05 August 2023

From Mizrahi Jews to the Apartheid State

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“Quick Thoughts: Avi Shlaim on Israel’s New Historians, Hamas, and the BDS Movement” in Jadaliyya “Quick Thoughts: Avi Shlaim on Israel’s New Historians, Hamas, and the BDS Movement” in Jadaliyya https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/34642/Quick-Thoughts-Avi-Shlaim-on-Israel%E2%80%99s-New-Historians,-Hamas,-and-the-BDS-Movement

My purpose here is simple – to get you to listen to the 54-minute Middle East Eye interview with Oxford historian Avi Shlaim. The first part concerns Shlaim’s biography and the second, as the title suggests, captures his view as an Israeli historian of the current protests and the future of the Israeli state.

How did a Jewish boy born in 1945 to wealthy parents in Baghdad, Iraq, end up in Israel six years later? More intriguingly, how did a young Mizrahi (Arab Jew) who struggled to learn Hebrew and spent four years in a British “public school” (actually meaning “private”), come back for military service in the IDF (1964-66) and become a convinced Israeli nationalist? Perhaps that is understandable. In the interview he explains how military training became a very effective nationalist indoctrination tool. Also, by that age his Hebrew was fluent and he was better assimilated. But what is most stunning in Shlaim’s biography is that barely two years after his return to Britain for his university studies, he was seriously beginning to question the moral foundation of Israel’s policies regarding the Palestinians within its territories. “These are colonial policies,” you will hear him say.

Here are a few points I want to highlight. Hopefully this post will motivate you to actually listen to the whole interview and fill in the blanks, while getting to know this brilliant British academic (he has dual nationality) who in 2006 was elected Fellow of the British Academy.


Iraq a model of Jewish integration for 1,200 years

When a coalition of discontents overthrew the first Islamic dynasty (Umayyads) centered in Damascus around 750, they founded a new dynasty, the Abbasids, which moved to Baghdad. There in the next century, the fifth caliph, Harun al-Rashid, founded a library and center of learning called Bayt al-Hikma (“House of Wisdom”) in which Christian and Jewish scholars were prominent. After all, they had been working for centuries on Greek manuscripts and could readily initiate their Muslim colleagues into the study of thousands of volumes on philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and more. Baghdad became under him a capital of the arts and sciences, a cosmopolitan center of culture, knowledge and trade. By the tenth century, two Jewish schools competed against each other and Jews could be found at all levels of society, including political administration. This remained the same into the 20th century, as Avi Shlaim explains.

With the hardening of Arab nationalist ideology in the 1930s and 1940s and finally, the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, the Jews were suddenly persona non grata. Most of them were forced to leave in 1951 – 120,000 Arab Jews from Iraq joined another 140,000 other Arab Jews from other Arab nations to find refuge in Israel. In reality, they were more tolerated than welcomed in their new home. More on that below.

These Iraqi Mizrahis, or Arab Jews, trace their lineage back to the 6th century BCE when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and forced many Jews into exile. This is when the prophet Jeremiah, one of the few Israelites staying behind, sent a letter to the exiles in Babylon (just miles from today’s Baghdad): “Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them and so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:5-7 NLT). Well, they stayed until 1951.

Shlaim talks a great deal about identity. As an Arab Jew, he shared the language and culture of his fellow Iraqis, whether Muslims or Christians. But this only made it more difficult to adapt to a country that had just been founded by European Jews (Ashkenazi).


The shocking role played by Israeli agents in Iraq

Shlaim recounts that, after the founding of Israel, the government of Iraq (similarly in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere) was looking for a convenient scapegoat for its defeat on the battlefield – a defeat that could only be attributed to its own failed policies. The Iraqi Jews were that perfect scapegoat and “the government pursued official policies of discrimination: Jews were fired from the government service. Restrictions were placed on the activities of the Jewish traders and Jewish bankers, and a quota was imposed on the number of Jews who could go to university.” He sees this as “the main reason for the exodus of the Jews from Iraq.”

