Leaving Paradise

Adam Shatz

  • BuyMemories of Eden: A Journey through Jewish Baghdad by Violette Shamash, edited by Mira Rocca and Tona Rocca
    Forum, 326 pp, £14.99, February 2008, ISBN 978 0 9557095 0 0
  • Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew by Sasson Somekh
    Ibis, 186 pp, £9.50, November 2007, ISBN 978 965 90125 8 9

On 27 April 1950 a man whose passport identified him as Richard Armstrong flew from Amsterdam to Baghdad. He came as a representative of Near East Air Transport, an American charter company seeking to win a contract with Iraq’s prime minister, Tawfiq al-Suwaida, to fly Iraqi Jews to Cyprus. Only six weeks earlier, the Iraqi government had passed the Denaturalisation Act, which allowed Jews to emigrate provided they renounced their citizenship, and gave them a year to decide whether to do so. Al-Suwaida expected that between seven and ten thousand Jews would leave out of a community of about 125,000, but a mysterious bombing in Baghdad on the last day of Passover, near a café frequented by Jews, caused panic, and the numbers registering soon outstripped his estimate. The position of the Jews in Iraq had been deteriorating with alarming speed ever since the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli war in 1948: they were seen as a stalking horse for the Zionists in Palestine, and were increasingly rewarded for their expressions of loyalty to Iraq with suspicion, threats and arbitrary physical assaults. By the spring of 1950 the question was when, not whether to leave, and on 9 May NEAT signed a contract with the Iraqi government to organise their departure.

For Richard Armstrong and NEAT, the uprooting of the Middle East’s most ancient Jewish community was not a mere business transaction: it was a mission. Armstrong was really Shlomo (né Selim) Hillel, an Iraqi-born Mossad agent; NEAT was secretly owned by the Jewish Agency; and Israel, not Cyprus, was the refugees’ ultimate destination. It’s unlikely that al-Suwaida and the minister of the interior, Saleh Jabr, were fooled. Hillel claimed to be the ‘swarthy-skinned son’ of a British colonial official who’d worked in India, but he didn’t look much like an Armstrong. And he’d been arrested a few years earlier in Baghdad, where, under the alias Fuad Salah, he’d been training Zionist militants in attics and cellars. But if the Iraqis knew who he was, they didn’t call his bluff: they owned shares in the tourism agency in Baghdad through which NEAT had chosen to operate, and stood to benefit from the deal. ‘We parted on the most cordial terms,’ Hillel remembered in his memoir, Operation Babylon. By the end of 1952, almost all of Iraq’s Jews had fled, in what Mossad called Operation Ezekiel and Nehemiah.

The exodus of Mesopotamia’s Jews, who traced their origins back to the destruction of the first temple in 587 BCE, would have seemed unthinkable at the beginning of the 20th century. As Violette Shamash writes, Babylon was the home of ‘our patriarch Abraham Abinou’; the place where the Talmud was written and Jewish law codified. And if distant memories weren’t enough to bind Jews to their ancestral home, something more tangible did: security and the promise of a good life. Of all the Jewish communities in the Middle East, the Mesopotamian Jews were the most integrated, the most Arabised, the most prosperous. Not only had they freely practised their faith under the Ottomans, they had become the country’s most powerful economic group. And there was hardly an area of Mesopotamian culture on which Jews had not left their imprint, from the style of music performed in Baghdad’s cafés to the wafting amba, a mango pickle that Baghdadi Jews working in India brought home with them.[*]

