Tuesday, October 3rd | 19 Tishri 5784

June 28, 2023 10:52 am

New Book Distorts the History of Jews in Iraq

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avatar by David Collier


Young Iraqi Jews who fled to pre-state Israel following the 1941 Farhud pogrom in Baghdad. Photo: Moshe Baruch

It was surprising to see a book, “Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew,” based on an antisemitic conspiracy theory being given a gushing review by The Spectator. My response to The Spectator’s review was reposted by both HonestReporting and The Algemeiner.

This is my own review of the book.

Three Worlds

Avi Shlaim’s book is a family memoir that addresses his Iraqi roots — and his life story — up to the point in the 1960s, when his future became settled in the UK.

The destruction of Jewish communities in Arab lands is an all-too-true tale of persecution, loss, struggle, and heartbreak, and Shlaim certainly captures some of these images as his story unfolds. If Shlaim hadn’t chosen to intertwine his warped political messaging into almost every part of the story, it might even have made a worthwhile contribution to a much-needed body of work.

Alas, his need to promote his personal grievances above all else destroys the journey, and the result is somewhat disjointed. Specifically, the insertion of the “Baghdad bombing” conspiracy in chapter eight is so incongruous with messages delivered in much of the book, that readers are left wondering whether it was inserted only as a scandalous “hook” to increase sales.

To give him his due, Avi Shlaim does not fully cover up the Muslim persecution of Iraqi Jews. Many of the pages deal with the hostility, persecution, and antisemitic forces that drove the entire Jewish community out of Iraq.

Shlaim acknowledges that Iraqi Jews had lived as second-class citizens (Dhimmis), under “a host of discriminatory regulations” for much of the previous 500 years. But he still tries to sugar-coat it, and his personal mission to blame everything on Zionism turns his story into a self-contradictory, ahistorical, and convoluted mess.

Avi Shlaim and a Childhood That Wasn’t

Avi Shlaim begins his book by stating that his understanding was shaped by his childhood: “having lived as a young child in an Arab country, I was aware of the possibility of peaceful Arab-Jewish coexistence.”

Shlaim was born in October 1945. In 1947, the Iraqi government began issuing threats against the Jewish community.

In 1948, as he notes, “Jewish shops were boycotted and the Iraqi government actively whipped up popular hysteria… denouncing Jews as aliens, traitors and a dangerous fifth column.”

Shlaim was just two years-old when this occurred. His own family faced blackmail and death threats. When he was four, his mother took him out of the country because “life had become too dangerous for the Jews in general and his own family in particular.” How can Shlaim possibly have an awareness from his childhood of peaceful co-existence if he never could have experienced it himself?

One example of his not-so-hidden agenda comes in chapter eight. Shlaim wants to suggest that Iraqi Jews were not supporters of Zionism. He does this by claiming as evidence that of 130,000 Iraqi Jews, no more than 2000 belonged to the Zionist movement, that is to say 1.53%.”

Perhaps this is true. But in chapter seven, Shlaim stated that in 1948, laws were introduced in Iraq that made Zionism a crime “punishable by death or a minimum of seven years in prison.”

Now if I were a historian, and an Emeritus Professor at Oxford University, perhaps I would be intelligent enough to consider that there may be a correlation between low numbers in the “Zionist movement” — and a death sentence for that “crime.”

There is room for sympathy for Shlaim’s early years. His family was dysfunctional, the move to Israel broke his father, and the difficulties of the migration overwhelmed them. The memoir culminates with Shlaim being given an escape route to England, and then begging his mother not to join him – he writes that this selfish act was to “protect his new life.” At this point, it seems his escape was more to do with his family than Israel.

Coming from a wealthy Iraqi family that managed to leave the country with at least part of its wealth (despite frequent claims of poverty in his book), money and status afforded Shlaim many opportunities in Israel that most Jews from Arab lands did not have.

At his Bar Mitzvah, the Mayor of Ramat Gan (Avraham Krinitzi) and several other leading politicians were present (page 206). Nepotism followed him around — resulting in his entry to a prestigious school in Ramat Gan, his residing in the home of the headmaster of the Jewish Free School in London, and finally, being offered a place at Cambridge, despite bad grades, because of a friendship between his history teacher and the Director of Studies at Jesus College.

He says that he personally did not experience racism or direct discrimination as a Mizrahi Jew — Jews from Arab lands — and accepts that the chip on the shoulder was his. The book ties many of his problems and his lack of self-worth back to his dysfunctional family.

There is also clear disdain for other Mizrahis in Israel. Whether or not this is attached to his family’s Iraqi “upper middle class” snobbiness is impossible to tell. His explanation for the right-wing leanings of Mizrahis (page 234) removes from them both agency and intelligence. Shlaim felt out of place surrounded by Mizrahi Jews with “heavy gold chains” at a Menachem Begin rally in 1961. He explains that these Mizrahis were viewed as “lower class louts,” and admitted that he “shamefully distanced himself” from them.

The Double Genesis of Iraq’s Antisemitism

One of the pillars upon which anti-Zionists build their conspiracies is the myth that Jews lived happily in Arab lands, and Shlaim needs to perform acrobatics to hold his theory afloat. In fact he runs multiple different narratives on this issue throughout the book.

