Vol. 30 No. 23 · 4 December 2008

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Iraq’s Jews

Adam Shatz casts a spotlight on the destruction of one of the oldest Jewish diasporas, but his article contains errors and subtle distortions whose effect is to minimise the proximate cause of the Jewish exodus from Iraq: anti-semitism (LRB, 6 November). The rich man’s paradise Shatz evokes only really existed towards the end of the 19th century. Before the Ottomans were forced by the Western powers to emancipate their Jews and Christians, the Jews were despised, persecuted and never really secure; the Sassoons, Ezras and Kedouries fled the tyrannical rule of Daoud Pasha to make their fortunes outside Meso-potamia in India and the Far East. The Jews of Iraq petitioned for British citizenship not out of an ‘instant connection’ with Britain, but out of fear that Arab rule would be ‘politically irresponsible … fanatic and intolerant’, to quote Elie Kedourie. And so it proved.

The Jews did not leave because they were pushed by Zionist rumours or bombs. Bombs and murders in 1936 had not led to a mass exodus, and sixty thousand Jews had registered to leave before the only fatal bombing in January 1951. Until Iraq permitted legal emigration, Jews were being smuggled out at a rate of a thousand a month – because they were banned from higher education, could not travel abroad, were denied work and suffered restrictions in business. ‘But for these severe handicaps, Iraqi Jews would not have gone so far as to attempt large-scale flight from the country,’ the Jewish senator Ezra Daniel said, making his last futile appeal against the Denaturalisation Bill in March 1950.

Shatz implies that Israel encouraged the Jewish exodus, but already in 1949 the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Said, had floated the idea of a population exchange and threatened to expel the Jews as revenge for the Iraqi army’s defeat in Palestine. He schemed to bring Israel to its knees by dumping thousands of stateless and destitute Jews on Israel’s borders. The Jewish Agency could not cope with the influx and told the Zionist movement in Baghdad not to rush. It was only when Iraq passed a law in March 1951 freezing Jewish assets that Israel said it would be forced to confiscate the property of Palestinian refugees. Iraq reneged on its part of the exchange, accepting only fourteen thousand Palestinian Arabs, while Israel took in 120,000 Iraqi Jews.

The Iraqi Jews had every right to be bitter when they arrived in Israel, having lost everything. They were housed in dusty refugee camps for up to 12 years. At the time, they did experience prejudice, but so did Holocaust survivors, taunted on arrival as ‘sabon’ (soap). Today the Iraqi community is one of the most successfully integrated in Israel. Iraq-born Palestinians, meanwhile, have been denied citizenship and expelled from Iraq.

Incidentally, the airlift to Israel was named Operation Ezra (not Ezekiel) and Nehemiah. It ended in 1951, not 1952.

Lyn Julius
London SW5

Adam Shatz writes: The evocation of Mesopotamia as a lost paradise can be found not only in Violette Shamash’s book but in countless memoirs by Iraqi Jews. Like all non-Muslim minorities, Jews experienced periods of difficulty and injustice, but if they had been persecuted to the degree Lyn Julius suggests, it’s not likely so many would have continued to describe themselves as ‘Ottomans’ long after the empire’s collapse. It was Shamash who said that Iraq’s Jews petitioned for British citizenship out of an ‘instant connection’ with their new rulers. And while Elie Kedourie cited the concern of Jewish notables that the Arabs would be fanatical and intolerant, he went on to deride the petition for British citizenship for its ‘pathetic caution’ and ‘anxiety to pay lip-service to the shibboleths of the age’.

Julius cites Ezra Daniel’s protest against the Denaturalisation Bill, but she doesn’t quote his plea to ‘restore to Iraqi Jews their sense of security, confidence and stability’, and while Daniel was speaking out against the bill, the Israeli government and Mossad were doing everything in their power to speed its passage. Shlomo Hillel, Mossad’s man in Baghdad, makes no secret of the fact that in setting up Zionist cells, he had only one objective: to promote mass emigration. He collaborated covertly with the Iraqi government to co-ordinate Operation Ezra and Nehemiah (as Julius rightly calls it). ‘We are carrying on our usual activity in order to push the law through faster and faster,’ the Mossad office in Baghdad reported to Tel Aviv before the Denaturalisation Act was passed, according to Tom Segev in 1949: The First Israelis. Israel wanted to populate the land with Jews, and their emigration from Arab countries had the advantage of supplying a further alibi for denying Palestinians their right of return.

Writers often contrast Israel’s generous absorption of more than a hundred thousand Iraqi Jewish refugees with Iraq’s paltry acceptance of ‘only’ fourteen thousand Palestinian Arabs. But the situations are not symmetrical: Israel was determined to settle the Iraqi Jews in the Jewish state, while Iraq had no interest in settling Palestinian refugees (who for their part wanted to return home). And though Nuri al-Said flirted in 1949 with the idea of a population exchange, an idea that had been circulating in Zionist circles for two decades, the Iraqi government’s position was that Palestinians should return home or be compensated by Israel. It could not ‘renege’ on an agreement it had never reached with Israel.