Recent polemics – and pro-Israeli websites – have made much of the indignities of Jewish life under Ottoman rule, seeking to expose the ‘myth’ of Muslim tolerance. This tolerance, it’s argued, is a euphemism for dependence on the goodwill of capricious, if not cruel Muslim overlords. The memoirs of Iraqi Jews, however, tell a very different story: Shamash, who was born in 1912 and spent the last twenty years of her life recording her memories of ‘my Baghdad, my native land’, is not alone in describing her family’s life before the arrival of British troops in World War One as ‘paradise’. Memories of Eden provides as sumptuous an account of the world of the Baghdadi Jewish elite as we’re likely to get. It’s a portrait of the city as seen from inside a qasr, the palace her merchant father built on the banks of the Tigris, facing what is now the Green Zone. Shamash’s extended family lived in the qasr’s separate wings, connected by maslak, ground-floor corridors. The fragrance of walnut and apricot trees pervaded the garden; kebabs were grilled in a tanoor, a wood-burning clay oven. Europe exerted a strong attraction: the family shopped at Orosdi-Beck, the country’s first Western department store, and Shamash was sent to a school run by the Alliance Israëlite Universelle, a French network established throughout the Middle East. But local traditions held their ground: women wore amulets to protect themselves from the Evil Eye and Muslim healers were consulted when children fell sick. As in most memoirs by wealthy exiles, life seems idyllic until things go bad. ‘All the communities lived together peaceably, teasing each other good-naturedly and without inhibition about their religion,’ Shamash writes, until ‘the poison of Arab nationalism and Nazism entered the bloodstream’. Now it all seems a little unreal, even to her: ‘I feel as if I am telling you a dream and that it will be very hard for you to join the pieces together.’

Jewish life under the Ottomans wasn’t without its hardships: few Jews lived in palaces like the Shamash family, and as members of a non-Muslim ‘millet’ community they were obliged to pay a discriminatory tax, but they were mostly left to look after their own affairs, and further advance seemed inevitable. The vast majority lived in cities, apart from a handful of Kurdish Jews. As bankers, traders and money-lenders the wealthier members of the community had made themselves indispensable: so much so that Baghdad’s markets shut down on the Jewish Sabbath, rather than the Muslim day of rest. By the 19th century, Baghdad was famous for its Jewish dynasties – the Sassoons, the Abrahams, the Ezras, the Kadouries – with their empires in finance and imports (cotton, tobacco, silk, tea, opium) that stretched all the way to Manchester, Bombay, Calcutta, Singapore, Rangoon, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

When Balfour announced Britain’s support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, leaving Mesopotamia for the kibbutz was the furthest thing from the minds of Baghdad’s Jews. ‘The announcement aroused no interest in Mesopotamia, nor did it leave a ripple on the surface of local political thought in Baghdad,’ Arnold Wilson, the civil commissioner in Baghdad, reported to the Foreign Office after a meeting with a group of Iraqi Jewish notables. Palestine, they had said, ‘is a poor country and Jerusalem a bad town to live in’:

Compared with Palestine, Mesopotamia was paradise. This is the Garden of Eden, said one; it is from this country that Adam was driven forth – give us a good government and we will make this country flourish. For us Mesopotamia is a home, a national home to which the Jews of Bombay and Persia and Turkey will be glad to come.

Baghdad’s Jews failed to grasp that the rules of the Ottoman game, with its special protections for non-Muslim minorities, no longer applied in the British-ruled provinces of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul, where a mandate was established in 1919. Shamash writes that Baghdad’s Jews and the British felt an ‘instant connection’: ‘the British saw that there was much to gain from befriending us, with whom they had already had contact during a century of trade under colonial rule in India.’ True: but the wealthier members of the community expected more from this friendship than the British could offer if they hoped to maintain peaceful relations with the Muslim majority of what, in 1921, would become the Arab kingdom of Iraq.

Jewish fear of majority rule led, early on, to fateful miscalculations. When the British conquered Baghdad in 1918, the president of the Jewish lay council and the acting chief rabbi appealed for direct British rule, on the grounds that their Muslim neighbours weren’t ready ‘to undertake with success the management of their own affairs’. After this was rejected, a group of Jewish notables petitioned for British citizenship, giving the distinct impression that they regarded themselves as separate from and superior to the emerging national community. The British, seeking to harness – and neutralise – the energies of Arab nationalism, were in no position to grant this request. ‘The Jews of Baghdad were defeated from the start,’ Elie Kedourie, a British historian of Baghdadi Jewish origin, concluded in 1970 in The Chatham House Version. ‘The situation was completely beyond their understanding.’