For example, Shlaim’s mother blames the troubles of Iraqi Jewry on the birth of Israel in 1948 (page 104). Whilst this version would account for the events of 1950, it is completely undermined by the massacre of over 180 Jews and the destruction of homes and businesses in Baghdad during the 1941 Farhud (pogrom) — seven long years before Israel’s creation.

Shlaim tries to accommodate the Farhud contradiction by accepting that antisemitism did arrive shortly before the creation of Israel — but suggested it had been “imported.” He claims this “new chapter”’ began in 1939 with the arrival of the Grand Mufti Haj Amin Al Husseini, who began to circulate “anti-Jewish propaganda.”

Yet Shlaim’s desperate acrobatics cannot rewrite history. There was a bombing campaign against Jewish targets in Baghdad in 1938 — even before the Mufti had arrived.

avi shlaim iraq 1936 bombing

This letter below was published in the Manchester Guardian on October 2, 1934 — 14 years before Israel was born, seven years before the Farhud, and five years before the Mufti arrived. The letter details mail being intercepted, Jewish newspapers being banned, and Hebrew books being suppressed:

The author of that 1934 letter was a Mr. E. Levy, writing from Baghdad. Shockingly, Levy was arrested by the Iraqi authorities just for writing the letter and he was sentenced to a year in jail for the crime of spreading “harmful propaganda.” He appealed and was released early (probably due to international outrage) in February 1935.

Chapter Eight

In chapter eight Avi Shlaim finally addresses his core allegations — the bombings in Baghdad and his “undeniable proof” that “Zionist agents were responsible for targeting the Jewish community, forcing them to flee Iraq and settle in Israel.”

The first bombing of a Jewish target took place on April 8, 1950. Shlaim claims that this created a flood of people wanting to leave, and that by the end of the month, 25,300 Iraqi Jews had registered to emigrate. We can assume that this incredible rate continued for a while, because Shlaim then goes on to say that by the middle of the year (June/July) “the pace had slowed.”

In other words, even if the bombs caused the exodus (which they didn’t), then whoever planted that first bomb most certainly was responsible for the momentum behind the exodus.

Yet Shlaim clearly says (page 141) that those responsible for the first bomb (because it was publicly admitted in 2013) were the Islamist Istiqlal Party, which wanted to force Jews to leave Iraq.

Avi Shlaim and His Evidence

Shlaim then turns to his “evidence.” They are the words of an 88-year-old man (Yaacov Karkoukli) and lots of assumption and hearsay. No academic would regard oral history of this type as reliable.

Shlaim then says (page 142): “Karkoukli was inaccurate on the back story of the bribe and the bombing of the synagogue.”

Shlaim is literally admitting that the man upon whom he has built the entire theory is an unreliable witness. You don’t get to hang on to the bits you like because you want them to be true. This is not how historians should work.

Shlaim’s only other piece of evidence is an undated and unsigned document that is apparently tied to the same Iraqi police division that tortured and forced confessions out of Jews whom they arrested and executed over the bombings. If so, then this was written by a police force with a vested interest in placing the blame for the Jewish exodus back onto their “Zionist enemy.”

The Departure of the Shlaim Family

In his book, Shlaim suggests that “Zionist bombs” were responsible for the exodus from Iraq. Yet readers are told that his mother had already begun to “think about leaving Iraq for good” in 1948 (page 109).

Shlaim’s family left in July 1950, and they left because of the “1948-1950” persecutions. Shlaim himself supplies an account of the reasons for the exodus on page 154:

persecution of the Jews was intensifying and it assumed many different forms. The government, the judiciary and the public became overtly hostile. Restrictions were placed on Jewish trade and commerce. Jews in the civil service were dismissed and the entire community was placed under surveillance. Young Jews were barred from admission to colleges of further education. The police arrested, tortured, imposed arbitrary fines and extracted money from innocent Jews in what looked like a government sanctioned campaign of harassment.

Don’t Bother Buying the Book

Avi Shlaim’s family had a difficult time during the absorption process in Israel. In Iraq, they were “high society,” and in Israel, their social status had declined. The family fell apart, and instead of showing some appreciation of the problems that Israel faced in its early days, Shlaim has chosen to transform Zionism into his preferred scapegoat.

Shlaim was a child confronted by challenges — a dysfunctional family life made more acute by physical displacement. The intervening decades have not inspired a measure of gratitude that his family members emerged from Iraq alive, and that they had an instant safe haven to go to. He still prefers to dwell on his embittered past instead of his privileged life today.

And after all his spinning, his words do not dent the reality of what happened. Nothing short of war would drive an entire civilian population to leave unless they were being forced out. A few minor incidents would never do it. Arguing over the import of these bombings is a deliberate distraction — events belatedly exaggerated in an attempt to discredit the Herculean efforts by Israel to give all these Jewish refugees a home.

Imagine the UK taking in 60 *million* refugees in five years. In relative terms, this is exactly what Israel did. And Shlaim sees fit to complain and blame rather than praise.These weaknesses means his book cannot fairly convey the truth of what came to pass. For those seeking to learn how 3,000 years of Jewish civilization in Arab lands really vanished overnight, then “Uprooted” by Lyn Julius is probably the best place to start.

The author is an independent investigative journalist in the UK.

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