The Jews and Arabs were friends really. It was only Zionism, a Eurocentric import, that poisoned the relationship between them.
So says Avi Shlaim, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford, in his new book, recently reviewed in gushing terms in the Spectator. Of course, he should know, being the son of Iraqi Jewish parents who left for Israel in 1950. He’s also a well-known Corbyn supporter and one of the many hard-left academics who vociferously accused anti-Corbyn campaigners of weaponising antisemitism — the type of view that Sir Keir Starmer has spent the last few years trying to get rid of in the Labour Party.
Shlaim focuses on the well-worn accusation that a series of bombings in 1950 and 1951 in Baghdad (which caused one fatality overall) were in fact a plot orchestrated by Israel to make the Jews leave. It’s a ludicrous proposition that has never had any proof behind it. It has echoes of Ken Loach and Ken Livingstone’s pernicious proposition that the Zionists were in cahoots with the Nazis. It’s the kind of thing antisemites love to come up with: it’s the Jews who are really to blame for their own fate, rather than the centuries of Arab persecution.
The fact that for centuries they had status as second-class “dhimmi” who, if they looked at a Muslim the wrong way, could be murdered for it, had nothing to do with it. The 1941 Nazi-inspired Farhud antisemitic pogrom, when 180 Jews were murdered, was of no consequence. The arrests, confiscations and worse in the wake of 1948 had no impact. The Arabs loved the Jews and it was all the fault of Zionism.
Except it wasn’t. One hundred and twenty thousand Jews left Iraq for Israel between 1950 and 1952. As Shlaim points out, life in Israel for these refugees was deprived and difficult. Many who had arrived told their friends and relatives still in Baghdad that they should not come.
Yet mostly they still did. Not because of an illusory non-existent plot by Israel but because their fellow citizens had just murdered 180 of their community, following on from a long history of persecution and second-class citizenship, and they realised, perhaps, that to be safe they needed to be somewhere else. Somewhere that would take them in, like the Jewish state. They did not need “Eurocentric Zionism” to make this clear.
Those who stayed had in store for them the hangings of nine Jews in Baghdad in 1969 and other atrocities in revenge for the defeat of the Arab armies 1967.
By 1972, there were hardly any Jews left in Iraq. My children’s grandparents were two of the last ones, leaving in 1971. Just like all the Jews who fled Iraq, they left with virtually nothing, their property and worldly goods stolen by the Iraqi state and given away to others. Yet in the eyes of Shlaim and others with his worldview, it was their own fault.
Isn’t holding Jews directly accountable for what happens in Israel antisemitism? It is now and it was then.
Look now at the Iraqi community in Israel and in London, New York and other places they found refuge. Successful, proud, forward looking. The state of Israel did not get everything right in the absorption of Jews from the Middle East — but considering the incredible challenge of a small country having hundreds of thousands of refugees arrive at once, it did an incredible job.
Jews who have turned against their people, as Shlaim and many other in the academy have done, should not distract us from our common cause. They seek our division. They seek to paint Zionism as a Eurocentric colonialist plot that is the cause of antisemitism. As ever, in the tradition of antisemitism, they invert the truth. Modern Zionism is, and has always been, a response to the antisemitism of the world. It is the rallying cry of a people united across continents, across centuries. Ashkenazim, Mizrachim, Sephardim — we have always been one people. There are no European Jews, Arab Jews or Jews of colour, there have always just been Jews, brought together by common faith, culture and destiny.
Many hope to split us apart and unfortunately, sometimes our own communal bodies and representatives have joined in with a misguided idea that the external divisions that exist in non-Jewish society, and that they project on to us, should have significance for us.
Many readers, Jewish and non-Jewish, who encounter The Spectator’s review of Shlaim’s book, which pretty much takes his accusations as gospel, will be similarly misled. They will accept the inversion of the truth as reality. We should not allow those who promote ideas that give succour to antisemitic conspiracy theorists, or others who seek to divide us, succeed.
Joe Mintz is Associate Professor of Education at UCL