Mesopotamia’s Jews resigned themselves to becoming Iraqis only when it was made plain to them that the alternative was not to become British subjects but to remain Ottomans and be treated as foreigners in their own country. For the first decade of Iraq’s existence, they fared well under the protection of the country’s new king, Faisal, the former ruler of Syria and son of Hussein, the sharif of Mecca. Shortly after being installed by the British, the king met a group of Jewish leaders at the chief rabbi’s home. ‘There is no meaning in the words Jews, Muslims and Christians in the terminology of patriotism,’ he assured his audience, ‘there is simply a country called Iraq and all are Iraqis.’ Another powerful ally of the Jewish community was Nuri al-Said, Britain’s man in Baghdad, who served as Iraq’s prime minister a total of 14 times, until the overthrow of the monarchy – and his assassination – in 1958.

Urbane, Western-educated, often fluent in both Arabic and English, Jews staffed the civil service, ran the economy and helped lay the foundations of the modern Iraqi state. Yet they were to suffer increasingly from their association with Faisal and al-Said. As Kedourie noted, the Iraqi political class disdained the monarchy as ‘a make-believe kingdom, built on false pretences and kept going by a British design and for a British purpose’. That design and that purpose found expression in a series of humiliating ‘agreements’ in which the country’s sovereignty was signed away, and British dominance guaranteed, before the mandate came to an end. The Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930, for example, concluded three years after oil was discovered in Kirkuk, allowed the British to keep control of Iraqi foreign policy, itself partly directed by British advisers who stayed on after independence, notably Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, a severe Arabist who had attracted T.E. Lawrence’s awe and Gertrude Bell’s unrequited love.

As friends of the British, Iraq’s Jews were an easy scapegoat for anti-colonial fury. As if one mandate weren’t enough of a burden, they were identified with the British mandate – and with Jewish colonisation – in Palestine. In fact, they were indifferent, and often hostile, to Zionism: whatever pride some took in the creation of a Jewish ‘national home’ was more than offset by the worry that it would endanger them in Iraq. But the Zionists in Palestine claimed to speak in the name of the Jewish people, and thus in their name as well. Already resented for their enormous economic power – 2 per cent of the population, Jews handled 75 per cent of imports – they were twice guilty by association. Nothing they said or did to oppose Zionism – even donations to Palestinian fighters – protected them from being portrayed in the Iraqi press and radio as a fifth column, especially after the death of King Faisal in 1933. Faisal’s son and successor, King Ghazi, who styled himself a Pan-Arabist and dabbled in Nazi doctrine, imposed a tax on Jews whenever they left the country, and befriended Hitler’s assiduous ambassador to Baghdad, Fritz Grobba. The Germans had their eyes on the country’s oil, and shrewdly cultivated Arab nationalists in the Iraqi army by playing on anti-British and anti-Zionist sentiments, as they were also doing in Jerusalem and Cairo. The Futuwaa, a paramilitary brigade modelled on the Hitler Youth, began to threaten Jews in the streets. As Shamash recalls, ‘our men started coming home early, worried about staying too long in the city.’

Jewish nerves were calmed somewhat when, in 1939, Ghazi was killed in a car accident – possibly an assassination engineered by Nuri al-Said and the British – and replaced by his pro-British uncle, Emir Abd al-Ilah. (Ghazi’s four-year-old son was too young to serve as king.) That same year, however, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, took refuge in Baghdad after the defeat of the Arab revolt in Palestine. The mufti launched a campaign of incitement against the Jews, and became a key adviser to the Golden Square, a group of pro-German, pan-Arab colonels led by Rashid Ali al-Gailani. For the Golden Square, Iraq was part of a larger Arab nation, in which Jews were an irremediably foreign element. In April 1941, the Golden Square overthrew the regent and concluded a secret treaty with the Axis that would have allowed them oil and pipeline concessions, the lease of ports, and the right to build naval and military bases. In May the British invaded to restore the regent. Had they not done so, Iraqi oil might have fuelled Operation Barbarossa.

The British invasion, however, led to the worst assault on Jewish life and property in the history of Iraq, the farhud (‘breakdown of law and order’) of June 1941. Despite threats from al-Gailani’s supporters that the Jews would be punished for ‘treason’, the British refused to secure the capital. ‘There will be many people killed if our troops do not enter,’ one intelligence officer warned, but Cornwallis ordered British soldiers to remain on the outskirts of Baghdad when the regent returned. The presence of British bayonets, he argued, would be ‘lowering to the dignity of our ally’. To preserve the fiction that Britain had not so much occupied Iraq as restored its legitimate government, defeated but fully armed Golden Square soldiers were permitted to enter Baghdad, singly rather than in formation. It was 1 June, the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.