Restrictions on movement and employment, and the rise in anti-Jewish incitement and violence, certainly encouraged Jews to emigrate. But these developments were not unrelated to the British presence and the war in Palestine – or to the pressures exerted by Israel and its intelligence services. We may never know whether the bombs were laid by Zionist agents, but we do know that Mossad’s responsibility is taken for granted by many Iraqi Jews: Morad Qazzaz, a leader of the Iraqi-Jewish underground, was known as Morad Abu al-Knabel, or ‘Morad, Father of the Bombs’. Folklore or not, it’s an indication that Iraq’s Jews have long believed that Israel had a hand in their exodus.

Their India

Like Aravind Adiga, whose novel The White Tiger is the subject of his piece (LRB, 6 November), Sanjay Subrahmanyam is too fond of the solipsistic, alienated – and alienating – tone of the small Indian elite. He twice refers to ‘urban Indians’ when he actually means the Indian elite and fails to recognise that the domestic workers he discusses are also ‘urban Indians’. Again like Adiga, he portrays Indian society’s oppressive structures as a naturalist would describe a bizarre foreign species. In this perspective, ‘India’ is the urban upper-class minority, which everyone else (domestic workers, adivasis or ‘tribals’, small farmers, agricultural workers, fishworkers, Maoists, Kashmiris, Nagas) revolves around, either as grateful beneficiaries (in the usual version) or as oppressed crazies (in Adiga’s).

Shankar Gopalakrishnan
New Delhi

Oh, My Goodness

I was a fellow at the Huntington Hartford Foundation in Southern California in 1950 and 1951 when Christopher Isherwood was there as a judge and artist-in-residence. During our occasional walks together he talked to me about his life and his friends. This is what I remember him saying about Klaus Mann (LRB, 6 November):

Klaus was in despair, always, but in the 1940s, during the days of the Stockholm Peace Pledge, he and many other famous European intellectuals and artists set up a plan for all of them – in protest against the development of atomic bombs – to create and sign a document of protest in which they would declare their agreement to kill themselves on a certain specific date. This mass suicide of artists and intellectuals would draw attention in all news media all around the world and the impact would bring peace for ever.

It turned out that Klaus Mann was the only one of those who had pledged to kill themselves on the set date who did kill himself on that date. His death received little attention anywhere.

Chester Aaron
Occidental, California

Vietnam in Britain

Peter Davies, in his piece on Harold Wilson, Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War, does not address a question which has always puzzled me (LRB, 20 November). Britain had been co-chairman, along with the Soviet Union and Thailand, of the Geneva peace conference which ended the French war in Indochina in 1954. So would it ever have been appropriate for Britain to send troops to Vietnam, even the two platoons or the military field hospital that Johnson apparently suggested?

Patrick Renshaw

Standard histories suggest that Harold Wilson’s government was quite tolerant in its attitude to anti-Vietnam protesters in Britain. However, three thick files of papers released to me by the Cabinet Office, Home Office and Metropolitan Police Special Branch indicate that Wilson’s home and defence secretaries, James Callaghan and Denis Healey, seriously discussed using soldiers to hold back demonstrators in 1968. The police seemed genuinely to believe that anti-Vietnam demonstrators would use explosives as well as petrol bombs and ‘acid-filled eggs’.

Wilson also tried to undermine the protesters with subterfuge and propaganda. Burke Trend, the cabinet secretary, called together a joint committee of the prime minister and the foreign, home, education and Scottish secretaries to address the ‘state of student unrest’. It was agreed that the Information Research Department (IRD), a propaganda unit close to MI6, would ‘put together and circulate among students material which would help put student organisations on their guard against the ill-disposed’. It would, of course, ‘be circulated anonymously’. Another committee paper shows that ministers backed a plan to discredit the militants with a ‘fairly light-hearted, satirical leaflet’ prepared by the IRD ‘for distribution by the National Union of Students in time for the opening of the new term, aimed particularly at the sceptical first-year student’.

The released papers also reveal that Callaghan leaned hard on newspaper editors and BBC bosses to oppose the protests, calling in the chairman of the BBC governors, Lord Hill, before a demonstration to ‘put the view that, on these occasions, television cameras were not neutral and contributed to the atmosphere’. Callaghan told the BBC boss that ‘the police … would feel particularly strongly if television cameras showed some momentary lapse of retaliation on the part of a police officer, but not the deliberate violence which provoked it.’ Hill readily agreed. Callaghan also called in ten chairmen of top newspapers and told them much the same thing. One of these responded by asking Callaghan if his staff could chase demonstrators.

Solomon Hughes


Jenny Diski believes that things must be bad if medical research is funded from private-patient fees donated by doctors (LRB, 6 November). This is a common practice. When I was the dean of a large medical faculty in England, many of the clinical staff supported part of their research this way. Some of the sums were large: millions of pounds might be accumulated and spent over the years.

