My Iraqi Jewish heritage: What’s left?

It is a pity that many observant Middle Eastern Jews have adopted the symbols of a 200-year-old tradition over their own, much older ones.

Torah scrolls from Iraqi Jews 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Torah scrolls from Iraqi Jews 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last month the National Archives in Washington unveiled an exhibit showcasing Iraqi Jewish artifacts recovered from Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters.
The controversy surrounding the find and whether the US should live up to its commitment and return the historic materials to Iraq has made me reflect on my own identity. Or rather, I should say, on my lack of any true Iraqi Jewish identity.
My parents, newly arrived Iraqi Jewish immigrants to Canada, sent me to Jewish school. Like most Hebrew day schools in North America we were basically taught the Ashkenazi Zionist worldview. Essentially, that Ashkenazim built and founded the State of Israel, and that Sephardi Jews generally didn’t contribute very much to Judaic heritage or Israel. For all intents and purposes, we were made to feel that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, King David, King Solomon and other biblical figures might have all hailed from the Levant, but their true descendants came to Israel by way of Eastern Europe and the Ashkenazi tradition.
Overall, I admit I was satisfied with the education I received. I became somewhat fluent in Hebrew, and compared to my parents, whom I would describe as secular and very traditional, I was definitely more religiously informed than they were. However, being one of the few if not the only Middle Eastern Jew in my school, I was sporadically taunted, labeled a camel jockey or worse. Granted, the instances of bullying were very few and far between, but the ultimate result was that I had a sense of alienation that I couldn’t really get around.
My parents, content that other Iraqis had also immigrated to Montreal, hardly felt compelled or rarely felt welcome getting to know my classmates families. Looking back, perhaps it was a combination of my father trying to establish a successful business and my mother simply trying to help build a safe home that contributed to my segregated identity.
It goes without saying that today my closest friends are children of Iraqi immigrants like myself.
It wasn’t until recently that I began to ask serious questions about my heritage, any remaining legacy, and what I could potentially pass on to future generations. Sadly, I can’t say I can contribute very much. I certainly don’t want to sound like I am looking to cast blame, but it is true that a confluence of three independent interests conspired to discriminate against me and deny me my heritage.
I’ve already alluded to the first, Ashkenazim downplaying any Iraqi or Middle Eastern contribution to Jewish consciousness.
It is well known that Israel’s Ashkenazi leadership constantly downplayed the history and suffering that Arab Jewish immigrants went through. It is well documented that the new citizens were discriminated against when they settled in Israel. To the Ashkenazim, it was as if Arab Jews should have been thankful to leave their 2,600-year-old traditions for the tents of the Ma’abarot.
Forgotten refugees; their sole usefulness being to serve as a bargaining chip to counter Palestinian claims against the State of Israel. Lost in all these calculations is the fact that today there is no Jewish community in any Arab country.
Nor is there a movement or desire to promote their history or traditions. At this point preservation is the best we can hope for. It is difficult to illustrate this profound loss, however, when I visit the Wailing Wall on any religious holiday, the plaza is overwhelmed with haredi men wearing typical Ashkenazi religious attire: three-piece suits with furry black hats or fedoras. Where are the traditional Mizrahi religious haredim?
It is a pity that many observant Middle Eastern Jews have adopted the symbols of a 200-year-old tradition over their own, much older ones. I have to ask, which tradition should the Jews of Israel wish to preserve? Eastern European attire and customs of the 1800s, or those of a rich, over 2,000-year-old Middle Eastern Jewish tradition? Witnessing the black suits and furry hats, etc., what many would consider alien phenomena, is it any wonder that accusations stigmatizing Israelis as outsiders from Europe gain so much traction? Obviously, Arab governments themselves were ultimately responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Jews from their countries, and erasing their history. To this day they refuse to acknowledge any responsibility or remorse for their actions.
In fact, the massive exodus depleting the Arab world of its millennial Jewish character is blamed solely on the victims themselves, and Israel. It was the Arab Jews themselves, it is argued, that wanted to leave, and for those that preferred to stay it was Israel that threatened them with violence if they didn’t leave. To add insult to injury Arab pundits advocate that “Arab countries... offer to take the Jews back.”
This is a bad joke; one need only witness the exodus of Christians from the Middle East, and the violence they face if they stay, to realize this is nothing but a pathetic attempt to whitewash past misdeeds and culpability. One can only shudder at the fate of any Jews accepting such an offer.
