Baghdad, Yesterday, Jerusalem, Tomorrow

I’ve just begun reading Baghdad, Yesterday, an engrossing memoir by Sasson Somekh, an Iraqi-born Jew who, like many Iraqi Jews, left* Baghdad for Israel in 1951. Somekh is now a professor emeritus of Arabic literature at Tel Aviv University. It reads likes a series of dispatches from life in Baghdad in the 30s and 40s. But one thing that surprised me—Somekh only mentions it in passing—is that after Saddam’s regime was ousted with the American invasion of 2003, “Iraqi Jews in exile, along with their descendants, were invited to participate in the elections that took place in Iraq at the beginning of 2005.” I didn’t know anything about this, but it’s apparently true. The tragedy and injustice of Jews who were expelled from Arab countries after 1948 is often thrown up as a conversation-stopper whenever the question of the Nakba or Palestine arises. I couldn’t help think that next time someone does raise that point, we should point to this invitation to Iraqi Jews (can we imagine Israel doing anything comparable for Palestinians in exile?) as a way of continuing that conversation.

*Somekh uses the language of “left” rather than fled or was exiled or expelled or driven out. I’m not far enough into the memoir yet to know what the circumstances of his leaving were, so I’m going to rely on his usage for now.


  1. samuel farber January 4, 2015 at 7:31 pm | #

    Hi Corey, If I remember correctly, Iraq was the only Arab country where there were actual pogrom type activities against Jews in the early fifties. Sammy Smooha, a prominent Israeli sociologist who was my T.A. at UCLA in the late sixties comes originally from Iraq and told me about his family’s experiences there. However, he is a liberal Zioinst, a fact that must be kept in mind. Sam Date: Mon, 5 Jan 2015 00:09:53 +0000 To:

  2. yastreblyansky January 4, 2015 at 9:04 pm | #

    If you look at all the Wikipedia “History of the Jews in…” articles you see tons of ambiguity except for Egypt, where expulsion was very clear. Especially Iraq and Syria, where governments tended to try to stop Jews from emigrating (or to surrender their property first). Outside the Arab world in Iran, of course, Jews still have more rights than Arabs do in Israel (and more obligations–they’re expected to do military service).

  3. yastreblyansky January 4, 2015 at 9:13 pm | #

    And some evidence I meant to say suggesting Zionist plotting to frighten Jews out of Iraq–possibility that Zionists bombed synagogues.

  4. uh...clem January 4, 2015 at 10:41 pm | #

    In light of the new post-war period that saw the end of state-sponsored anti-Semitism, the Zionists set out to attack Jews in a number of countries and to conjure up the spectre of anti-Semitism in countries that opposed Zionism. In Iraq, the Israeli Mossad planted bombs in synagogues, libraries and cafes in the early 1950s, which killed and injured Iraqi Jews and spread panic amongst them that Iraqi Muslims and Christians were targeting them. Collaboration ensued between Israel and the British-sponsored Iraqi regime to bring about the exodus of Iraqi Jews to Israel.

    When Egyptian Jews still refused to go to Israel, the Mossad again placed bombs in Egyptian cinemas, train stations and post offices. When the Egyptian authorities uncovered the terrorist operation, later made famous under the name the “Lavon Affair”, and its Jewish perpetrators were captured and tried, Israel launched a major propaganda campaign claiming that Nasser was “Hitler on the Nile”.

    This is from Joseph Massad here:

    Is there any reason to doubt Massad’s claims?

    • thenodster January 5, 2015 at 5:17 am | #

      This isn’t a relic of the 1950s either. The Israelis almost certainly blew up their own Embassy in London in 1994. Why do I think this? Two Mossad agents were arrested in Britain in 1988 because they were planning to…….. bomb the Israeli Embassy.

    • BillR January 5, 2015 at 8:52 am | #

      Naeim Giladi’s work and interviews are available online (including an hour-long interview on youtube conducted by Harold Channer in 1994).