As these soldiers crossed the Khir Bridge to the western side of Baghdad that morning, they passed small groups of Jews walking in the opposite direction after prayer services to welcome the regent. They were furious to see the Jews in all their finery, and since it was Sunday, not the Jewish Sabbath, they assumed they had dressed up for the regent. The Jews were set upon, first with fists, then knives. The farhud continued for two days, an orgy of murder, rape and arson that left two hundred Jews and a number of Muslims dead. Most Jews hid in their basements; some, like Shamash’s family, were given shelter by Muslim neighbours. No help came from the British, who remained on the right bank of the Tigris, out of respect for Iraqi sovereignty.

After the farhud wealthy Jews began to leave Iraq; some, like Shamash and her family, joined relatives in India, where there were entire communities of Baghdadi Jews. Yet Sasson Somekh insists that the farhud was not ‘the beginning of the end’. Indeed, he claims it was soon ‘almost erased from the collective Jewish memory’, washed away by ‘the prosperity experienced by the entire city from 1941 to 1948’. Somekh, who was born in 1933, remembers the 1940s as a ‘golden age’ of ‘security’, ‘recovery’ and ‘consolidation’, in which the ‘Jewish community had regained its full creative drive’. Jews built new homes, schools and hospitals, showing every sign of wanting to stay. They took part in politics as never before; at Bretton Woods, Iraq was represented by Ibrahim al-Kabir, the Jewish finance minister. Some joined the Zionist underground, but many more waved the red flag. Liberal nationalists and Communists rallied people behind a conception of national identity far more inclusive than the Golden Square’s Pan-Arabism, allowing Jews to join ranks with other Iraqis – even in opposition to the British and Nuri al-Said, who did not take their ingratitude lightly.

Somekh grew up in a mixed neighbourhood of Baghdad known as the Lettuce Beds. He studied Arabic under a Shia cleric from the al-Sadr dynasty and began writing Arabic poetry in his teens; his literary mentors, to whom he pays tribute, were also Arabs. His subtitle is ‘The Making of an Arab Jew’, and though he doesn’t shy away from the strains of Arab-Jewish relations in Iraq, his wry, wistful memoir is an elegy for an experiment in coexistence, rather than a Zionist parable about its impossibility. Baghdad, Yesterday evokes a world in which Arab and Jewish writers met in cafés on al-Rashid Street, browsed in the same bookshops and dreamed of an independent, secular, modern state; a world in which it would be possible for a young man like Somekh to consider himself both a Jew and an Arab. He has written a gentle book about one of the least gentle of historical relationships.

Many of the writers Somekh knew in Iraq were in the orbit of the Communist Party, which became the most powerful opposition force in the 1940s, leading protests against the British and strikes in the oil industry, and developing an Iraqi civic identity that transcended sect. Until 1948, according to Somekh, the Communists succeeded in ‘channelling popular anger against “imperialism” and “Zionism” rather than specifically towards the Jews’. In 1946, a group of Jewish Communists formed the League for Fighting Zionism, which braved threats from the Zionist underground and would later, absurdly, be accused of being a Zionist front itself by Nuri al-Said, who felt betrayed by Jewish involvement in the Communist opposition. The league published a newspaper that had a readership of six thousand, larger than the entire Zionist movement in Iraq. And Jews marched in the demonstrations of February 1948 known as the Wathba, or ‘leap forward’, in which Iraqis of all sects protested against the Portsmouth Treaty, which ensured Britain’s dominance over Iraq’s economy and foreign policy for the next 25 years.

Jewish integration was doomed by the war in Palestine. On 15 May 1948, three months after the Wathba, the state of Israel was proclaimed, the Arab armies invaded, and al-Said imposed martial law. A week later, newspapers in Iraq were calling for a boycott of Jewish shops, to ‘liberate’ Iraqis from the ‘economic slavery and domination imposed by the Jewish minority’. This suspicion of Jews was encouraged by a weak and reviled government for whom Arab nationalism was a crude but effective weapon, distracting attention from its colonial docility, and from its poor military performance in Palestine.

