Symptoms of withdrawal

Israelis with roots in Iraq look toward the future with hope for better days.

US Soldiers 521 (photo credit: MARIO TAMA POOL / REUTERS)
US Soldiers 521
(photo credit: MARIO TAMA POOL / REUTERS)
When US forces left Iraq in December after a more than eightyear- long occupation, many Iraqis breathed a sigh of relief – while others held their breath with apprehension over what will become of the nation still beset with sectarian violence and political complexities.
Among those watching closely and with concern are members of the Iraqi- Jewish community in Israel, who have had mixed feelings all along about the US-led invasion of a country that was once home – or at least home to their parents and grandparents.
In front of his apartment’s floor-toceiling windows, with a gorgeous view of Haifa as his backdrop, renowned author Sami Michael takes some time to discuss Baghdad.
“I love that city. I didn’t like what happened after the American army entered Baghdad – the looting of the museums and the destruction of universities. The majority wanted to destroy everything that was a symbol of civilization,” he says fidgeting with a pair of chrome-rimmed spectacles.
Michael, who was born and raised Baghdad, is today the author of 15 books and is president of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACR I). Like his novels and his very identity, his position on the war is multi-layered and complicated. On one hand, like many Israelis, he feels some sense of relief that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein – a self-proclaimed enemy of Israel who attacked the state with Scud missiles in 1991 – is long gone. On the other hand, he spent his childhood and adolescent years in Baghdad.Watching the destruction of parts of his hometown left him feeling, in his own words, “like a Bedouin whose horse was killed.”
Wanted for political activism in the Communist party, Michael fled the country in 1948 and took refuge in Iran, and then, finally, made his way to Israel in 1949. He was sentenced to death in absentia in Iraq.
From 1950 to 1952, well over 100,000 of Iraq’s Jews fled from the increasingly hostile country to Israel as part of Operations Ezra and Nehemiah. More trickled out in the next two decades. By the start of the US -led invasion of Iraq in April 2003, there were less than 50 Jews left in Baghdad.
Virtually no Jews remain in Iraq today.
Although Iraqi Jewish citizens of Israel have undeniable, albeit tumultuous, cultural and historic ties to Iraq, their opinions on the US withdrawal have generally been left out of the discourse on the matter. Along with Michael, two other leaders of the Iraqi Jewish community in Israel, Prof. Yossi Yonah and esteemed musician Yair Dalal, offer their thoughts on Iraq’s future.
Yonah, an education professor at Beersheba’s Ben-Gurion University, was born in Israel to Jewish parents of Iraqi origin. In recent months, he has become active in coordinating an alternative panel of experts aiming to solve issues raised during last summer’s massive social protest movement – a sort of shadow body to the Trajtenberg Committee appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This most recent endeavor forced him to temporarily shelve a documentary film he was attempting to produce, which would tell the story of the Jewish community in Iraq – through the eyes of non-Jewish Iraqis.
Yonah has been interested in bridging the gap between Iraqi Jews and non-Jewish Iraqis for some time. Amidst the throngs of Israeli intellectuals and students in Tola’at Sfarim, a cozy bookstore-café on Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, he expresses his feelings on Iraqis currently living in Iraq. “For me, connecting with Iraqis is sort of a personal, cultural, and political endeavor,” he explains.
After the first Gulf War, Yonah, along with a host of other Israeli intellectuals, businessmen, artists, and writers of Iraqi origin, made an attempt to found an organization under the title “Solidarity with the Iraqi People.”
The members of the initiative drew a distinction between the victimized Iraqi civilian population and the brutal Iraqi regime. However, when Yonah and the other members applied to officially register the organization with the Israeli government, they were rejected.
Yair Dalal, also a member of the prospective organization, explains why. “They said you cannot form an organization that works with an enemy country,” he says in a conversation during a small break from his preparations for a nighttime lecture in a worn building on a busy Tel Aviv street.
