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New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq by Orit Bashkin (review)

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Issue 6, Number 2, July 2013
pp. 102-104 | 10.1353/jji.2013.0023

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Looking at Jewish lives in Iraq during the first half of the twentieth century provides seminal insights into how European and Middle Eastern societies have historically influenced each other. Orit Bashkin's New Babylonians: The History of Jews in Modern Iraq focuses on the crossroads of Jewish, Iraqi, and European cultures. Bashkin, a historian at the University of Chicago, investigates the role of secular Jewish intellectuals in the Nahda (renaissance), the Arab nationalistic literary and cultural renewal movement, starting in the second half of the nineteenth century in Iraq. Her study sheds new light on how the secular Arab national movement influenced the self-understanding and identity of Jewish intellectuals in Iraq under Hashemite rule between 1921 and 1958.

Like The Other Iraq: Pluralism and Culture in Hashemite Iraq (Syracuse University Press, 2009), Bashkin's earlier book on Iraq's political culture under Hashemite rule, New Babylonians challenges orientalist approaches to Middle Eastern and European history which often treat them as two discrete fields of historical study. Bashkin sees herself as avoiding two traditional pitfalls of narrating Middle East Jewish history: presenting it either as a tale of peaceful, harmonious coexistence or as a story of perpetual persecution. Nonetheless New Babylonians does sketch a vision of peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Jews in Arab lands, even as it also details how that harmonious relationship was destroyed in the maelstrom of a modern Iraqi history ineludibly impacted by the political vicissitudes, sociocultural displacements, and violence of twentieth-century European history. Baskin tells how Jews were in the vanguard of modernization under the British-installed monarchy after World War I. By focusing on the experience of the Iraqi Jewish intellectual elite, she portrays a complex and vibrant "ethno-religious composition of Iraqi society that created a unique Jewish Iraqi experience, which was nonetheless intertwined with global and Western discourses." Arab language became the vernacular of social transformation, and "the educational system was key to the reconceptualization of Arab and secular identity." Transcending social barriers came at the price of disowning one's cultural and religious distinctiveness, such as abandoning certain Judeo-Arab dialects or religious observances. The "new effendia," as Bashkin terms the secular Iraqi Jewish intellectuals, moved into Baghdad's formerly Muslim, middle-class neighborhoods and became prominent in trade, politics, and Arabic literature. Less fortunate Muslims and Christians looked for answers to socio-economic inequalities in the emerging communist movement of the 1930s. The Iraqi Communist Party became a platform for poor Jewish students to raise their voices against social inequality by claiming a share in a national future and "employing the term Arab Jew."

Despite the newfound status of secular Iraqi Jewish intellectuals and the vocal anti-Zionism of some prominent Jewish members in Baghdad's literary and political scene, Iraqi nationalists began to attack Jews as traitors in the 1930s. Nazi Germany's shortwave Arabic broadcasting Voice of Free Arabism began in October 1939 and continued broadcasting in Iraq daily until March 1945. The propaganda contributed significantly to a spread of anti-Semitic ideas by consolidating anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist resentment with Arab nationalism. Upon being exiled from Palestine by the British in 1937, Hajj Ammin al-Husseini, the pro-Nazi leader of the Palestinian national movement, found refuge in Baghdad, where he helped German and Arab nationalists to foment anti-Semitic violence. In the months leading up to the Farhud, the pogrom in Baghdad on June 1 and 2, 1941, most Jews placed their hope in British military intervention. Bashkin reveals that Baghdadi Jews were not just forsaken by leading Arab nationalists but also by the British, who stood by and watched the violence unfold.

Bashkin contends that historians have overemphasized the larger significance of the 1941 riots. This has contributed, she asserts, to a "Farhudization" of Jewish Iraqi history, in which the Farhud is cast as typifying the overall experience of the otherwise harmonious relationship between Jews and the greater Iraqi society. Indeed, to interpret the Farhud either as an overriding expression or an exception of Arab-Jewish relationships is to overlook the historically pivotal interplay of foreign influence and conflicts within Iraqi society. A decontextualization of the Farhud easily obscures the events and dynamics...

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