The Palestinians deserve some of the blame, too. Their political and religious leadership in the 1930s and 1940s was led by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Muhammed Amin al-Husseini, who in a fatwa (Islamic religious ruling) leading up to the “Farhoud” (a 1941 pogrom against the Jews of Iraq) declared “O Muslims! Proud Iraq has placed herself in the vanguard of this Holy Struggle.... It is the duty of all Muslims to aid Iraq... and seek every means to fight the enemy.... Kill the Jews wherever you find them. This pleases Allah, history and religion. This saves your honor.”
I find this terribly ironic because had the Mufti counseled the opposite and lobbied for the safety and retention of the Arab world’s Jews, Israel would have lost a huge boost to its population. How can Palestinians argue they were helpless, innocent victims when their leadership was advocating the killing and displacement of Jews from Arab countries?
Surely, the direct fallout of those actions was the vast immigration of those same Arab Jewish communities to Israel and settlements in the West Bank. Iraq, as a potential home, or even a place to visit, is practically gone for me now. In essence, Israel has remained my last enduring birthright. The sole remnant of a Middle Eastern tradition that I can call my own. Arab countries kicked us out, the Palestinians condoned it, and as the last bastion of Jewish culture in the Middle East, Israel, has become my only ancestral homeland.
This brings me to the third and last interest group to help deny my heritage: the political Left. In many ways I am most disappointed with them. With the Ashkenazim we can create a dialogue and I am sure they would be open to correcting the mistakes they made with regard to Mizrahi Jews.
In many ways, the situation vis a vis the Ashkenazi population has already improved dramatically from the low point of the ‘50s and ‘60s. As for the Arab countries, well, I don’t think I can expect too much from them. I doubt they will ever really internalize the damage they did to our culture. I have given up on them.
The Left is a different story. Politically, I would identify myself as a progressive hailing from the center-left of the spectrum. I was always, and still am, sympathetic to the usual left-wing refrain of social justice and fairness. However, when it comes to anything involving the Middle East the Left loses its mind and abandons all compassion toward anything relating to Israel.
As a result, the political left-wing communities have decided to whitewash the sins of the Arabs. They ignore Arab Jewish history because it doesn’t fit into the narrative of European Jews usurping the rights and stealing the land of Palestinians. To them Israel is a colonialist and imperialist enterprise, period. The victims are the Arabs and the tormentors are the Jews. The image of Jews fleeing Arab persecution doesn’t really sit well with them, it just doesn’t compute.
This translates into other channels of political discourse, and can result in the “oppressed” being Arab terrorists, while the “oppressors” are Western democratic interests and governments. As mentioned above, it doesn’t come as a surprise to me that even the issue of ethnic cleansing against Christian communities in the Middle East has gained little traction in the West.
I wonder if this could be due to the left-wing hope that Israel will become a bi-national state. How can they call for a bi-national state of Jews and Arabs when Christians elsewhere in the Middle East don’t feel safe and are leaving their homes in the face of Arab Muslim threats and violence? And the violence against Christians is not limited to conflict areas like Syria, Iraq and Egypt, but is also prevalent in the Palestinian cities of Gaza and the West Bank.
If Christians can’t live comfortably and peacefully anywhere in the Middle East, then what hope is there for Jews living in a bi-national Israel/Palestine? Thus, it definitely suits the Left to ignore certain aspects of Arab discrimination against minorities, especially Arab discrimination against Jewish minorities.
Which brings me back to the exhibit of Iraqi Jewish artifacts at the National Archives in Washington. I have no doubt the archives should not be returned. It would be a terrible and ironic injustice to have this catalogue of Jewish life in Iraq returned to the nation that caused the 2,600-year-old tradition to be destroyed.
What is the Iraqi government going to do with it? Where will it go? How will it be protected? Will Iraq really use it as an opportunity to educate its population about the widespread fascist bigotry that ran rampant at the time? Or will it be used to further promote the false narrative that Jews were treated well, and that they left of their own volition, and that Israel made sure that any lingering communities were forced to leave? These are questions that the government of Iraq must answer.
Whether or not the archives are returned to Iraq, one thing is certain: we Iraqi Jews will be forgotten and the decision will be made by others and without our input.
If they are returned and by some miracle the Iraqi government does set up a museum exposing the injustices inspired by previous governments, that will be no small detail. I wonder, though, even if that unlikely scenario comes to pass, how many Iraqi Jews or their descendants will be able to visit such an exhibit. Something to think about before the treasure trove is returned.
The author is a freelance political analyst and commentator concentrating on Israeli politics and the Jewish world.