Impossible Exodus: Iraqi Jews in Israel by Orit Bashkin (Review)

By Ülgen, Övgü | Shofar, Winter 2019 | Go to article overview

Impossible Exodus: Iraqi Jews in Israel by Orit Bashkin (Review)


Ülgen, Övgü, Shofar


Orit Bashkin's purpose for writing Impossible Exodus is clear: The author aims to elucidate a historical injustice that has yet to be significantly investigated in Israeli historiography. Facing discrimination and prejudice following the escalation of the Arab-Israel conflict and the founding of the State of Israel, Iraqi Jewish migrants challenged Israeli state politics. By focusing on agency and resistance, Bashkin centers the dehumanization and rehumanization Iraqi Jewish migrants experienced in the face of Israeli social engineering projects (8). Such migrants were dehumanized by the poverty and segregation they experienced in Israeli transit camps, and later rehumanized through protest and the mobilization for justice. Situating her study in an interdisciplinary framework of cultural history, Bashkin procures her primary documents in Hebrew and Arabic from archives, official accounts, statistics, newspapers, and secondary literary analysis. Given her previous books and articles on Iraqi history and the history of Iraqi Jews, as well as her insider/outsider position as an Israeliborn Ashkenazi Jew, Bashkin has both the background and the authority to write a book such as Impossible Exodus.

The author argues that the newly established elites of Israel identified non-European Jewish migrants with its Palestinian and Arab rivals and created a dichotomy in which European civilization was considered to be ascendant compared to Eastern culture (11). Settled in transit camps, Iraqi Jews were alienated from the rest of Israeli society through socioeconomic, cultural, and racist discrimination in the 1950s. Iraqi Jews came from a sectarian society in which the Iraqi state had implemented "divide-and-rule" policies within its ethnic and religious communities. Consequently, Baskin emphasizes the term sectarianism, a term which was used by the Iraqi Jewish community after their migration to describe "how the state enforced a separation between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews" (12). Therefore, one's ethnic and religious backgrounds were important in determining who would have political affiliations, employment, and access to housing in Israel. Throughout Impossible Exodus, Bashkin tries to restore the stories of Iraqi Jewish migrants who lived in Israel in the 1950s.

The first and second chapters analyze the dehumanization of Iraqi migrants. In chapter 1, Bashkin discusses how Iraqi Jewish migrants were sprayed with DDT as soon as they landed in Israel (29), as well as the poor transportation and medical services that only exacerbated illnesses among pregnant women and children. For Bashkin, the settlement of Iraqi Jewish migrants in transit camps was "part of a larger project of Israelizing former Palestinian territories" (33). While many Iraqi Jewish migrants had decent jobs and homes in Iraq and belonged to the middle and upper classes, once they migrated to Israel they often lacked adequate nutrition, housing, employment, and health care, all of which framed them as subaltern figures in Israel (65). Chapter 2 turns its focus to the children who grew up in transit camps and kibbutzim, presenting the story of a girl named Amalia who questioned symbolic representatives of the state and challenged the power dynamics within it. In this chapter, Bashkin documents the everyday racism that developed toward Iraqi Jewish teenagers in the kibbutzim, including stereotypical slurs that framed migrants as ignorant, uncivilized, and primitive or conflated their identity with Arabs or Black people (97). …

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