Outsider in the Promised Land: An Iraqi Jew in Israel

Outsider in the Promised Land: An Iraqi Jew in Israel

Outsider in the Promised Land: An Iraqi Jew in Israel

Outsider in the Promised Land: An Iraqi Jew in Israel


In 1951, Israel was a young nation surrounded by hostile neighbors. Its tenuous grip on nationhood was made slipperier still by internal tensions among the various communities that had immigrated to the new Jewish state, particularly those between the politically and socially dominant Jewish leadership hailing from Eastern Europe and the more numerous Oriental Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. Into this volatile mix came Nissim Rejwan, a young Iraqi Jewish intellectual who was to become one of the country's leading public intellectuals and authors. Beginning with Rejwan's arrival in 1951 and climaxing with the tensions preceding Israel's victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, this book colorfully chronicles Israel's internal and external struggles to become a nation, as well as the author's integration into a complex culture. Rejwan documents how the powerful East European leadership, acting as advocates of Western norms and ideals, failed to integrate Israel into the region and let the country take its place as a part of the Middle East. Rejwan's essays and occasional articles are an illuminating example of how minority groups use journalism to gain influence in a society. Finally, the letters and diary entries reproduced in Outsider in the Promised Land are full of lively, witty meditations on history, literature, philosophy, education, and art, as well as one man's personal struggle to find his place in a new nation.



In an autobiographical fragment written in the early 1960s, Walter Zeev Laqueur, a Polish-born Israeli and formerly a Jerusalem Post contributing editor, writes of one autumn evening during an interval at a conference somewhere near Athens, when the conversation turned to the subject of “the need for roots. “They were, Laqueur relates, eight around the table, and it emerged that none of them lived where he was born and that only one would be able to see again the parental home if he went back to his birth place. In seven cases out of eight, the parental home—the house itself—was there no longer.

None of the eight, however, was physically or by law barred from going back to his birthplace had he wanted so to do—and I found myself wondering, on reading this, how these fellow emigrés would have felt had they lived with the knowledge that they were physically and permanently barred from visiting their hometowns, even if only for a brief look.

I am mentioning this because in recent years I have had reason to believe that one day I would be able to visit Baghdad, and possibly even to see some of my many non-Jewish friends of yore. As luck would have it, however, first came the long Iran-Iraq War, which lasted some eight years, then the warover Kuwait and, in its disastrous aftermath, the virtual third-worldization of Iraq.

I came to Israel to gether with my mother in February 1951. I wastwentysix. A twenty-year-old unmarried sister, who had arrived the previous year, was already at some kibbutz; my father had died four years earlier. We stayed for a few nights at the home of an aunt in Haifa. The husband said why, with the kind of experience you have and with your knowledge of English, you can easily find a job. He made me write four applications—to the oil refineries, the electric company, Discount Bank, and Bank Leumi. All four wrote back expressing an interest, and finally for some reason or other I chose Discount, was duly accepted, and started work immediately.

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