Life & Culture

Why is Avi Shlaim recycling the ‘Baghdad bombings’ theory?

Shlaim’s theory is far from conclusive


Avi Shlaim, a professor of history at Oxford, has been no stranger to controversy, attracting criticism from his fellow academics.

Benny Morris has called Shlaim "sloppy", and slammed his work for "one-sidedness and plain unfairness."

Now in retirement, Shlaim has just published Three Worlds: Memoir of an Arab-Jew. This is a personal account of his childhood and teenage years straddling three worlds: Iraq, where he was born, Israel where his family resettled, and the UK, where he has lived since 1966.

Aged five, his was a brutal uprooting from a comfortable Baghdad mansion with servants. At a time of rising antisemitism during the 1948 war with Israel, the family fled Iraq to begin new lives in Israel. His father, a prosperous importer of building materials with influential Muslim friends, was completely undone by the move and his much younger wife, once a society hostess, was forced to work as a telephonist.

The marriage broke down. Young Avi brought his emotional baggage to his Jewish school in London, where a friend testifies to the fact he smuggled in non-kosher burgers to spite the headmaster.

During his academic career, Shlaim became more and more stridently anti-Israel. Today he calls it a "colonial settler state", even though Mizrahi Jewish communities, now comprising over half of Israel’s Jews, predated the Arab conquest and Islam by 1,000 years or more.

The "Arab-Jew" of the title will raise a few eyebrows: the expression is used by some anti-Zionists who deny Jews from Arab countries a separate identity.

But the plaudits have been flowing from reviewers’ pens for Avi Shlaim’s new book. Eugene Rogan, author of "The Arabs" called it the best book he had read all year.

Max Hastings had this to say in the Sunday Times: “This remarkable upside-down tale… A personal story, not a polemic… provocative… His personal odyssey confers on Shlaim an exceptional authority for his words; he can say things that others of us cannot… his thesis deserves to be considered with respect."

The thesis in question is that "the Zionists" planted bombs in Baghdad to help eradicate the presence of Jews in Iraq. "The shocking truth about the Baghdad bombings of 1950 -51" blares the title of a review by Justin Marozzi in The Spectator.

But Shlaim’s theory is far from conclusive. The only fatal bombing took place in January 1951 (six weeks before the deadline for legal Jewish emigration from Iraq was due to expire) in the Massouda Shemtob synagogue, then being used by "the Zionists" as a registration centre for departing Jews. Three of the five bombs were planted three months after the emigration deadline had passed and caused no casualties.

It is a mystery why "the Zionists" might have thought it necessary to bomb the synagogue when, by late 1950 a backlog of 80,000 Jews, who had already registered to leave for Israel, were stranded in Iraq. Indeed, the Iraqi government toyed with the idea of dumping these Jews on Israel’s border with Jordan or in the Kuwaiti desert because Israel was not shipping them out fast enough.

All the evidence for the bombings points to the nationalist Istiqlal party as the culprit. An Istiqlal member confessed to an Iraqi historian, Shamel Abdul Kader, that he planted the first bomb in April 1950. The Israeli new historian Tom Segev produced evidence blaming the synagogue bombing on Iraqi nationalists.

Iraqi Jews already had reason enough to seek a haven in Israel – rising pro-Nazi sentiment, the memory of a vicious Baghdad pogrom in 1941, the execution of the wealthy non-Zionist Shafik Ades in 1948, arrests, extortion, racist laws persecuting and dispossessing them. A vibrant community of 150,000 is now reduced to three Jews.

But Shlaim claims there was no antisemitism in Iraq until the Iraqis ‘turned on the Jews’ for their alleged complicity with the British invasion of 1941 and the foundation of Israel.

It is a travesty that Shlaim should not only fail to blame Arab regimes for the mass ethnic cleansing of their Jewish citizens, but that his reputation as an Oxford academic should lend ‘exceptional authority’ and respectability to these highly controversial claims,

What lies behind Shlaim’s anti-Zionism? In reviewing ‘Israel and Palestine’ Benny Morris pronounced himself puzzled.

“Many intellectuals, in Israel as in the West, have been moved by the Palestinians’ history and their plight, but at the same time they have remained sympathetic to Israel’s predicament…. In Israel and Palestine, by contrast, there is no sign of any such complex sympathy.

"For Shlaim, Israel and its leaders can do no right. It all begins to seem very personal. What is the source of this bias and this resentment? ‘

It appears that Shlaim’s memoir holds the answer. Israel is responsible for his unhappy childhood, his family’s impoverishment and his broken home.

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