- New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq by Orit Bashkin
As she did in her earlier book, The Other Iraq: Pluralism and Culture in Hashemite Iraq (2008), Orit Bashkin turns once again to the dynamic and turbulent social, intellectual, and cultural history of the Hashemite kingdom of Iraq that was forged from three provinces of the defeated Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the First World War. The new nation in the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates was not only a composite of provinces, but a mosaic of religious and ethnic groups: Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, and Arabic- and Aramaic-speaking Jews and Christians. This book focuses upon the Arabic-speaking Jews, who were unique among the Jews of Arab lands both with regard to their economic importance in country and their intimate involvement with the emerging Iraqi national Arabic culture. Indeed, more than any other Jewish community from Morocco to the borders of Iran, they were the most attracted to Nahḍa, the Arabic linguistic and cultural revival of the modern era. And more than any other Jewry, they identified themselves as patriots and citizens of the Iraqi state. During these years, Jews published newspapers such as al Ḥāṣid, al-Burhān, and al-Miṣbāḥ in Modern Standard Arabic together with short stories and books, while during the same period most Jewish journals in other Arab countries were in French or Judeo-Arabic. Themes of patriotism and national concern along with contemporary social issues abounded in Iraqi Jewish journalism and belles lettres.
Bashkin is at her insightful best in describing the intellectual and cultural ferment of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. She also is successful in documenting the modernizing trends and particularly the secularization of the Jewish effendiyya, or bourgeoisie. Her accounts of modern Iraqi Jewish female writers such as Miriam Mulla, Esterina Ibrahim, and Maliha Sahayeq and of professional women such as Amal Haim are particularly noteworthy since most of the earlier academic treatments of writers and intellectuals [End Page 149] of the period have dealt almost exclusively with men. The leading Jewish male authors, thinkers, educators, and public figures such as Anwar Sha'ul, Na'im Zilkha, Ya'qūb Balbul, Ezra Haddad, and Mir Basri are given due attention for their role in contributing to the social and intellectual climate of these decades. But perhaps Bashkin's most significant and original contribution is her detailed discussion of Jewish participation in the Iraqi Communist Party between 1941 and 1951, to which she devotes an entire chapter (chapter 5: Red Baghdad). Although at least two monographs devoted to the Iraqi communism (Hanna Battatu's The Old Social Classes and New Revolutionary Movements of Iraq  and Tareq Ismael's The Rise and Fall of the Communist Party of Iraq ) have taken note of the presence of Jews, along with other minorities in the movement, such as Shiites, Kurds, and Armenians, none has gone into the specifically Jewish component and its activities as well as the motivations of the Jewish comrades.
However, Bashkin's chronicling of the watershed events of the 1940s leading up to the mass exodus of 1951 lacks the same degree of analytical insight. This is due, I suggest, to her basic approach as a cultural studies scholar who interprets texts, but does not fully take into account the actual events, people, and politics. It is also due to a priori ideological assumptions. Bashkin from the very outset acknowledges her intellectual debt to contrarians such Sami Zubaida, Ella Shohat, and Gilbert Achcar, and the ghost of Edward Said often lurks in the background unnamed. Previous historical work on the Jews of the Islamic world is reduced to an oversimplified caricature: "a model of harmonious coexistence" or "a tale of perpetual persecution," and "alongside these ideas, an orientalist [sic] interpretation" (9). More seriously, there is an element of naïve wishful thinking which constantly views positive examples of Jewish acculturation and patriotism, on the one hand, and the openness of some Arab liberal intellectuals and...