      About 125,000 Jews left Iraq for Israel in the late 1940s and into 1952, most because they had been lied to and put into a panic by what I came to learn were Zionist bombs…I was disillusioned at what I found in the Promised Land, disillusioned personally, disillusioned at the institutionalized racism, disillusioned at what I was beginning to learn about Zionism’s cruelties. The principal interest Israel had in Jews from Islamic countries was as a supply of cheap labor, especially for the farm work that was beneath the urbanized Eastern European Jews. Ben Gurion needed the “Oriental” Jews to farm the thousands of acres of land left by Palestinians who were driven out by Israeli forces in 1948.

      And I began to find out about the barbaric methods used to rid the fledgling state of as many Palestinians as possible. The world recoils today at the thought of bacteriological warfare, but Israel was probably the first to actually use it in the Middle East. In the 1948 war, Jewish forces would empty Arab villages of their populations, often by threats, sometimes by just gunning down a half-dozen unarmed Arabs as examples to the rest. To make sure the Arabs couldn’t return to make a fresh life for themselves in these villages, the Israelis put typhus and dysentery bacteria into the water wells.

      • Stephanie Schwartz January 10, 2015 at 3:53 pm | #

        “The causative organism [of typhu] Rickettsia is an obligate intracellular parasitic bacterium that cannot survive for long outside living cells. ” wikipedia

        Also the vectors are ticks, lice, fleas or mites. So, it’s completely false that typhus can be propagated by way of “water wells” in any form or manner.

    • LFC January 5, 2015 at 4:07 pm | #

      Here is the opening paragraph, fwiw, of the Wikipedia entry on the Lavon Affair:

      “The Lavon Affair refers to a failed Israeli covert operation, code named Operation Susannah, conducted in Egypt in the Summer of 1954. As part of the false flag operation,[1] a group of Egyptian Jews were recruited by Israeli military intelligence to plant bombs inside Egyptian, American and British-owned civilian targets, cinemas, libraries and American educational centers. The bombs were timed to detonate several hours after closing time. The attacks were to be blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian Communists, “unspecified malcontents” or “local nationalists” with the aim of creating a climate of sufficient violence and instability to induce the British government to retain its occupying troops in Egypt’s Suez Canal zone.[2] The operation caused no casualties, except for operative Philip Natanson, when a bomb he was taking to place in a movie theater ignited prematurely in his pocket; for two members of the cell who committed suicide after being captured; and for two operatives who were tried, convicted and executed by Egypt.”

      According to this, the operation was not aimed specifically at Egyptian Jews and did not have the goal of inducing Egyptian Jews to leave Egypt and go to Israel. Rather, the bombs were placed in various sorts of civilian venues and timed to go off after those venues had closed for the day. The only casualties caused by the operation were among cell members and operatives themselves. All this is at odds with Joseph Massad’s characterization of the Lavon
      Affair that you quote.

      • LFC January 5, 2015 at 4:11 pm | #

        p.s. And the aim of the op, according to the Wiki entry at any rate, was to induce Britain to keep troops in the Canal Zone, not to induce Egyptian Jews to move to Israel.

      • BillR January 5, 2015 at 9:50 pm | #

        Keep in mind there have been documented cases of organized Hasbara efforts to subvert Wikipedia entries related to Israel and Zionism:

        The lobby group Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America has apparently organized more than fifty editors via a mailing list to correct what it sees as bias against Israel.

        I would suggest corroborating Israel related Wikipedia entries against independent sources before lending them too much credence.

        The Israeli Ministry of Hasbara (Propaganda) runs a massive operation to clog up Internet discussion boards and social media sites:

        The National Union of Israeli Students (NUIS) has launched a program to pay Israeli university students $2,000 to spread pro-Israel propaganda online for 5 hours per week from the “comfort of home.”

        Max Blumenthal also described hasbara in ‘Goliath’:

        The task of disseminating hasbara now falls on a special Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, led until 2013 by Yuli Edelstein, a right-wing settler and government minister who has called Arabs a “despicable nation.” (Edelstein is now speaker of the Knesset.) Edelstein’s ministry boasts an advanced “situation room,” a paid media team, and coordination of a volunteer force that claims to include thousands of bloggers, tweeters and Facebook commenters who are fed the latest talking points and then flood social media with hasbara in five languages. The exploits of the propaganda soldiers conscripted into Israel’s online army have helped give rise to the phenomenon of the “hasbara troll,” an often faceless, shrill and relentless nuisance deployed on Twitter and Facebook to harass public figures who express skepticism about official Israeli policy or sympathy for the Palestinians.

