Originally posted July 2008
As we look at the horrendous state of Iraqi refugees today, a comparison between them and their Jewish brethren who immigrated to Israel in the early 1950s seems irrelevant, almost insolent. The exodus of over 120,000 Iraqi Jews was marked by its finality. These Iraqi Jews were integrated into Israeli society, and very few attempted to return to Iraq. In contrast, many Iraqi refugees seek to return to their homeland once conditions in Iraq stabilize. Furthermore, the former was a migration of one, albeit influential, minority community, whilst in the present destruction of the civil war, members of all religious communities are leaving Iraq.
And yet, there are very good reasons for such a comparison. In both waves of migration, events occurring outside of Iraq changed the power dynamics inside the country, thus generating an intolerable situation that pushed people to migrate. Iraqi Jews left their country because of the conflict in Palestine. The deteriorating relations between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, the activities of the state of Israel in Iraq, and the inability of Iraqi ultranationalists to distinguish between Judaism and Zionism are often noted as the key reasons for their migration. Even after a wave of urban rioting in 1941, the Farhud, in which more than 150 Jews were killed and many more wounded, only a few Jews had left Iraq. Similarly, despite Saddam Husayn’s brutality and insufferable violence and the atrocious years of sanctions, Iraqis did not leave their country on the mass scale seen today. Moreover, it was factors from the outside, especially the implausible links made between the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the Ba‘th regime, that ignited an occupation that resulted in a bloody civil war. Foreign intervention by Iraq’s neighbors complicated the civil war even further and forced more Iraqis to migrate. While one cannot ignore the horrors inflicted on Iraqis by their fellow Iraqis, it is impossible to ignore the enormous role that outside factors played in the current refugee crisis.
Once outside of Iraq, the socioeconomic conditions of the refugees affected their integration into their new countries. As Iraqi Jewish elites were mostly Western educated and came from the middle and upper classes, many were able to integrate into Israeli socioeconomic life in spite of many difficulties (unlike Arab-Jews from North Africa, for example). Correspondingly, the education of many of the current refugees enabled them to find positions as professors, businessman, and professionals in other Arab countries. Education, religious community, and socioeconomic status determined, to a large degree, the lot of Iraqi refugees in other Arab countries.
Jewish Iraqi immigrants to Israel, who lost practically everything because of legislation that froze their assets in Iraq, had discovered the gap between official national discourses and daily realities. Official Zionist discourse had spoken of the brotherhood of all Jews; all were to be equal citizens in the state of Israel. Yet having arrived from an Arab country, Iraqi Jews sometimes faced discrimination in Israel. Regardless of the fact that members of the bourgeois Iraqi Jewish elites were conversant in at least one European language, if not two, and that their education and leisure habits were rooted in both the European and Arab traditions, they were marked as “Eastern,” “Oriental,” and “Arab.” Similarly, before and during the present war in Iraq, Arab intellectuals and politicians expressed their solidarity with their occupied Arab-Iraqi brethren. Sadly, these public announcements have not always been translated into action. Although many Arab professionals, intellectuals, and human rights activists have courageously and tirelessly assisted Iraqi refugees, the refugees face discrimination and abuse in their new dwelling places. Iraqis, such as Shi‘is in Sunni states, are “other-ed,” marked as a danger to states’ stability and security, and discriminated against in terms of labor, welfare policies, and migration laws. A host of phenomena, ranging from the somewhat harmless grumbling about rising inflation and real estate values due to the presence of Iraqi refugees to the inhumane trafficking of Iraqi women into various Arab countries, serves to convey the fact that Pan-Arab or Pan-Islamic sympathy to Iraq is not extended to the Iraqis themselves.
There is, however, something about Iraqi Jews who emigrated to Israel that enables us to think with some hope about the present refugee crisis. Irrespective of their anger towards the elements in Iraqi society that caused their migration, Iraqi Jews in Israel, especially the generation educated in Iraqi high schools, remained loyal to Iraqi culture. Iraqi Jewish life was commemorated in their writings, social activities, and cultural practices. Celebrated novelist Samir Naqash continued writing in Arabic, even while living in Israel. Eminent writers Sami Michael and Shim‘on Ballas wrote novels in Hebrew commemorating the lives of Iraqi Jews in their old homeland. Iraqi Jews produced autobiographies, some in Arabic, detailing their lives in Iraq. The Israeli museum for the history of Babylonian Jewry, notwithstanding its emphasis on the activities of the Zionist movement in Iraq, has done much to document the rich life of the community. Iraqi Jewish professors, like Sasson Somekh, Shmuel Moreh, and David Sameh, played a seminal role in developing the field of modern Arabic literature in Israeli academia and explored the works of Iraqi poets and writers. Iraqi Jewish musicians continued playing familiar Iraqi and Middle Eastern music. The narratives produced by Iraqi Jews combine a variety of contradictory elements: nostalgia, love of Arabic literature, longing for a lost coexistence between Arabs and Jews, and rage towards those who forced them to leave. But, above all, they emphasize the fact that Iraq still plays a crucial role in the lives of those who left it.
While I do not wish to produce an Iraqi national narrative, as most Iraqi Jews no longer identify Iraq as their homeland and consider themselves Israelis, let us note that their love of the landscape of their childhood, of Iraqi food, music, literature, and folklore, is undeniable. Even when Jewish writers reconstruct painful moments in the history of the community, like the Farhud, many mention the Muslim neighbors that assisted them during those dreadful times. Their nostalgia for Iraq derives from the Iraqi education system that cultivated Arab and Iraqi nationalism, from the relationship of neighborhood and commerce between Iraqi Jews and Muslims, and from the ability, even after so many years, to commemorate these elements.
And here lies the hope for the Iraqi refugees at present. The connections celebrated by Iraqi Jews relate to a common Iraqi culture: a love for the same landscape, a collective history and memory, and the ability to ignore religious differences for the sake of a shared vision of pluralism and coexistence. These very same bonds were, and are, tragically and violently broken in civil war. Warlords, militiamen, and corrupt politicians had created a reality that did not allow those bonds to survive, favoring ethno-religious cleansing in their stead. Moreover, current Iraqi refugees bitterly remember the sects, militias, politicians, and occupiers whom, they feel, forced them out of Iraq. Naturally, these refugees are more sectarian and less hopeful than the Iraqis of the previous decade. But many still identify themselves as Iraqis (in addition to being Sunnis, Shi‘is, or Christians), and are being identified as Iraqis by others. Many are also resentful towards their host states. Their frightful mistreatment outside of Iraq also encourages them to think of ways to reconstruct what was lost in Iraq. In their writings, blogs, posting on the Internet, and op-ed pieces, many still conceptualize an Iraqi state that should be resurrected anew. The same websites visited by Iraqi Jews, which celebrate Iraqi music, poetry, and literature, are visited by Iraqi refugees, who relate to them as a symbol of a better past, despite their recent memories of aggression and massacres.
Sasson Somekh ended his recently published memoirs by referencing the words of his friend, Egyptian novelist, Nagib Mahfuz. Arabs and Jews, wrote Mahfuz, “knew extraordinary partnership for many years in ancient times, in medieval times, and in the modern age, with times of quarrels and disputes few and far between. Unfortunately, we documented the disputes one hundred times more than the periods of friendship and cooperation.” Somekh sided with Mahfuz’s dream for a future of collaboration. One hopes that such a dream would be possible also for current Iraqi refugees, of all sects and religions, who now experience the worse aspects of religious fanaticism and exploitation.
1 The word “refugee” in the context of the Iraqi civil war has many meanings. In this essay, the word signifies an Iraqi individual who was forced to leave Iraq because of the war.