Thursday, November 30, 2023

Review New Babylonians, A History Of Jews In Modern Iraq

Bashkin, Orit, New Babylonians, A History Of Jews In Modern Iraq, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012


New Babylonians, A History Of Jews In Modern Iraq by Orit Bashkin is an outstanding book about how Jews attempted to become citizens of Iraq and then how the state turned against them. She argues that Jews adopted Arab language, culture and the politics of the day. Things changed after World War II as the government and Arab nationalist groups began equating Jews with Zionism and persecuted the community leading to the majority to leave for Israel. Bashkin did a huge amount of research into Iraqi papers, journals and writers of the time which gives his book a great deal of depth as she covers territory that has not been discussed by others.


Bashkin argues that in 1920 when Iraq was created the Jewish community was eager to become full citizens of the new state. They embraced Arab culture and history, spoke and wrote in Arabic, called themselves Arab Jews, and many in the middle and upper classes adopted Arab nationalism believing that the revival of the Arab world would improve their situation as well. They found jobs in the new government and started businesses and became quite wealthy. Many came to join the Communist Party believing its talk about an egalitarian society would be another step towards more rights for the community. Other books have covered this period and came to the same conclusions. They agree that Iraq’s Jews were different from many of others in the Middle East because of their integration into the society. That also meant that Zionism did not spread in Iraq because the vast majority of Jews were happy with their situation.


The author believes in the 1940s-50s politics changed with militant Arab nationalism and the creation of Israel which led to the growth of Zionism and the majority of Jews eventually leaving the country. The first break occurred after the Anglo-Iraq War in 1941. Jewish homes and businesses were looted in Basra followed by the Farhud when Jews were attacked and killed in Baghdad. This led some of the young to question their place in Iraq and they moved towards Zionism as an alternative. After 1948 and the creation of Israel things became progressively worse for Jews as the government and militant pan-Arab groups equated Jews with Zionism and singled them out for discrimination in business and the bureaucracy with firings, limiting licenses, and raids on homes. In 1950 the government allowed Jews to immigrate to Israel believing only a few thousand would leave. By September 1950 70,000 had registered to depart and a total of 104,000 eventually did which was the majority of the community. Bashkin points out that there were many individuals and groups in Iraq from intellectuals to writers and the Communist Party that stood up for Jews during this time. The mood in the country however was fervently anti-Israeli and the country’s Jews became the scapegoat for this anger. The author called it a tragedy that Iraq’s Jews who felt so much a part of Iraq would be turned on so quickly.


New Babylonians provides a very convincing thesis that Iraq’s Jews went from believing they were an integral part of Iraq to being shunned by the political class. What also stands out is the depth of research by the author. The footnotes are full of Iraqi journals, papers, etc. from the time period which was very impressive. Bashkin breaks down books and articles on and by Jews that have not been covered by others. It makes for a very rich history and one of the best books on Iraq’s Jewish community.


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