David Gordon
University of Copenhagen

Rise of the Rest

Pankaj Mishra’s interesting review of Fareed Zakaria’s Post-American World and Parag Khanna’s Second World (LRB, 6 November) was not in every respect accurate. George Kennan’s Long Telegram of Feb-ruary 1946 was not the basis for the famous ‘X Article’ in Foreign Affairs, which was actually a truncated and inferior version of a talk he gave in early 1947. The Truman Doctrine of March 1947 was announced a few months before the X Article and was thus not based on it (there is a very indirect connection to the Long Telegram). Kennan was not alienated by ‘the mid-1950s’ but already in late 1948 and certainly when, a year later, he was kicked sideways and upstairs, having voiced most inconvenient opposition in the State Department to the emerging Nato. More vital perhaps, his differences with the Truman Doctrine are not chiefly about force and military containment but about universalism and binary politics: Kennan adamantly opposed the simple division of the world that underpinned the Truman Doctrine: totalitarianism, on the one hand, and freedom, on the other. He remained, after all, a firm supporter of Salazar’s reactionary dictatorship in Portugal and always rejected the idea that democracy is somehow identical with ‘the West’, not to mention the attached notion of the United States as the messianic guardian of ‘the Free World’. The Soviet threat (as he grasped it) was particular and to be dealt with in particular ways. What the administration took from the Long Telegram, however, was the notion of a completely unresponsive and fanatical opponent with whom no real diplomacy and agreement were possible. This became the negative axiom of the US project we now know as ‘the cold war’.

Anders Stephanson
Columbia University

Close Shave

Scott Stucky is a judge appointed by Bush to the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (Letters, 20 November). ‘The question of whether the Vietnam conflict was a “war" … was never decided judicially,’ he writes. If Vietnam wasn’t a war – 58,000 Americans dead, and between one and two million Vietnamese – what is?

The judge and I disagree in our reading of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. What is not arguable is that both deserters and their civilian friends faced real penalties, as was threateningly pointed out to us by the FBI, CIA, various US military intelligence agencies, MI5 and MI6, Special Branch etc. I do hope that, in deciding on today’s military adventures, Judge Stucky will keep in mind that, especially in an illegal war, conscience trumps the manual.

Clancy Sigal
Los Angeles

Get Your Bumps Read

As evidence for Hester Stanhope’s general nuttiness, Bernard Porter cites her choice of servants on the basis of facial features and head shape (LRB, 23 October), but in that she was no nuttier than many of her contemporaries. ‘Physiognomy’, the divining of character from facial lineaments, was elaborately codified by Lavater in the 1770s in volumes that went through several cheap editions. ‘Cranioscopy’, the interpretation of personality from the shape of the skull and its surface irregularities, was popularised in lectures in Vienna by the anatomist Franz Joseph Gall, beginning in the 1780s. Gall, with his collaborator J.G. Spurzheim, systematised his ideas in great detail as ‘phrenology’, which had many devotees throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, particularly in Britain and the United States. In my childhood in 1930s England, if you did something stupid you were likely to be told to ‘get your bumps read’.

Raymond Clayton
Stanford, California

Those Crazy Parisians

Elif Batuman plainly doesn’t care much for French philosophers, or Marxists (LRB, 20 November). But since she seems to be trying to persuade those crazy Parisians to think straight, she should make more of an effort to get what they say right. Sometimes her errors don’t matter much. For example, she says that ‘Anti-Oedipus is the book that brought us the Deleuzian rhizome.’ No it isn’t: Deleuze and Guattari introduced the theme of the rhizome (or laterally proliferating heterogeneity) in a little book called Rhizome in 1976, and subsequently incorporated it into Mille Plateaux in 1980. More serious is her persistent repetition of the vulgar charge that Foucault was a conspiracy theorist. Foucault in his middle period affirms the omnipresence of power, but he conceptualises power as non-intentional, constituting subjects rather than expressing subjectivity, crystallising around unanticipated consequences.

Batuman takes her misinterpretation of Foucault to bizarre lengths when she writes: ‘It is even said that Foucault initially discounted Aids as a mythical homosexual-targeting disease invented by the medical superstructure to control male homosexuality; in this sense, he was a literal victim of his own conspiracy theories.’ Given that anti-retroviral drugs became available only well after Foucault’s death in 1984, what difference would any theory have made?

Alex Callinicos
King’s College London

How to strengthen an empire

Ross McKibbin is incorrect in describing Joseph Chamberlain as having campaign-ed for ‘protection’ tout court (LRB, 23 October). What Chamberlain envisaged was a customs union with the primary goal of strengthening the Empire. Britain was to be the preferred market for agricultural produce from Australia, Canada and other loyal colonies, who in turn would give preferential treatment to British manufactured goods. Canadian politicians such as Wilfrid Laurier, who feared losing American goodwill and access to the US market, refused to go along with this plan. Yet nearly a century later, Canada is part of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has led to a decline in Canadian industrial capacity and increased US ownership of Canadian companies.

Anthony Harding
Wolfville, Nova Scotia

The Dons

David Runciman is inaccurate in stating that the owners of Wimbledon FC looked to relocate elsewhere because they were ‘unable to get either the planning permission or the financial backing to build a new stadium for the club in South London’ (LRB, 23 October). Both were available for the conversion of the Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium, a hundred yards from the club’s old ground. The only stumbling block was the owners’ unwillingness to agree to move there. The old ground was sold off and the franchise sale began.

Tony Colman
Aylmerton, Norfolk

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