The freezing of Palestinian assets by the Israeli government and the arrival in Iraq of eight thousand Palestinian refugees in the summer of 1948 did nothing to calm things. Responding to a wave of popular anger, the Iraqi government declared Zionism a capital offence, fired Jews in government positions and, invoking Stalin’s support of partition, found another pretext to round up Communists of all sects. Among the Jewish victims of anti-Communist repression was the brother of one of Somekh’s friends, who was hanged in Baghdad’s main square. Somekh remembers his terror when, after answering an exam question about Iraq’s recent history with a Marxist analysis of the country’s subordination to British interests, he found ‘three official-looking men’ waiting for him outside the classroom. They praised his essay, but the next day the principal warned him to ‘avoid such opinionated displays because they put both you and the school at risk’.

The event that shook Iraq’s Jews most profoundly was the show trial and execution in 1948 of a businessman with strong connections to the monarchy, on charges of supplying British army scrap to Israel. Shafiq Adas, who was hanged outside his Basra mansion before cheering crowds, was by all accounts an apolitical man: if he wasn’t safe, no one was. The Jewish population grew more receptive to the overtures of Mossad, which had become increasingly active in Iraq since the Golden Square took power, some agents entering the country as volunteers with the British army during the 1941 invasion. Mossad’s objective was not to improve the position of the Jews in Iraq, but to hasten their departure. Pamphlets appeared discouraging Jews from mixing with Arabs, and arguing that any attempt to do so ‘leads to butchery’.

The Israeli government circulated stories about Iraqi ‘pogroms’ and ‘concentration camps’ and denounced the hanging of seven Jews charged with Zionist activism in March 1949 – executions that Mossad’s own agents in Baghdad insisted had never occurred. Unless Iraqi Jews were allowed to emigrate, Israel warned, it would back armed resistance to al-Said’s government, or find itself unable to prevent Iraqi Jews already in Israel from killing Palestinians in revenge. The Israelis also began to promote the idea of a ‘sorting out’ of populations, involving a swap of Iraqi Jews for an equal number of Palestinian refugees, an idea quietly encouraged by the Foreign Office: ‘National exuberance is a phenomenon which is going to last a long time in the Middle East. On the whole, elimination of awkward minorities is likely to cool rather than fan the flames.’ If Israel was a sanctuary for Iraq’s Jews, it was also among the reasons they were in such desperate need of one.

By 1950, thousands of Jews had fled; many crossed into Iran on horseback with the help of Arab and Kurdish smugglers. Embarrassed by this ‘wildcat immigration’, the Iraqi Chamber of Deputies decided to take matters into its own hands with the Denaturalisation Law of 4 March 1950. The US Embassy in Baghdad agreed with Tawfiq al-Suwaida that mass emigration was unlikely, so long as Israel ‘pursues a policy of moderation and agrees to a peace settlement considered not too unreasonable by the Arabs’. But the ‘ingathering of the exiles’, not a peace settlement, was Israel’s goal, for strategic as much as sentimental reasons. Israel had conquered 20 per cent more territory than it had been allotted under the partition agreement, and it needed more Jews to settle the land, particularly along the border. As Kedourie bitterly remarked, Israel ‘set out to help the Iraqi government to achieve its national unity; it was one of these tacit, monstrous complicities not entirely unknown to history.’ The Foreign Office learned of the agreement between al-Suwaida and ‘Richard Armstrong’ of Near East Air Transport through its channels in Tel Aviv, not Baghdad.

‘Why didn’t someone come to see us instead of negotiating with Israel to take in Iraqi Jews?’ the chief rabbi of Baghdad, Sasson Khedourie, wondered. ‘Why didn’t someone point out that the solid, responsible leadership of Iraqi Jews believed this to be their country – in good times and bad – and we were convinced the trouble would pass?’ Iraq’s Jews, who had tended to wait for trouble to pass, had to be pushed into leaving. And pushed they were, in a series of attacks which began with the Abu Nawas bombing in April 1950 and resumed in 1951, as the deadline to register to leave Iraq approached. It’s long been rumoured – and many Iraqi Jews fiercely believe it – that Israeli agents orchestrated these bombings in order to drive the Jews to emigrate, though there is no proof of Mossad’s responsibility, or of anyone else’s.