      • Stephanie Schwartz January 10, 2015 at 3:23 pm | #

        I agree with the above. In any case it seems odd to me that one or two bomb attacks with an exceedingly low level of casualties would significantly contribute to inducing people with thousands of years roots in a country to get up and leave. Nope. I don’t think Iraqi Jews are different from say German Jews who only left when the duress which was many many orders of magnitude worse than said Mossad bomb.

  5. P.M.Lawrence January 5, 2015 at 8:55 am | #

    I can provide a single data point from my own direct knowledge as a child in Iraq in the late 1950s, which in turn led me to do some reading and asking my parents once I was old enough to enquire. One of my childhood friends was Guy Fetto, who was Jewish and who I knew from early primary schooling and from our parents’ membership of the Alwaiya Club (courtesy of the internet, I later found that at least one Fetto was a pharmacist in Baghdad at the time). His family’s very existence showed that there was no universal deportation of Jews of the sort implied by “The tragedy and injustice of Jews who were expelled from Arab countries after 1948 is often thrown up as a conversation-stopper whenever the question of the Nakba or Palestine arises”, suggesting as it does that there was a general round of deportations around the time of the founding of Israel, with everything much of a muchness. In fact, pressures for that began to build in Arab countries from then on, but they took more than a decade to reach that pitch, as British and French moderating influence took some time to ebb (helped along by deliberate U.S. policy, but no doubt as an unintended consequence). There was a partial exception: an Iraqi faction under Rashid Ali attempted to align with the Axis powers during the Second World War, and there was indeed some actual and effective Iraqi antisemitism then – but the British came roaring back and re-established hegemony that time (Dr. Grobba belongs in an Indiana Jones film).

    Nevertheless, it is indeed true that the Fettos left Baghdad for the U.K. not long after multi-national employers like my father’s did in the late 1950s; my mother and I bumped into the Fettos in a car park in Sevenoaks (some thirty miles south of London), maybe in 1962 or 1963, and many years later I drew my parents’ attention to a Fetto obituary mention in a newspaper that showed they were then in Britain, probably in the mid-1970s. So it really did get ever harder for Iraqi Jews, but (judging from my personal following up of the issues drawn to my attention by personal contact) it wasn’t anything like a mass deportation or a single event; it was much more like the continuing squeezing out of the Kenyan Asians than even the fate of the Ugandan Asians, let alone the refugee flight and plight of the Palestinians in 1948. It certainly did not match the experiences of the family of our Armenian nanny, who had been caught up in the Ottoman genocide (my mother told me some of their story when I was older).

    Also, of course, a full assessment would need even more, and more thorough, research than my personal interest led me to. Who knows, Guy Fetto may still be out there somewhere, and able to fill out more detail than I ever could.

  6. David Green January 5, 2015 at 12:19 pm | #

    Israeli historian Tom Segev summarizes emigration immediately after the founding of Israel, especially in relation to North Africa:

    “Deciding to emigrate to Israel was often a very personal decision. It was based on the particular circumstances of the individual’s life. They were not all poor, or ‘dwellers in dark caves and smoking pits.’ Nor were they always subject to persecution, repression or discrimination in their native lands. They emigrated for a variety of reasons, depending on the country, the time, the community, and the person.”

    Segev summarizes the “messianic fervor” that led to “operation Magic Carpet” in Yemen in 1948-49, but also notes that the Jewish Agency emissary in Aden, “asked permission to prepare the Yemenite authorities to expel the remaining Jews from their country.”

    Discussions of the rapid emigration of Jews from Iraq in 1951 often focus on allegations of violent Zionist provocation, which are compelling but have not been completely substantiated. Just as important, the context of these alleged provocations was acutely described by the late Rabbi Elmer Berger in letters he wrote on the basis of interviews with Jewish leaders during a trip to Baghdad in 1955:

    “Zionist agents began to appear in Iraq—among the youth—playing on a general uneasiness and indicating that American Jews were putting up large amounts of money to take them to Israel, where everything would be in apple-pie order. The emigration of children began to tear at the loyalties of families as the adults in a family reluctantly decided to follow their children, the stress and strain of loyalties spread to brothers and sisters . . . Several caches of arms were ‘discovered’ in synagogues . . . What both Jews and the Government had believed to be only a passing phenomenon—emigration—began to assume the proportions of a public issue.”

