Weeping for Babylon

Avi Shlaim discusses the factors behind the exodus of Iraqi Jews and how the concept of the “Arab-Jew” can chart an alternative future.

Zvi Ben-Dor Benite Introduced by Jonathan Shamir
April 15, 2024

The Shlaim family in Baghdad, Iraq, in the mid-1940s.

Courtesy of Avi Shlaim’s Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew.

There are few places across history where Jewish life has flourished as intensely and as consistently as it did in Iraq, which makes its abrupt dissolution all the more tragic. After the establishment of the State of Israel transformed Jews from a religious minority into a potential proxy of an enemy state, the Iraqi government passed a spate of anti-Jewish legislation. When Iraq’s government temporarily lifted its ban on Jewish emigration—an ultimatum that would force them to relinquish their citizenship—the vast majority of the country’s 2,500-year-old community streamed out in airlifts sent by Israel in just over six months between 1951 and 1952. The approximately 120,000 who ended up in the new state had to start from scratch: They were not only forced by the Iraqi government to leave their property and wealth behind and dumped by Israeli officials in shabby absorption camps, but they also had to remake their entire identity, as the country in which they arrived had a deep aversion to the Arab language and culture they brought with them.

This formative trauma is where Avi Shlaim—who arrived in Israel from Iraq as a child and who went one to become one of the country’s most preeminent of Israel’s “New Historians,” challenging the traditional Zionist historiography—begins his first personal work, Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew. In his interview with scholar Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, Shlaim recounts his acute sense of embarrassment at his father’s sartorial and linguistic incongruity with his new surroundings. But rather than accelerating his integration into Israeliness, Shlaim questions the political forces behind this sense of shame in his typical revisionist vein, as he weaves together his own journey from Iraq to Israel to the UK with a wider historical analysis.

Israel’s investment in touting a narrative of perennial antagonism between Jews and Arabs has conferred ideological stakes onto historical representations of the position of Jews in the Arab world before the establishment of the State of Israel, and the conditions of their departure. For many, this history has come to map onto the viability of a shared life between Israelis and Palestinians. For this reason, much of the coverage of Three Worlds has dealt with Shlaim’s examination of the contested claim that the Zionist underground were behind a string of bombings on Jewish sites in the early 1950s that expedited the community’s exodus from Iraq. Although Israel officially denies any involvement, Shlaim concludes, based on new evidence, that three of the five major bombings were likely carried out by a single Zionist operative named Yusef Basri. As they discuss these events, Shlaim and Ben-Dor Benite resist both the lachrymose narrative that collapses them into a Eurocentric schema of eternal persecution, as well as the narrative of an interfaith utopia that exculpates Arab leadership and society. While Shlaim and Ben-Dor Benite wrestle over whether to relate to the exodus as an “expulsion,” they concur that the Jewish community was ultimately caught in the crossfire of an increasingly exclusionary Arab nationalism and a Jewish nationalism that sought to liquidate the diaspora, foreclosing the space for the two identities to coexist.

Having lived through this historic rupture, Shlaim here takes up the idea of the “Arab-Jew” as a paradigm for what could have been. Even as Shlaim concedes that this identity may be consigned to the past, he believes that it requires some degree of “reinvention” in order to disrupt the prevailing logic of separation between Arabs and Jews. It is no coincidence that he reaches this conclusion through his ongoing research on Palestine, which sheds light on the injustices committed by the nascent Israeli state. In making the connection to his own marginalization in the same moment, Shlaim uses his personal story as an “Arab-Jew” to point the way forward for a livable future for everybody living between the river to the sea, with the hyphen serving as the bridge.

— Jonathan Shamir

Zvi Ben-Dor Benite: You begin your book with a story from your childhood about your embarrassment at your father speaking Arabic to you on a hot summer day in the mid-1950s in Ramat Gan, a very well-known Iraqi Jewish enclave. Why did you choose to start there?

