose family shared a non-nationalist ‘common cultural heritage and language’ with Arabs (p.8), argues that Jews were well accepted and tolerated within contemporary Iraq typified by what he frames as dominant manifestations of ‘religious tolerance, cosmopolitanism, peaceful coexistence and fruitful interaction’ (p.14).
Nevertheless, Shlaim admits (p.21) that Jews were treated as ‘dhimmis’ (i.e. protected, but second class citizens) whose rights were dependent on the goodwill and tolerance of the ruler of the day rather than secure liberal democratic structures. And during the 1930s, Jews experienced overt forms of discrimination in education and employment. He adds that what he calls ‘persecution of the Jews’ (p.154) had become hegemonic by 1950 encompassing all of government, the judiciary and public opinion. This included the judicial murder of the prominent anti-Zionist Jewish businessman Shafiq Ades which ‘stunned the Jewish community’ (p.103), and is now the subject of a full-length book by Israeli historian Adi Schwartz: https://www.jewishrefugees.org.uk/2022/11/shafiq-ades-the-trial-of-the-iraqi-dreyfus-was-a-turning-point.html
Yet Shlaim oddly blames a combination of Arab nationalism (i.e. the nationalism of the oppressor) and Zionism (i.e. the nationalism of the oppressed minority) post-1948 for the sudden transformation of Jews from protected, if not equal, citizens to exiles. Yet, this argument in my opinion reverses cause and effect, and seems to be implicitly based on blaming the victim assumptions.
It was not Zionism which inspired outbreaks of popular anti-Semitism such as the traumatic farhud or pogrom in 1941 seven years prior to the birth of Israel which killed 180 Jews and injured nearly two thousand: https://plus61j.net.au/jewish-world/remembering-the-farhud-iraqs-version-of-kristallnacht/.
It was not Zionism which created the fanatical intolerance of majority religious-nationalist movements within Iraq and much of the Arab world which resulted in the exclusion of multiple ethnic-religious minority groups. Jews were hardly the sole target of this xenophobia. For example, the Assyrians and Kurds were subjected to awful government sanctioned violence in 1930s Iraq. It was not Zionism which pushed Jews out of Iraq; to the contrary Zionism offered Jews an alternative home or refuge.
Regardless, Shlaim interrogates five bombings of Jewish or Jewish-related institutions from March 1950-June 1951 which he alleges (p.125) played a role in driving the mass Jewish exodus. Alongside his account of these events, I present alternative or contrary explanations from other respected historians whose views Shlaim has either minimized or ignored.
The Five incidents are as follows:
One: 19 March 1950: Bombing of American Cultural Center and Library in Baghdad, a centre utilized by many Jews. Damage to building and several injuries, but nobody killed.
Shlaim (p.125) says this event had limited psychological impact because Jews were not specifically targeted. By 7th April, only 126 Jews had registered to emigrate. The premier Israeli historian of the exodus, Moshe Gat, makes no reference to this incident.
Two: 8 April 1950: A hand grenade was thrown from a moving car on the street outside a Jewish-owned coffee shop. No deaths, but four Jews were injured.
Shlaim (p.126) says the incident ‘shook the Jewish community’. The next day 3,400 Jews registered to emigrate. By end of April, the figure was 25,300. However, Gat (p.184) argues that it was unlikely that an isolated bombing suddenly convinced the majority of Jews to leave, but rather that the growing registration numbers correlated with the passage of the Iraqi denaturalisation law on 9 March 1950 which gave Jews 12 months only to register to leave the country. Another Israeli historian Meir-Glitzenstein (p.249) argues that thousands of people had already sought ‘permission to register’. She adds (p.257) that neither of these two attacks were mentioned during the later trials by the Iraqi Government of Zionist operatives.
Three: 14 January 1951: A hand grenade was thrown into the outer courtyard of a synagogue which was used as an assembly point for those Jews who had been approved by the authorities for emigration. This was the only incident that caused fatalities. Four Jews were killed, and 20 injured.
Shlaim (p.126) says the incident ‘caused real panic’ and a major increase in the numbers registering to leave. By the beginning of March 1951, 105,400 Jews had registered to leave.
