Three Worlds by Avi Shlaim review

Some 110,000 Jews left Iraq in 1950 and 1951 – a Jewish community that could trace its origins back to the Babylonians.

Jewish refugees in Iraq, April 1951. Wikimedia Commons
Jewish refugees in Iraq, April 1951. Wikimedia Commons

Avi Shlaim, a British historian of the Middle East, was forced to leave Baghdad with his family for Israel as a five-year-old by an Iraqi government that cared little for minorities. Some 110,000 Jews left Iraq in 1950 and 1951 – a Jewish community that could trace its origins back to the Babylonians.

Some were more Jewish Iraqis than Iraqi Jews. Stripped of their savings, homes and cultural environment, they did not see Israel as a land of salvation, but as a foreign entity that had no meaning for them. Trying to make sense of their predicament became a lifelong preoccupation for many.

Shlaim himself morphed from Iraqi toddler to Israeli soldier to Anglo-Jewish student to Oxford don. This memoir is centred on his first 18 years, trying to cope with the psychological damage inflicted by history – ending with his parents’ loss of status and divorce in Israel.

Iraq came into existence after the First World War as an unwieldy patchwork of ethnic and religious minorities, Sunni and Shi’a, Kurds, Turkmens, Yazidis, all under the control of the British. Pan-Arab nationalism emerged and several adherents looked to Hitler and Mussolini during the interwar years on the basis of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.

The rights of minorities vanished in the haze of an all-consuming nationalism. When Iraq became independent in 1932, it was followed by the massacre of Christian Assyrians by the Iraqi army in the village of Simele. Its commander, Bakr Sidqi, eventually became prime minister while the British authorities tried to bury the incident for fear of another mass killing. In 1934, Jews were dismissed from the civil service, there was a quota system for Jewish students entering educational institutions and a tax had to be paid when leaving Iraq. The Iraqi authorities even banned the Jewish Chronicle. The stand of the Chief Rabbi of Baghdad, Sassoon Khadduri, a staunch anti-Zionist who affirmed the loyalty of Iraqi Jews to the Arab cause in Palestine in 1936, made little difference.

In April 1941, the British ousted the pro-German government of Rashid Ali al-Gaylani who fled to Mussolini’s Italy. While the British waited outside the gates, the mob attacked Jews in their synagogues and homes, killing 179, destroying over 500 shops and looting nearly 1,000 homes. Some Iraqi Jews became more receptive to the Zionist message to emigrate to the British Mandate of Palestine. Others who regarded themselves as proud patriots, such as Shlaim’s parents, felt that this was a difficult blip in a comfortable existence. Arab nationalism, however, was on the march. In November 1945, Coptic, Greek Orthodox and Catholic institutions were attacked in Cairo. In the Great Synagogue in Aleppo, prayer books were burned.

The UN Resolution of November 1947 on partition into two states led to the emergence of Israel and the disappearance of Palestine. Some of its territory was taken by the new state of Israel beyond the UN boundaries, but the bulk was taken by Jordan (West Bank) and Egypt (Gaza). This situation lasted until the Six Day War in 1967. For Israel, the internecine conflict was a war of independence; for the Palestinian Arabs, it was the Nakba – a catastrophe of flight, exodus and expulsion. Shlaim dilutes such complexities into monochrome stereotypes, solely blaming ‘the Zionists’ with a broad brush.

In July 1948, the Iraqis passed a law which made adherence to Zionism an offence punishable by death. In September 1947, the prominent communal figure Shafiq Ades was hanged in front of his home after a show trial. He was accused of selling arms to Israel as well as supporting international communism. The human rights of Jewish communities throughout the Arab world after 1948 were hardly defended by their governments. Those in power often led campaigns of incitement against their Jewish citizens. The number of Palestinian Arabs who left Israel was matched by the number of Jews who left the Arab world.

The Jews of Libya and Yemen viewed the emergence of Israel in messianic terms and flocked there. In contrast, the assimilated Jewish elite in Baghdad was much more conflicted. The Jewish bourgeoisie in Iraq, including Shlaim’s parents, had hitherto kept their distance from Zionism and communism. Now Jews were labelled as ‘aliens, traitors and a fifth column’.

Many hoped that this crisis would soon pass. Instead, Iraqi Jews were transformed from being honoured mercantile professionals into impoverished paupers, living in ma’abarot (tent cities) in an Israel struggling to cope with the aftermath of war, a failing economy and a tremendous influx of immigrants. Jewish immigrants from the Arab world also had to deal with the discriminatory and patronising prejudice of many of the pioneers, often from the Ashkenazi world of Eastern Europe. There were exceptions: Sami Michael, a communist activist from Baghdad, became a well-known writer in Israel and headed its Association of Civil Rights.

Several bombs exploded in Baghdad while Jews waited to leave for Israel. Shlaim believes that three out of the five bombs were planted by Zionists to catalyse a quicker exodus. As Shlaim states in this book, leaders of the Iraqi Zionists, Shlomo Hillel and Mordechai Ben-Porat, described such accusations as ‘patently absurd’ – yet this incident has become a point-scorer in the megaphone war today between Israelis and Palestinians. Two Iraqi Jews, Yusuf Basri and Shalom Salih Shalom, confessed to three of the bombings after being tortured. They later retracted their confessions, but to no avail. They were hanged in January 1952.

Although legions of academics have researched this question during the last 70 years, Shlaim goes into great depth to ascertain what happened through conversations with nonagenarians living in Israel. He comes across as someone torn between his professional training as a historian and his desire to tar the Zionists with responsibility for these events. This book conveys a sense of profound sadness about those who found themselves at the mercy of events over which they had no control and who have lived with a continuing anguish.  

Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew
Avi Shlaim
Oneworld, 336pp, £25
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Colin Shindler is Emeritus Professor at SOAS, University of London.