But there is another reason as well. Five bombs went off in Jewish spaces between 1950 and 1951. In March 1950, the Iraqi government passed a law that Jewish citizens who wished to leave the country were free to do so. They had one year to register. The response was tepid, so violence was used to speed up their departure. Five bombs exploded in Jewish public spaces during that time, creating a climate of fear and uncertainty for Jews and motivating many more of them to leave. But not all of those bombs were planted by Iraqi Arabs. Shlaim had grown up aware of persistent rumors in the Mizrahi community that Israel itself had been involved in uprooting them from their land, “and they were very resentful of that.” Years later, as a historian, Shlaim “investigated this question.” He adds, “I didn’t want to just repeat conspiracy theories; I wanted to get to the bottom of the matter.”

While doing this research, he met an elderly friend of his mother, Yaakov Kirkouki, “who had been in the Zionist underground.” He told him about how they forged documents, including passports, and paid “bribes to officials to facilitate the movement of Jews from Iraq to Israel.” Kirkouki also told him that one of their members was a bright young man named Yosef Basri, a lawyer and “an ardent Zionist.” Basri and his assistant Shalom Salah Shalom “were responsible for three of the five bombs. Four people were killed by the first two bombs, which he found out from good Iraqi sources were planted by a young activist from the Istiqlal Party, the main party wanting to force the Jews out of Iraq (the only party that defended the Jews and a policy of democratic pluralism was actually the Communist Party). Four people died as a result of those two bombs, but the other three bombs only injured their victims.

Basri’s “controller” was Max Bennett, an Israeli intelligence officer based in Iran. That was a relatively safe context for Israelis because the Shah was pro-Western and Iran had “covert relations with Israel.” Bennett had given Basri the TNT for the bombs and the know-how to make them. The operation was not entirely successful, however. True, no one was killed and these explosions sowed a lot more fear within the Jewish Iraqi community. But Basri and his assistant were caught, tried (Shlaim thinks the trial was fair), convicted, given a death sentence and executed by hanging. Meanwhile, Bennett had been relocated to Cairo, where he was involved in several “terrorist attacks” in 1954. As Shlaim puts it, “Planting bombs in public places was to create bad blood between the Nasser regime and the West. So it was a false flag operation, like the false flag operations in Iraq in 1950-51.” But the last bomb went off prematurely and the entire ring was arrested, including Bennett himself, who committed suicide in prison. These events are known as the Lavon Affair (Pinhas Lavon was Israeli defense minister at the time).

What happened in Iraq and Egypt happened elsewhere as well. It was a pattern of what one expert called “cruel Zionism because it involved innocent Jews, decent Jews, good people, and the Zionist movement, or the intelligence officers, turned these Jews in Baghdad, and then later in Cairo, into . . . spies and terrorists against their own homeland. And these people paid the price.” These false flag operations especially turned the Egyptian population against the Jews. But this was 1954 and Nasser had succeeded in getting the British to sign a treaty by which they would withdraw their military and cease all other activities in Egypt. Israel resented this treaty, hence the false flag operations. “It was shortsighted,” says Shlaim. It failed to achieve its purpose and it created even more resentment between Egypt and Israel.


The shock of Arab Jews arriving in Israel

It wasn’t just the clash of cultures and language that greeted the newcomers from Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. Schlaim describes the attitude of the Ashkenazi elites as despising and ignorant of the Mizrahis and their cultural heritage. Upon entry into Israel, these people were sprayed with DDT, as if they were animals with deadly diseases. Then these 260,000 were put into tents with deplorable sanitary conditions and given food of poor quality. Perhaps worst of all, many of these camps were surrounded by barbed wire. Ironically, among these immigrants were teachers, lawyers, doctors and other professionals, yet the Ashkenazi transit camp managers considered them all backwards people. Of course, that’s what they thought of Arabs.

The identity issue pops up several times: they were mistreated because in some sense they were still the “Arab” enemy. Yes, they were Jews, but they were made to feel inferior to the Ashkenazis. So they were neither Iraqi nor Israeli, at least to a full extent. They were caught in between. Shlaim grew to admire all the construction and early achievements of this state being built from the ground up, but he felt like it was an Ashkenazi project he did not fully understand. He compares himself to Edward Said, the great Palestinian American literary critic and political activist, who entitled his autobiography “Out of Place.” This was exactly Shlaim’s experience. He never felt that he belonged in Israel. He could never shake his feeling of inferiority.