Dalal is as renowned for his dexterous oud playing as he is for his significant role in injecting traditional Iraqi music into the Israeli mainstream. Riding up in one of the building’s run-down elevators, Dalal explains his objection to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, his steadfast devotion to pacifism, and the personal connection he feels to the people of Iraq. He receives regular complimentary phone calls from fans of his music who reside in Iraq.
Michael also keeps correspondence with admirers from Iraq, but acknowledges that, today, this is no small feat. According to Michael, many Iraqis residing in Iraq are unable to reach out to the Iraqi Jewish community here out of fear of retribution. “I can’t give their names because they will be killed by powerful religious factions,” he explains.
Currently, many Iraqis do genuinely disdain Israel. Iraqi politician Mithal al- Alusi’s sons were killed in 2005, in an ambush of his car about six months after he made a visit to Israel. There remains an undeniable chasm between Iraqi and Israeli society.
Dalal looks upon today’s Iraq with a degree of sadness. “All of Iraq is, now, destroyed,” Dalal says, unpacking an oud from a black case. Students eager to hear Dalal’s musings on the instrument slowly trickle into a classroom lit by fluorescent light. “I feel for the people there. Not because I have relatives there, I don’t. And not just because I know the language. I feel for all people. But, I especially feel for them because I understand them. We share a culture, food, and music.”
As for the US withdrawal from the country, Dalal is pessimistic. In his view, with US troops leaving by the end of this year, Iraq will descend into chaos. “I’m sure it’s a mistake. The first mistake was going in, and the second is leaving. The US is abandoning its responsibility,” he says. “Iran will take over. The Shiites will take over.”
Michael is reluctant to make predictions about post-withdrawal Iraq, but says, “[the U.S. troops] did their job, they served their country, they ensured their interests, they’re leaving.”
Michael insists that the US did not invade Iraq to aid the Iraqi people or to take responsibility for their well-being. He believes that the US invaded Iraq to acquire regional oil resources. In his view, once US interests were secured, troops had no reason to continue to occupy the country. Further, Michael feels that in the absence of a new Iraqi tyrant, the country will continue to be plagued by a tyranny of the majority. “It will be a democracy of the tribe,” he predicts. “Whoever thinks ‘our’ leaders are not good will be stopped.”
Yonah takes a somewhat different stance. He feels that broken governmental systems will continue to produce broken political leaders. “The longer people stay in power, power corrupts,” Yonah says. “I don’t believe that human beings naturally make goodnatured leaders. I believe in the structures that human beings are able to erect, the structures that restrain their power.”
Yonah says he’s not sure it’s appropriate for anyone other than Iraqis living in Iraq to determine whether the US left too soon or not. “I might have an opinion, but it’s morally irresponsible to express it. I think it really is up to the Iraqis to decide whether American presence in Iraq is overdue.”
He expresses similar anxiety about the likelihood of regional instability and increased bloodshed, now that the troops are gone. However, Yonah also believes that there is hope that Iraqis will be able to recreate the sense of unity that held the country’s many different identity groups together during past, more hopeful periods of Iraqi history. Iraqi society could become a shining example of multicultural coexistence.
Yonah paints a pretty picture, one that all three interviewees, despite their differences, would genuinely like to see in place of the suffering that Iraqis of all different ethnic and religious backgrounds have endured for decades.
But such an idyllic vision in the land between the two rivers seems far from reality. Just as US troops left Iraq in mid-December, a new political crisis erupted, and a car bomb exploded December 22, killing 60 and wounding 200, confirming fears that the worst sectarian violence was far from over. At the heart of the crisis, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite, issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, the country’s top Sunni politician, whom Maliki accuses of running an assassination squad. Hashimi fled to the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, leaving the Kurdish leadership reluctantly wedged between the two main Arab factions.
The word chaos – so often tossed around in connection to Iraq – softens Michael. His ruffled brow disappears, and for a moment his pessimism about the future of Iraq fades.
“I don’t think that there will be total chaos because different groups in Iraq – the Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Kurds – still want to be together. I think that in the long term they will find a way to study how to be with each other. How long will it take? I don’t know. No one knows. ”