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Reviewed by:
  • New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq
  • Joel Beinin (bio)
New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq by Orit Bashkin. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012. 310 pages. $80 cloth; $24.95 paper; $24.95 E-book.

New Babylonians is a meticulously researched and path-breaking treatment of a topic engaging several interlocking contested histories — Jews of Arab countries, the Arab-Israeli conflict, democracy and post-colonialism, and the Communist Parties of Iraq and Israel. Bashkin’s principal intervention in the literature on Iraqi Jews (much of which is in Hebrew) is using a plethora of literary and journalistic sources — both arenas in which Jews were prominent — to argue that during the period of the Hashemite monarchy (1922–1958), many considered themselves “Arab Jews,” fully identified with Arab culture and the Iraqi national project, and were distant from or vociferously critical of Zionism.

There are two main versions of these histories. The first is a teleological Zionist view emphasizing “the failure of the Iraqi orientation” (p. 7). Accordingly, despite Jews’ efforts to identify with and integrate into modern Iraq, the 1941 anti-Jewish farhud (riot) in Baghdad foreclosed this option and, after additional persecutions in 1948–1949, necessitated the mass migration of the vast majority of the community to Israel in 1950–1951 — the only place they could live securely and express their “true” identity. In contrast, an Iraqi Arab nationalist version denies that Jews experienced any significant discrimination or oppression and regards the farhud as exceptional and largely due to the British military campaign to remove the Rashid ‘Ali government and reoccupy Iraq. Nonetheless, most Jews were unpatriotic and Zionists or Communists, which for conservatives and Arab nationalists amounted to the same thing, since the Soviet Union supported the partition of Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel.

Bashkin rejects both monolithic narratives by “provincializ[ing] Zionism” (p. 6) and exploring the construction of multiple Iraqi Jewish identities. She demonstrates the great influence of Arab and Islamic culture on the literary and journalistic production of the Jewish community. Subgroups within the Jewish community understood their commitment to Iraq in competing terms, just as other Iraqis did. However, they generally rejected pan-Arabism as an ideological orientation sympathetic to fascism associated with the perpetrators of the farhud and discrimination against Jews.

Rather than viewing the farhud as “proving” an essential antagonism between Jews and their neighbors, Bashkin adopts a conjunctural explanation. Especially in mixed neighborhoods, many Arab Muslims protected Jews and their homes from the rioters. A similar dynamic is evident in far more severe communal riots from South Asia to the Balkans.

While only a minority of the community was politically engaged, as in Egypt, Europe, and North America, Jewish workers, [End Page 146] students, and merchants were disproportionately members and sympathizers of the Communist Party of Iraq. Few reached the highest levels leadership; but Jews were heavily involved in translating Marxist literature into Arabic. They led cells, regional committees, and the party’s front organization, the League for Combatting Zionism, established in 1945. Bashkin argues that the League’s popularity among Jews and other Iraqis was consolidated in June 1946, when police killed a Jew participating in a League demonstration. The press designated him a shahid (martyr), a term typically reserved for Muslims. Bashkin challenges the suspicious account of the two Jews who led the CPI in 1948–1949 in Hanna Batatu’s The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq, still the best history of the CPI. She very plausibly argues that they, like most Arab communists, supported the partition of Palestine and the creation of Israel because they followed the line of the Soviet Union, not because they were secretly Zionists.

Zionism became a significant factor in Iraqi Jewish life only after the farhud. The mass migration of Iraqi Jews to Israel in 1950–1951 was due to collaboration between the Iraqi and Israeli governments, not a sudden upsurge in Zionist sentiment. Responsibility for the bombings of Jewish centers in 1950 and 1951, which incited the mass flight, remains hotly debated. Bashkin argues that the preponderance of the evidence suggests Zionist involvement, but that there is...


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