Iraqi Jews Want to Be Arabs

Der Standard (06/23/04)

Conference "Remember Baghdad "Grates on the Zionist Narrative
Gudrun Harrer

Vienna - "he oriental Jewish Communities were not a part of the Zionist plan which essentially was a European, colonial one. Only after the creation of Israel did Israeli leadership turn their attention to the Arabic/Jewish Community." Abbas Shiblak, expert on Iraqi Jewry continues to comment on what happened then: "For me, as a refugee and a Palestinian Arab, the experiences of Iraqi Jews and all other Arabic/Jewish Communities are largely one of otherness" - loss, uprootedness and rejection.

If one believes the Jewish Iraqi participant in the conference, "Remember Baghdad," which was organized by the Austrian Institute for International Politics (OIIP) and numerous other organizations, then it was not a particularly happy return to the promised land. The preliminary events leading up to- and the circumstances surrounding the exodus of Jews out of Iraq, which were related to the other participants at the conference, differ considerably from those of the Israeli mainstream narrative: it was, above all, one of "transfer" run by Zionist leadership.

Deliberate Transfer

That the Jews had to leave behind their possessions - an historical view that involves only the Arabic countries - was, according to the sociologist, Yehouda Shenhav, deliberate: in order to protect Israel from Palestinian claims for compensation. Therefore, Israel supported no individual demands from Iraq made by the Iraqi Jews: "It was important that it remain "collective".

Even in Israel itself the Iraqi immigrant expected a "systematic cultural cleansing," said Nisim Rejwan with great bitterness at the conference. He left Baghdad in 1951. By citing quotes from David Ben Gurion and Golda Meier, the eighty year-old Rejwan highlighted the colonial arrogance felt by the Eastern Jews at the time of integration.

The author, Sami Michael, discovered that the ideological dictates of the Zionists made a neutral non-partisan depiction of the life of the Jews in Iraq impossible. Now these Jews want their history back. In fact, consideration is being made of a new museum, since the one in Tel Aviv fails to mention any Iraqi Jewish leader who defied Zionism.

There was a broad consensus at the conference that giving the term "Jew" an ethnic twist in the Arabic world results from the Israelis having put a stamp on the opposites of Jew/Arab: In Baghdad, there were Arabic Muslims, Arabic Christians and Arabic Jews. It was scarcely mentioned that the bitter history of European anti-Semitism and the Holocaust had started here: the Austrian listener should, however, not forget it.

Common Music
The Arabic identity of the Iraqi Jews was celebrated at the beginning as well as at the end of the conference: Whereas the first part of the conference was dedicated to remembering times of division, the second day shared a sense of unity of "Oud Festival" (Arabic sounds) with Jewish and non-Jewish Arabic musicians from different generations playing music together.