By 8 March, when the deadline was due to expire, more than one hundred thousand Jews had registered. The next day the Iraqi Chamber of Deputies froze Jewish assets, fearing that neither the economy nor the state itself could survive the transfer of capital to a country that had expelled most of its Arab population. Jews would be allowed to leave with only 50 dinars. The British and the Americans weren’t pleased about this decision, but saw no way of protesting the Jews’ expropriation when Israel had refused to compensate Palestinian refugees.

About six thousand Jews chose to remain in Iraq. Their lot improved fleetingly in the late 1950s under the revolutionary government of General Abdel Karim Qassem, who abolished the monarchy and espoused a cosmopolitan vision of Iraqi identity. But soon after the Baath Party seized power in 1963, in a CIA-backed coup, Jews were forced to carry yellow identity cards. The Arab defeat in 1967 led to an ‘anti-Zionist’ campaign that culminated in the 1969 hanging of eight Jewish ‘spies’ in Liberation Square. Saddam Hussein urged listeners to Baghdad Radio to ‘come and enjoy the feast’, and hundreds of thousands duly turned out. About a dozen Jews remain in Iraq today.

Somekh flew to Israel on 21 March 1951 with two hundred other Jews. Their ‘exile’ had ended, but he ‘saw no one kneeling down to kiss the sacred ground’. Before they could leave the plane, passengers were told to remain seated while a man sprayed them with DDT – a greeting none of them forgot. They landed in Lydda, where, on 13 July 1948, Israeli forces led by Yitzhak Rabin had driven more than thirty thousand Palestinians from their homes in one of the largest, most brutal expulsions of the war. Scores of refugees from Lydda and the neighbouring town of Ramleh died of hunger and thirst on the forced march eastwards to Ramallah. The towns were looted afterwards, their homes occupied: scenes with which the Jews who remembered the farhud were all too familiar.

Somekh was temporarily held at an absorption camp on the coast near Haifa, while immigration officials decided which transit camp he would be sent to – a process known as siddur. He hated the word, since it ‘sounded very much like the Arabic tasdir, which means “the exporting of goods”. We angrily protested the fact that overnight we had been transformed from people into goods, imported and exported by Yiddish-speaking clerks.’ The transit camps were open-air holding centres with tents made of corrugated tin: ‘We lived in palaces and they put us in tents,’ the novelist Samir Nakkash recalls in Forget Baghdad, an arresting documentary about Iraqi-Jewish writers in Israel. But it wasn’t the conditions that caused the Iraqi Jews to despair so much as the denigration of their culture in Ashkenazi-dominated Israel. That Abraham and Jonah had lived in Mesopotamia was irrelevant to Ben-Gurion: ‘we don’t want Israelis to become Arabs,’ he said with his usual bluntness, and the Iraqi Jews were dangerously close to being Arabs in Israel. An elite in their own country, they were now cast as a ‘primitive’, inferior people, requiring tutelage from Ashkenazi Jews, descendants of the despised Ostjuden, who were now determined to erase any trace of the East. And though many Iraqi Jews, bitter at their treatment at the hands of Arabs, became supporters of the political right in Israel, the racism they encountered made it impossible for them to identify fully with the movement that brought them ‘home’.

In the early 1990s, Somekh tried to establish a solidarity association with the Iraqi people with the aim of documenting ‘the co-operation and good neighbourliness between the Jews and other Iraqis, so that the coming generations would know about this wonderful connection that had characterised Jewish life in the Arab world for 1500 years.’ His application was rejected by the Registrar of Non-Profit Associations in Jerusalem, which thought it unwise to revive such memories, a potential ‘source of Saddamist subversion’.

[*] The contribution of Iraqi Jews to Arabic and Kurdish music is surveyed in a startling new anthology of archival recordings, Give Me Love: Songs of the Brokenhearted – Baghdad, 1925-29 (Honest Jon’s Records).