Shlaim’s views on Israel evolve after 1967

As mentioned in the beginning, his military service in the IDF between 1964-66 had made of him “an ardent nationalist and patriot.” But after the victory of 1967, Israel “became overtly a colonial power,” tripling its territory and building settlements in these conquered areas “in violation of international law.” This illegal activity has continued until the present time. For him personally, a sense of disenchantment came over him, but it took a few years for him to truly articulate it to himself. After much research and publishing, he came to the views he expressed in his magnum opus, The Iron Wall (2000; see the Updated and Expanded edition, 2014). It is almost 1,000 pages, but if you are interested, you might start with this excellent review, which includes a response from Avi Shlaim.

In the interview he says that he served “proudly and loyally” in the IDF when it was, as its name indicates (“Israeli Defense Force”), an army to defend its nation’s borders. But that changed after June 1967. It “became the brutal police force of a brutal colonial power.” Besides its purpose to defend Israel from any Arab belligerence, it now added a new task: “to police the occupation in the Palestinian territories.” Then he adds, “Today it’s really become a settlers’ army.” It doesn’t protect the Palestinians, but only the settlers. For instance, “When the settlers go on a rampage and there is a really disturbing, alarming escalation of settler violence against Palestinians, the army does nothing to curb them. On the contrary, it supports them.”

What does he think about the current protests in Israel? “In historical perspective, this is the most serious constitutional crisis that Israel has ever faced.” What is at stake, he explains, “is Israeli democracy and everything that goes with it, which is the rule of law, [and] the independence of the judiciary.” It’s a “frontal attack” on “the main symbol of Israeli democracy, the Supreme Court.” Yet that court is “no friend of the Palestinians” and it’s certainly not “a paragon of virtue” since it has routinely rubberstamped policies that can only be qualified as “apartheid policies” and “policies of ethnic cleansing.” Yet it retains some independence, both legally and in practice. It has at times declared a government policy illegal, forcing the executive branch to back down. This is no longer the case. The executive branch can now act with complete freedom and impunity. The protests will certainly continue and the army reservists who said they will not report for duty might well follow through. This is a dangerous time.

But what worries him most is that in Netanyahu’s present cabinet are extreme right-wing people with “an ethnonationalist agenda” that aims to achieve “Jewish supremacy.” Their true aim is “ethnic cleansing and annexation of the West Bank.” On the other side, the protesters make no mention of the Palestinians. Their only concern is “Israeli democracy and Jewish rights.” They represent the centrist parties that have no qualms about the oppression of Palestinians, though they claim to be less extreme. In fact, they support all the current settlements and Jerusalem as “the eternal, undivided capital of Israel.” Hence, as proponents of “liberal ethnonationalism,” they want to keep the status quo, which in fact is “an apartheid state.” They have no alternative to propose.

Shlaim believes in neither vision. Right-wing ethnonationalism and its liberal counterpart are equally dismissive of Palestinian rights, whether the million and a half Palestinian citizens of Israel or the 3 or 4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza living under military occupation since 1967. But Shlaim believes in democracy which is fundamentally about all citizens having equal rights. Here is what he wants to see: “I support one democratic state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, with equal rights for all its citizens, regardless of religion and ethnicity.” Israel has “killed the two-state solution with its settlements.” The only solution for peace and prosperity of all is the one-state solution.

We’re now back to the story of his upbringing in Iraq. His family’s experience of coexistence within a diverse Iraqi society represents a hope that this kind of political, religious, cultural and ethnic pluralism can again be replicated in the Middle East – and this time in Israel. It may years from now, but Shlaim still hopes this will happen.

Please watch this. I also believe you will agree with me: the Middle East Eye journalist interviewing him is a young Iraqi Muslim (Mohamed Hassan). There’s another sign of hope right there.

[For more on my views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, see my 2019 post “The Fight for Justice in Palestine”]