Avi Shlaim: I began there because this particular episode was emblematic of how I felt in Israel in general, and because it illustrated my relationship with my father more specifically. I was about 10 years old, playing in the streets with my friends in shorts and sandals, and along comes my father in a three-piece suit with a white shirt and a tie. He looks alien, completely out of place, and he starts talking to me in Arabic. Not only is it a foreign language, but it’s the language of the enemy, and it was considered a very ugly, primitive language. I can still remember how embarrassed I was, which was quite typical of being an Iraqi in Israel.

We didn’t really know very much about my father. He never learned Hebrew properly, and I couldn’t speak Arabic except at a very basic level, so we didn’t have a language in which we could communicate meaningfully. In Iraq, he was an extremely wealthy merchant, living in a palatial villa with a lot of servants. Many ministers in the Iraqi government were his clients. When he came to Israel, he had to leave everything behind. He never really recovered from this trauma. He didn’t talk, and that silence dominated my relationship with him.

ZBDB: Despite this embarrassment, and after so many years in England, you go on to define yourself as an Arab Jew. What does the category mean to you? What would it mean for people of my generation, who were born in Israel, to also self-identify as Arab Jews?

AS: I only discovered the concept of the Arab Jew in the course of writing my memoir, when I was trying to make sense of my early life. I was always aware that Palestinians are the main victims of Zionism. But when writing this book, I discovered that Zionism had another category of victims: the Jews of the Arab lands. I began to see the parallels between Zionism’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and the attempt to bring Jews from across the world to Israel.

My grandmothers also came with us to Israel. They were in their 60s, and never learned Hebrew either. They really suffered in Israel because they were cut off from their support network. They used to speak with great nostalgia about the old country as God’s paradise. Psalm 137 says “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” For my two grandmothers, the experience in Israel was exactly reversed: “By the rivers of Zion, there we sat and there we wept when we remembered Babylon.”

One major influence on my thinking was Ella Shohat and her seminal collection of essays, On the Arab-Jew, Palestine, and Other Displacements. She has a very positive conception of an Arab-Jew; the hyphen connects rather than juxtaposes them. I started to think about my own evolution, and ended up reinventing myself as an Arab Jew.

So who is an Arab Jew? To put it very simply, I am an Arab Jew, and you are not an Arab Jew, because I lived in an Arab country, which formed the social reality for my family in Baghdad: We only spoke Arabic at home; our lifestyle, culture and literature were Arab; our music was a blend of Jewish and Arabic music. We had much more in common with Muslim Iraqis and Christian Iraqis than we had with our coreligionists from Eastern Europe. In this very real existential and cultural sense, we were Arab Jews. I know the notion is controversial, and Israelis say it’s an impossibility, but I don’t see why. Me and my family are an example of what it is to be an Arab Jew.

ZBDB: I appreciate that you use the word “reinvention” when you talk about claiming the identity of the Arab Jew, especially given that the scholarship—in [Israeli professor of Arabic] Reuven Snir’s work, for example—claims that no one really defined themselves as Arab in Iraq. People were Iraqis and the Arabness was perhaps implied, but no one really wrote about being Arab, whether they were Muslim, Christian, or Jewish—at least until 1948.

AS: That’s a very important point. The Jews in Iraq did not think of themselves as being outsiders. They were Iraqis, one minority among many. By and large, the various minority groups got along, and the Jews didn’t stand out. Europe had a Jewish problem, but Iraq did not. There were Jews of all social classes, and quite a large working-class and poor Jewish community, so they were part and parcel of the fabric of Iraqi society. It was the rise of nationalism, both Arab nationalism on the one hand, and Jewish nationalism on the other hand, that marked the Jews as different from the other minorities. Zionism was instrumental in changing the status of Jews in Arab countries by giving them a territorial dimension: Once there was a Jewish state in Israel, it became possible for Arab nationalists to say that the Jews didn’t belong.

ZBDB: I’m interested in the push factors that prompted the exodus of Iraqi Jews. Over the years, I’ve grown much more critical of Iraqi society and the Iraqi government during this period. I have been thinking and writing about the plight of Iraqi Jews for many years now and always resisted the tales we were told about the Zionist heroism that brought them to Israel, as many Iraqis in Israel did, regardless of their political orientation. But in light of recently released evidence from the Iraqi senate and the police at the time, I think it is time to rethink the meaning of this “voluntary” exodus. It was an expulsion. There is no question that the newly created State of Israel lured the Jews and made deals over their heads. But still, Iraq deported its Jews.

