"Till Spring Comes": Arabic and Hebrew Literary Debates among Iraqi-Jews in Israel (1950-2000)1

Article excerpt

In modern times Iraqi Jews, writing in Arabic, were producing literary works that quickly became part of the mainstream of modern Arabic literature. Following the establishment of the state of Israel, many Iraqi-Jewish intellectuals, poets, and writers emigrated to the new state. On their arrival in Israel they faced a new linguistic situation in which the language (Hebrew) imposed upon them was limited to a single religion, a single nation, and a single ethnic entity, as opposed to the situation in Iraq, where Arab cultural and national identity encompassed Jews together with Muslims and Christians. Advocates of Western-orientated cultural identity also bewailed the "danger" of the "Arabization" of Israeli society. The immigrants thus faced a fierce clash between their original Iraqi-Arab narrative and the Jewish Zionist Western-oriented dominant master narrative-the natural Iraqi Jewish-Arab identity was split into Arab versus Jew. As a result, the literature 20th-century Iraqi Jews produced in Arabic has been gradually disappearing. The demise of Arabic literature among Jews has precipitated a controversy regarding whether Arab culture can be considered a "correct" source of inspiration for the Israeli Hebrew culture.

On 18 July 1921, one month before his coronation as the King of Iraq, Amir Faysal (1883-1933) declared before Jewish community leaders that "in the vocabulary of patriotism, there is no such thing as Jew, a Muslim, or a Christian. There is simply one thing called Iraq . . . all of us are related to the Semitic root, which makes no distinction between Muslim, Christian or Jew."2 When Amir Faysal uttered these words, the integration of Baghdadi Jewish secular intellectuals into the society at large-as "Arab-Jews"-was already in full swing. In their eyes there was no contradiction between their Jewish faith and their standing as good Iraqis with equal rights and responsibilities as their compatriots. They adhered to a cultural vision that was inspired by the eloquent dictum, "Religion is for God, the Fatherland is for everyone"3-the reality in which they lived and worked was one of close symbiotic contact with the wider Arab-Muslim culture. As an organic and vital part of local society, Jews were numbered in the front ranks of the Iraqi intelligentsia. Pioneers of modernization and westernization, they even participated in the national Arab movement,4 in the belief that the Jewish community in Iraq would endure "to the days of the Messiah."5

For the Iraqi-Jewish intellectuals the Arabic language was a "decisive fact of life,"6 and among them was the motivation to demonstrate excellence in Arab cultural heritage, which "has penetrated to our blood."7 Their fluent Arabic style was more than once judged superior to that of their non-Jewish counterparts.8 From the Syrian educator 'Ali al-Tantawi (1909-1999), we learn that the excellence of the Jewish students in Arabic moved one school administration to "guarantee the good of the homeland and behave toward the Jews as they deserve," combining instruction in literature with instruction in the Muslim religion-but even this did not prevent the Jews excelling in the new curriculum.9 Jewish writing in standard literary Arabic (fusha) began in the first decade of the twentieth century (predominantly in the area of journalism) and was made possible by the liberalizing measures incited by the Young Turks in 1908; as of 1920, Arabic belle letters flourished among Jews.10

However, with the escalation of the national conflict in Palestine, the Jewish community had to walk a fine line. The distinctions between Jewish religion and political Zionism began to blur, especially with the infiltration of Nazi propaganda and Iraqi support for the Palestinians coalescing with pan-Arab foreign policy. The Farhud in Baghdad in June 1941, when more than one hundred and fifty Jews were killed and Jewish property was looted, led to an obfuscation of the Jews' role in Iraqi society by implying doubts about their loyalty. …