IRAQ-New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq

Article excerpt

IRAQ

New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq by Orit Bashkin. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012. 310 pages. $80 cloth; $24.95 paper; $24.95 E-book.

New Babylonians is a meticulously researched and path-breaking treatment of a topic engaging several interlocking contested histories - Jews of Arab countries, the Arab-Israeli conflict, democracy and post-colonialism, and the Communist Parties of Iraq and Israel. Bashkin's principal intervention in the literature on Iraqi Jews (much of which is in Hebrew) is using a plethora of literary and journalistic sources - both arenas in which Jews were prominent - to argue that during the period of the Hashemite monarchy (1922-1958), many considered themselves "Arab Jews," fully identified with Arab culture and the Iraqi national project, and were distant from or vociferously critical of Zionism.

There are two main versions of these histories. The first is a teleological Zionist view emphasizing "the failure of the Iraqi orientation" (p. 7). Accordingly, despite Jews' efforts to identify with and integrate into modern Iraq, the 1941 anti-Jewish farhud (riot) in Baghdad foreclosed this option and, after additional persecutions in 1948-1949, necessitated the mass migration of the vast majority of the community to Israel in 1950-1951 - the only place they could live securely and express their "true" identity. In contrast, an Iraqi Arab nationalist version denies that Jews experienced any significant discrimination or oppression and regards the farhud as exceptional and largely due to the British military campaign to remove the Rashid 'Ali government and reoccupy Iraq. Nonetheless, most Jews were unpatriotic and Zionists or Communists, which for conservatives and Arab nationalists amounted to the same thing, since the Soviet Union supported the partition of Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel.

Bashkin rejects both monolithic narratives by "provincializ[ing] Zionism" (p. 6) and exploring the construction of multiple Iraqi Jewish identities. She demonstrates the great influence of Arab and Islamic culture on the literary and journalistic production of the Jewish community. Subgroups within the Jewish community understood their commitment to Iraq in competing terms, just as other Iraqis did. However, they generally rejected pan-Arabism as an ideological orientation sympathetic to fascism associated with the perpetrators of the farhud and discrimination against Jews.

Rather than viewing the farhud as "proving" an essential antagonism between Jews and their neighbors, Bashkin adopts a conjunctural explanation. …