AS: The decisive factor [in the Jewish exodus from Iraq] after 1948 was state persecution. While there was an increase in popular hostility towards the Jews after the 1948 war, the government wasn’t being led by street. They took the lead in singling out the Jews as outsiders, and started introducing measures against them: dismissing Jews from government service, imposing restrictions on Jewish merchants and bankers, and putting a quota on the number of Jews that could go to university. They used the Jews as a scapegoat for the defeat in the war for Palestine and for their own failures at home. These were very important push factors that drove the Jews out. Having said that, I don’t agree with your conclusion that it was an expulsion. In 1948, Israel was largely responsible for 750,000 Palestinians becoming refugees. That was an expulsion. My family and the Jewish community in Iraq were not expelled, even as we were victims of the Arab–Israeli conflict. There is a difference.

ZBDB: There have been a lot of people since the peace process began who have tried to establish parity between the Iraqi Jews in particular, or Middle Eastern Jews in general, and the Palestinians in order to argue that the claims of the former cancel out those of the latter. I’m not trying to make that equation here. After all, the Iraqi Jews did not come to Israel as refugees; they were absorbed into Israel as citizens. But at the end of the day, I would argue that maybe we need to open up the idea of what it means to be expelled.

Historically, the Zionist movement within Iraqi Jewry was famously quite weak. Less than around 1% of the community joined the Zionist movement. Many of them joined only after the Farhud [a 1941 pogrom in which Iraqis killed around 180 Jews] and then disaffiliated soon after. In 1948, most of the population was still indifferent to Zionism. And then suddenly, within nine months, 93% of the community left in a very dramatic airlift. The immediate cause was several explosions in Jewish places, like a synagogue and a coffee shop in Baghdad. What are your thoughts about the bombs today?

AS: I devote a whole chapter to the subject of the exodus, the reasons for it, and the role of the five bombs on Jewish targets in 1950 and 1951 in particular. Since I was a boy, all my relatives and all the Iraqis I knew were convinced that this was a conspiracy to uproot them, and a prelude to the very poor treatment and reception that they received in Israel. Israel has always denied any involvement in the five bombs; there were two commissions of inquiry, which totally exonerated them from any involvement. A hand grenade was thrown in a Jewish cafe by a right-wing Arab nationalist, a member of the Istiqlal (Independence) Party, to hasten the departure of the Jews. The most famous bomb was a hand grenade thrown into the courtyard of the Mas’uda Shemtob Synagogue, which killed four Jews—the only case in which Jews actually died. This bombing was also not carried out by the Zionist Underground. [Ed. note: Shlaim’s book cites testimony that attributes this attack to Sali al-Haidari, a Sunni Muslim of Syrian origins, for criminal rather than political reasons.] But I have found undeniable evidence that the Zionist Underground was responsible for the three other bombs.

In 2017, I interviewed a friend of my mother’s in Ramat Gan, an elderly Iraqi Jew, who was a Zionist and a Likud supporter by the name of Yaacov Karkoukli. He was in the Zionist Underground. He told me about their activities in organizing the legal and then the illegal transport to Israel, the forging of documents and passports, the payment of bribes to Israeli and Iraqi officials. He told me about his colleague named Yusef Basri, a 20-year-old Jewish lawyer and ardent Zionist who had gone to Israel in 1949, but then was sent back to Baghdad as an Israeli agent. According to Karkoukli, Basri was responsible for three of the bombs; his handler, Max Binnet, was an Israeli intelligence officer based in Tehran. (In those days, the Shah’s Iran had covert relations with Israel.) Karkoukli later produced a one-page Baghdad police report as proof, which named Basri and talked about his interrogation and trial, where he was accused of involvement in three of the bombings. He was condemned to death and hanged, and apparently his last words were “Long live the State of Israel.”

