Friday, December 22, 2023

Reviews Iraq’s Last Jews, Stories of Daily Life, Upheaval, and Escape from Modern Babylon

Morad, Tamar, Shasha, Deniis, and Shasha, Robert, Edited by, Iraq’s Last Jews, Stories of Daily Life, Upheaval, and Escape from Modern Babylon, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008


Iraq’s Last Jews, Stories of Daily Life, Upheaval, and Escape from Modern Babylon is made up of a number of interviews with Iraqi Jews about their experiences. Most had nostalgic views of growing up in Iraq but then things changed starting in 1948 when Israel was created leading to years of persecution by the government. Most left in 1950, but the book contains stories of people who stayed until the 1970s which is rare in histories. Iraq’s Last Jews is a welcome addition to the cannon because of the range of first-hand accounts it includes.


The editors tried to collect together a diverse group of people to interview. Shlomo el-Kevity was the son of Salah al-Kuwaity who was one of the most famous musicians in Kuwait and Iraq from the 1920s-50s. Salim Sassoon did not have fond memories of Iraq calling it backwards. Salim Fattal came from a poor family and joined the Communist Party. Oded Halahmy was an artist who was discriminated against in Israel because he was an Arab Jew. Shlomo Hillel was a Mossad agent in Iraq who set up smuggling operations to get Jews out of the country to Israel while Shlomo Sehayek was part of the underground Zionist movement in Baghdad. Saeed Herdoon’s family stayed in Iraq after most families immigrated in the 1950s but eventually left in 1969 after he was imprisoned and tortured by the government. Many of those included came from prominent families such as Zuhair Sassoon who was the grandson of Rabbi Sassoon Khadouri who was the spiritual leader of the community and Richard Obadiiah whose father was the head of the last Jewish school in Iraq. They and others each gets their own section of the book and provide some interesting reading.


There were some common themes within the stories like the ups and downs Iraqi Jews faced in Iraq. Most talked about the monarchy period as the heyday of Jews in Iraq. King Faisal was a friend of the community, Jews were able to go to school, find employment in the government, and there was a wealthy class of merchants. Ezra Zilha and others had siblings with Muslim names like his brothers Abdulla and Salim because their families were comfortable with the culture. Many of the older generation were proud Iraqis. A turning point was the 1941 Farhud after the Anglo-Iraq War when Jews were attacked and killed in Baghdad. That led many to question their position in Iraq. Then Israel was founded in 1948 and the government began equating Jews with Zionism and started persecuting them. Things improved under General Qasim in 1958 only to steeply decline under the Arif brothers and the Baath rule. There are several harrowing stories by people who had husbands and fathers detained, tortured and even killed. Iraq’s Last Jews is one of the few books that covers Jews who lived in Iraq past the mass exodus of people in 1950-51. The narratives are also a depressing tale because so many loved Iraq and felt betrayed by their country.


The writers and artists included in the book championed Iraqi Jews after they left the country. Shlomo el-Kevity tried to preserve his father’s music and wanted all Jewish Arab artists to be remembered and cherished in Israel. Oded Halahmy was a sculpture who based his work upon his memories of Iraq. He felt his art was looked down upon in Israel because he was an Arab Jew which eventually led him to leave for the United States. Finally, Eli Amir was a best-selling author in Israel whose books were based upon his own experiences growing up in Iraq. He called Israelis arrogant because they believed they were Westerners and looked down upon Jews who came from other places like Iraq. He argued that Iraqi Jews should be used by Israel to communicate with the Arab world and create better relations and cooperation. His work was eventually used in Israeli schools as Middle Eastern Jews became more accepted.


Even the outliers are engaging. Salim Sassoon always thought Iraq was backwards. He talked about how under the Ottomans the area was undeveloped and there were constant epidemics. He never liked Baghdad where he grew up because he felt the government was run by “fanatic nationalists” and said Muslims had a deep seeded hatred of Jews. He always wanted to leave Iraq and eventually did in 1942 for the United States. Oddil Dallall’s earliest memory of Iraq was the Farhud which was traumatizing. Unlike others she didn’t grow up around Muslims and thought they were a violent people. Her husband was arrested twice and the authorities eventually executed him. In 1970 she escaped to Iran and then went on to Israel. She became a spokesman for the Israeli government giving speeches about Iraqi Jews. She obviously went along with the Israeli narrative that Jews were always mistreated in the Middle East.


It's rare to hear Iraqi voices in Western books. That’s why Iraq’s Last Jews stands out because it’s nothing but first person narratives by Iraqis from different classes, political beliefs, and experiences. In doing so it provides a good history of the community from the Ottoman period to the 1970s. Those later years are when the number of Jews was dwindling and faced severe repression. Most books on the topic usually end in the 1950s when most Jews left. It’s also exceptional because all of the stories are absorbing. The editors should be commended for being able to find so many people to interview. Iraq’s Last Jews should be on anyone’s list if they’re interested in Iraqi history and its Jewish population.


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