- Impossible Exodus: Iraqi Jews in Israel by Orit Bashkin
Orit Bashkin's Impossible Exodus does battle with a narrative of epic proportions. In a telling passage, she writes, "In Israel sat vast Jewish communities longing for Baghdad, Basra, Amara, Hilla and Mosul" (p. 20), reversing the Psalmist lamentations for Jews in Babylon who sat by its rivers remembering and weeping for Zion. Crude Biblical ironies shadowed almost all initial Iraqi Jewish encounters with Israel. Brought to the country in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah (1951–52), Iraq's Jews, encouraged to view themselves as liberated from captivity, could not avoid having greater expectations than any newly established state could ever deliver.
Israelis no longer imagine the ingathering of exiles during the very first years of statehood as a purely altruistic rescue of Jews. That immigrants were badly treated by a society still recovering from a bloody war and without sufficient resources to attend to their needs is now well-accepted and well-documented. What is distinctive about Bashkin's book on Iraqi Jews is the many stories she recovers that describe not only the difficulties encountered by immigrants but also the humiliations imposed by thoughtless and prejudiced officials put in charge of people whose culture they neither understood nor respected. At times, Bashkin argues that the treatment is an extension of Israel's founding principles; occasionally, Bashkin acknowledges the burdens accepted by a state "on the verge of economic collapse … that nevertheless undertook to absorb a huge number of immigrants" (p. 23).
The country was not easy on migrants. Believing they were coming to the Promised Land, many were left stranded and exposed not only to hardship but also to indignities. Iraqi Jews left behind a country where many had prospered, but where lives and fortunes seemed increasingly threatened as the country's nationalism was divested of its humanistic values, and where Jews became increasingly marked as outsiders and as threats to the nation's unity and safety.
Assaults against Jews promoted the Zionist cause even as rumors of Zionist plots justified arrests and the very public hanging of one prominent Jewish businessman. The land that gave Jews a significant part of its religious canon had turned hostile. Many Jews decided, on their own, to leave the country. When the Iraqi government eventually allowed a mass Jewish emigration, it supposedly struck a deal with Israel — never fully confirmed — requiring those who left the country to surrender citizenship, property, and wealth, calling these demands payback for the nakba (Arabic for "catastrophe," i.e., the Palestinian refugee crisis).
Impossible Exodus is a long chronicle of the hardships encountered by Iraqi Jews: living conditions as brutal in the cold and rainy winter season as in the searing heat of summers complicated by food shortages, unsanitary water supplies, and diseases that would run through the communities. It was easy to lose faith not only in the Zionist cause but also in the Israeli state, then a seeming bundle of conflicting bureaucracies that confused the country's new residents and often crushed their spirit. Only their strong commitment to the principles of decency held Iraqi families together through the rigors of adjustment and integration into Israeli life.
In their first years, Iraqi Jews found an Israel dominated by a socialist Zionism that had emerged from eastern Europe. Integrating meant shedding their own traditions, prized values, and dignity to serve state needs. Suddenly transplanted into a Hebrew-speaking culture that itself was created by force of messianic vision seemed to these newcomers to be a social engineering process certain of its benefits and uncaring about the sacrifices imposed on those who [End Page 162] had to carry it out. Dispensing the population across the periphery, where new citizens were expected to work the land and defend the country's permeable borders, had fateful consequences for many who slipped into a chronic underclass.
Bashkin is concerned here not only with the dislocations experienced by immigrants but also with the broader questions of identity, and how individuals define themselves by the places they call...