    Similarly, the fate of the Jews of Egypt is often linked to the infamous Lavon affair of 1954, during which Zionist agents attacked American installations. But in a broader context, Joel Beinin writes of:

    “more than occasional instances of socially structured discrimination against Jews in Egypt. In the 20th century, they (the Jews) were inextricably linked to processes of colonization and decolonization, the nationalist struggle to expel the British troops who occupied Egypt from 1882-1956, and the intensification of the Arab-Zionist conflict.”

    Jews, especially those whose Europeanized culture and bourgeois interests linked them to secular-liberal nationalism, were excluded from narratives of both colonial privilege and Islamic conceptions of the polity, and clearly had no place in the pan-Arab movement led by Nasser and opposed by Israel. They identified with the national narrative of neither Egypt nor Israel, and many of the wealthier moved to Europe.

    Israeli scholar Michael M. Laskier concludes his description of Moroccan emigration, which was prohibited by the Moroccan government from 1956 until 1961, with this comparison to Egypt:

    “Whereas in Nasser’s Egypt, Jews and other minorities were expelled or encouraged to leave in 1956-57 and subsequently as part of the national homogeneity campaign, Moroccan politicians frequently spoke of national heterogeneity, even though Moroccan Jewry was often portrayed in the local press as being disloyal and was becoming isolated from Moroccan society on various levels. The Jews were prevented from choosing the emigration alternative until 1961, because Moroccan authorities expected them to participate in nation-building, to invest their capital in Morocco and not in Israel.”

    The long-term and disrupted emigration of Moroccan Jews stands in stark contrast to the “flash flood” of Algerian Jews, most of who immigrated to France after Algerian independence in 1962. Algerian Jews were more completely assimilated into French colonial culture, but nevertheless historically attached to Muslim society. Andre Chouraqui writes that “heavy pressure was applied (to Jews) from both sides in the hope of gaining both material and moral support; . . . the vast majority of Jews remained passive in the struggle.” Ultimately, FLN (liberation) attacks not specifically directed at Jews spread panic among both the Jewish and Christian elite, and “Jews saw headlong flight as the only escape from anarchy.” Chouraqui concludes that in North Africa,

    “neither the westernized elite nor the masses of Moslems, who were almost entirely ignorant of the implications of Zionism, reacted with great feelings against their countries’ Jews. Had it not been for the conflict with the French…the Jews might well have remained in North Africa for centuries in comparative harmony.”

    The disintegration of Jewish cultures in Arab societies was a complicated and by no means inevitable process that has been neither properly understood nor appropriately mourned by its victims, other Jewish Israelis, and Jews of European background around the world. Its use as Zionist propaganda by the Ashkenazi elite in Israel and the U.S. reflects various degrees of racism towards Mizrahim, Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims, and serves to harden the false bipolarity with which Israelis and their American supporters view the world, now through the lenses of “Judeo-Christian” civilization. The specter of the Holocaust has been unfairly transferred to the Arab world, and is used to justify the oppression of the Palestinians and the “war on terrorism.”

    While Arab Jewish culture has been transformed in the Diaspora, an understanding of their history and demise can begin a process that will allow the Mizrahim to more actively shape a more just Israeli society, and a more peaceful future among Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs. In our own country, it can be minimally hoped that debunking mythology about Arab Jews will open some minds to a more fundamental questioning of Zionist conventional wisdom and its relation to American empire.

    • Stephanie Schwartz January 10, 2015 at 4:02 pm | #

      “The specter of the Holocaust has been unfairly transferred to the Arab world, and is used to justify the oppression of the Palestinians and the “war on terrorism.”

      Unfairly? This is arguable. Used to justify the oppression of the Palestinians? Depends what you mean by “justify” and “oppression”. Does the specter of the Holocaust still motivate Jews and Israelis to be extraordinarily concerned about physical security ? Well, yes. Why not?

  7. BillR January 7, 2015 at 12:02 am | #

    On ‘Lost Causes’ and ‘Failing Better’:

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