According to Gat (p.180), the authorities arrested as a suspect an Christian army officer called Major Jamil Mamo, a member of the anti-Semitic Istiqlal Party. He was found in possession of a number of similar explosive devices to those thrown into the synagogue. He insists that most Jews were already planning to leave due to the adverse impact of government legislation on financial wellbeing, and the associated threat of popular anti-Jewish violence.
Similarly, the British Jewish historian and daughter of Iraqi Jewish refugees Lyn Julius (2018, p.122) alleges (citing Israeli journalist Tom Segev) that this attack was carried out by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Gat (p.186), Julius (p.122) and Meir-Glitzenstein (p.257) add that by the time of this incident, there were already 86,000 Jews registered to leave, and indeed 23,000 had already departed.
Four: May 1951: A hand grenade was thrown in the middle of the night at the display window of a Jewish-owned (Lawee) car dealership who specialized in the importing of American cars. There was damage to the building, but no injuries according to Shlaim (p.128). Gat (p.173) similarly mentions there were no injuries. But he highlights (pp.145, 195) that the passage of the Property Freezing Law in March 1951 confiscated the assets of most Jews (i.e. left the community totally impoverished without jobs, businesses and property), and hence was the major impetus driving large-scale immigration.
Five: June 1951: An explosive device damaged the front entrance of another Jewish-owned (the owner Stanley Shaashua resided in Iran) car dealership. Again, there was no casualties. Shlaim (p.129) emphasizes that by the end of 1951, over 120,000 Jews had registered to leave Iraq, and by the start of 1952 nearly all departed for Israel.
Summing up, Shlaim alleges (p.129) that the five bombs played ‘some part in persuading the Jews to emigrate to Israel’, and that ‘three of the five bombs were the work of the Zionist underground in Baghdad’. According to Shlaim, the culprit was Yusef Ibrahim Basri, a 28 year old Baghdadi Jew involved in the Zionist underground group known as Hatenua (p.131). Shlaim admits that his motivation was ‘not to kill but to frighten hesitant Jews and to prod them to register to cancel their Iraqi citizenship’ (p.131).
As noted by Gat (p.175), Basri and another member of the Zionist underground Shalom Salah were found guilty at a trial held in October-November 1951 of throwing the last three bombs and explosive devices. They were sentenced to death by hanging, and executed in January 1952 (p.191). Yet no direct evidence was presented by any witness of their involvement in the attacks. The only proof was Salah’s confession to police following extreme torture (p.180).
Gat (pp.187-88) highlights that there was a long history of bomb attacks on Iraqi Jewish civilians by anti-Semitic extremists, noting multiple incidents from 1936-39. And additionally there was the horrific farhud discussed above. He concludes (p.192) ‘that there was no connection between the bomb-throwing incidents and the departure of the Jews’.
In my opinion, the mass exodus of Jews from Iraq was an exemplar of ethnic cleansing fuelled by institutional and popular prejudice and bigotry. The principal role of Zionism in this saga was to provide a safe haven for the mass of Jews who left Iraq in a very short time period. To be sure, they received a less than dignified welcome within Israel, and Shlaim provides many vivid examples of the discrimination they experienced from the European Jewish establishment. But he fails to add that they were still treated far better than the Palestinian refugees who fled to neighbouring Arab countries, with the exception of Jordan who granted them citizenship.
Whilst this book has many merits, I still feel it is a missed opportunity. Shlaim displays great respect for Arab culture and values, and states a desire to advance Arab-Jewish dialogue and peaceful co-existence (pp.301-02). He
could have used these sentiments to educate his colleagues in the Arab world about the real experiences and traumas of Jews living in Iraq and other Arab countries. Yet, he has failed to clearly name the racism that influenced the majority Arab Muslim population to oppress and expel the Jewish minority from their midst. The Arab-Jewish reconciliation that Shlaim desires will only progress when Arab intellectuals recognize and confront the dark side of their historical and contemporary framing of Jews as the negative ‘other’.
Gat, Moshe (1997) The Jewish Exodus from Iraq 1948-1951. Frank Cass. London.
Julius, Lyn (2018) Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish civilization in the Arab world vanished overnight. Vallentine Mitchell. London.
Meir-Glitzenstein, Esther (2004) Zionism in an Arab Country: Jews in Iraq in the 1940s. Routledge. London.
Professor Philip Mendes