I wouldn’t call the document a smoking gun: It’s in Arabic on a plain piece of paper with no date, no official letterhead, no names. Later on, however, I made contact with an Iraqi journalist named Shamil Abdul Qadir who had written a book in Arabic that was never translated to English called History of the Zionist Movement in Iraq and its Role in the Emigration of the Jews in 1950-1951. I sent him my one-page report, and he confirmed that it’s a part of the Baghdad police report on the bombs. He has a copy of the file, which is 258 pages. The document was not a single page taken from the file, but rather a collection of details taken from different parts of the file. Still it most definitely is genuine and authentic. I can therefore say without any doubt that the Zionist Underground, with Israeli involvement, was responsible for three of the bombs. I don’t claim that the bombs were the main factor behind the exodus, but I think it was one of many factors that need to be taken into account.

ZBDB: I would like to add that Yehuda Tajar, the Mossad agent in Iraq at the time, who was arrested and jailed by Iraqi police, did admit in an interview with [British journalist] Arthur Neslen in 2006 that the Mossad was responsible for one of the bombs. It’s also worth noting that Max Binnet was later involved in the scandal in Egypt in the mid-1950s in which local Jews working as Zionist operatives planted bombs in a cinema, coffee shop, and other places. In that case, Israel’s aim was to drive a wedge between the United States and Egypt.

AS: Binnet was rounded up in Cairo in 1954 and committed suicide in prison. Like in Baghdad in 1950 and 1951, it was an Israeli false flag operation, and the defense minister, Pinhas Lavon, was forced to resign. Although he didn’t activate the ring himself, he testified in one of the inquiries that these false flag operations were stupid and inhuman, and that it all started in Iraq. The worst part of this story is that there were very decent Iraqi and Egyptian Jews who were exploited by Israel and turned into spies and terrorists. Some of them paid with their freedom, some with their lives, and all of them lost their homeland.

ZBDB: Many of us first heard your name in the context of the so-called New Historians in Israel, who challenged the traditional Zionist historiography, but you were always somewhat different having worked outside of Israel. Do you think you could’ve found your place in the Israeli academy, especially as a Mizrahi?

AS: I can answer this question very specifically by saying that I spent a sabbatical year in 1981 in Jerusalem. I enjoyed life in Israel, and I made a formal application for a post as an associate professor of international relations at Hebrew University, but they never replied to me. It was bad manners, to say the least. But I had already learned that an Iraqi cannot be an academic in Israel. I remember when I was 14 or 15 years old, there was a scandal involving Ronnie Gabbai, an Iraqi Jew who in 1959 wrote one of the earliest books about the Nakba [the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in 1948]. He had completed his PhD thesis at the Sorbonne, and then went to Hebrew University to meet with the dean, Benjamin Akzin, who apparently told him: “What does an Iraqi have to do with a doctorate?”

ZBDB: In what ways did your personal experiences growing up as a child in Baghdad, being in Israel through military service, and then moving to London shape your view as a historian of the region?

AS: People think that in this conflict, there’s Israelis on one side and all the Arabs on the other, and that the antagonism is inevitable and inescapable. This is why I’m so focused on the notion of the Arab Jew. The history that I describe in this book shows that there was a time when Jews and Muslims and Christians could live happily together in harmony. Given Israeli colonialism and apartheid in the West Bank, it’s very difficult to think of a peaceful solution to this conflict, but thinking about the past enables me to think of a better future for the region. Today, I’ve come to the conclusion that a two-state solution to the conflict is dead, and the solution is one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea with equal rights for all its citizens, regardless of religion and ethnicity. This noble vision of a new Middle East is very much grounded in the history of my family and my community in Iraq.

Zvi Ben-Dor Benite is a professor in the Department of History and the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. He is the author of The Dao of Muhammad: A Cultural History of Muslims in Late Imperial ChinaThe Ten Lost Tribes: A World History; and Crescent China: Islam and Nation after Empire. He is also the editor of Middle Eastern Jewish Thought.

Jonathan Shamir is a fellow at Jewish Currents and the former deputy editor of Haaretz.