Waters of Babylon

Reviewed by Yitzhak Dahan

The Arab-Jews: Nationalism, Religion, and Ethnicity
by Yehouda Shenhav
Am Oved, 2003, 291 pages, Hebrew.

The tension between Israel’s Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities has been the subject of a new wave of scholarly literature in the last few years. Recent books like Forbidden Reminiscences: A Collection of Essays (2001) by Ella Shohat, Mizrahim in Israel: A Critical Observation into Israel’s Ethnicity (2002) edited by Yehouda Shenhav, Pnina Motzafi-Haller, and Hannan Hever, and Mizrahi Struggle in Israel: Between Oppression and Liberation, Identification and Alternative, 1948-2003 (2004) by Sami Shalom Chetrit share a radical critique of the predominantly Ashkenazi Zionistleadership in the country’s early years, who stand accused of oppressing the immigrants from Arab lands. According to this approach, the Sephardim were Zionism’s Jewish victims, and remain so to this day.
The Arab-Jews: Nationalism, Religion, and Ethnicity,by Yehouda Shenhav, is the latest addition to the field. Shenhav, a sociologist at Tel Aviv University and senior research fellow at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, is a familiar name in Israel’s academic circles. A sharp-witted and enthusiastic spokesman for the radical Sephardi cause, Shenhav is associated with the radical social activist Keshet movement, formally known as the Democratic Sephardic Rainbow; and is editor of Theory and Criticism, the country’s preeminent forum for post-Zionist research and thought.
In his newest work, Shenhav takes aim at the standard Zionist claim that Iraqi Jews immigrated to Israel in the 1940s and 1950s of their own volition, and in reaction to widespread persecution in their native country. This claim, Shenhav maintains, was fabricated by the Zionist movement in an effort to lionize its leaders for “providing a safe haven in time of need.” The facts, he argues, were altogether different: Iraqi Jews were never really Zionists, and the Ashkenazi establishment never really had their bests interests in mind by bringing them to Israel. Instead, “an entire community was ruthlessly uprooted as the right of community members to determine their own fate was taken away from them.”
Shenhav backs up his claim with numerous quotations and an extensive bibliography, all of which give the impression of a serious challenge to Zionist historiography. Yet his arguments are shaky at best. As has become a pattern among the more fashionable scholarly work in Israel, the book is so riddled with factual and theoretical flaws that it ends up undermining the credibility of Shenhav’s whole effort—and calling into question the integrity of his scholarly quest. 
Shenhav weaves a thick narrative of exploitation, dispossession, and cultural coercion. In his telling, the Jews of Iraq had, into the middle of the twentieth century, enjoyed their own authentic, “natural,” Jewish-Arab identity. But under increasing pressure from the newly established Jewish state, Iraqi Jews were forced to adopt a foreign identity from which they have never been able to free themselves. The relatively marginal position of today’s Iraqi and Sephardi Jews in Israel, Shenhav argues, is the result of this largely ignored story.
According to Shenhav, Iraq’s Jews felt themselves to be part of the larger Arab culture, and thus felt little loyalty to the Zionist enterprise. He reports that the affluent, educated segment of the community (which, unlike other Jewish communities in the Middle East, was quite large) was especially wary of Zionism, fearing “the extent of the damage that Zionism could cause to their social, economic, and political status.” Moreover, a number of the community’s youth were communists, and some were involved in the Anti-Zionist League. With rare exception, Shenhav concludes, Iraqi Jews did not, at least before the establishment of Israel, identify with the Zionist cause or share in the belief that they were participating in an ingathering of exiles.
How, then, did they end up in Israel and come to identify so strongly with Jewish nationalism? The bulk of Shenhav’s effort is dedicated to showing how the Zionist establishment gradually chipped away at the Iraqi Jews’ original identity and reshaped it to its own advantage. This was no easy task, since Iraqi Jews did not experience the nationalist awakening in Europe, and felt little, if any, of the European Zionist fervor. Entrusted with the difficult task of bringing about a parallel awakening, emissaries like Shmuel Yavnieli and Enzo Sireni, who traveled to Iraq in the 1940s, employed a tactic which Shenhav calls “religionization” (hadata).
Put simply, Zionist emissaries used the religious character of Iraqi Jews as a means of reinforcing their national identity as Jews rather than Arabs. “Zionism,” writes Shenhav, “used religion in its colonial interpretation (i.e., as an element that distinguishes Jews from Arabs) as a tool for recruiting Sephardi Jews for Jewish nationalism.” By strengthening and then appropriating Iraqi Jews’ religiosity, a basis was created for the eventual exchange between the religious and national elements of their identities. Shenhav, of course, does not try to argue that religious identity was alien to Iraqi Jews. Rather, his argument is that this religious tradition was now reshaped via a “national metaphysic.” In order to find their place in the Zionist narrative, Sephardi Jews had to be identified as religious Jews; there was no room in the Ashkenazi-Zionist mindset for any other, secular type. But it is precisely this latter type, the secular Sephardi, which Shenhav seeks to reestablish in the Israeli public debate.
The next step in Shenhav’s account of the erasure and reconstruction of Iraqi Jewish identity centers around the abandoned property of those who moved to Israel in the early 1950s. In March 1951, the Iraqi government froze assets of Jews who had moved to Israel. According to Shenhav, this decision proved a windfall to the Israeli government, which could now see itself relieved of its debt to Palestinians who had abandoned their property during the War of Independence. By creating an equivalence between Palestinian and Jewish property, and seeing its debt as having been effectively transferred to the Iraqi state, the Israeli government in effect nationalized the seized property of Iraqi Jews. By this logic, Shenhav surmises, the Israeli establishment actually inflicted a double injustice on Iraqi Jews: Not only did it abrogate the state’s moral obligation to compensate the Jewish immigrants for their lost property, it also created a conflict of interest between Iraqi Jews and Iraqi Arabs, further alienating the former from their original, “Arab” identity.
How did the Iraqi immigrants to Israel react to this injustice? Shenhav’s answer is not surprising: Whereas Iraqi Jews in Israel did initiate some political activity, they were ultimately taken in by Zionist propaganda. For example, Shenhav analyzes the activity of the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries (wojac) since its founding in 1975, and finds that its policies consistently conformed to the founding ideologies of the Zionist establishment—to the detriment of the Sephardi public it purported to represent. Particularly distasteful to Shenhav was its decision, made with the active support of then-chairman Mordechai Ben-Porat, determining that Palestinian refugees should not be allowed to return to Israel, since a de facto forced population exchange had already taken place. Shenhav is bothered that wojac accepted “the state’s logic” on this, considering that Israel refused to recognize the organization and viewed it, according to Shenhav, as exceedingly narrow-minded. While conceding that there were some voices of dissent within the organization, he nevertheless insists that, at the end of the day, wojac “betrayed the trust of Iraqi emigrants by collaborating with the political theory of the Israeli government.”
The final blow to an authentic “Jewish-Arab” identity, however, was the institutionalization of new categories of identification by the Zionist establishment. After all, Shenhav wonders, why could Jews from Islamic countries not be classified in official documents simply as “Jewish Arabs?” He concludes that the classification of immigrants from Middle Eastern countries as “SephardiJews” rather than as “Jewish Arabs” was motivated by the Ashkenazi establishment’s concern about a potential alliance between the Jewish and Arab communities in the region. The new vocabulary, then, was aimed at driving a wedge between Jewish and Muslim Arabs, in order to force Iraqi Jews to join the Israeli side. In Shenhav’s account, the scheme succeeded. Jewish Arabs became trapped in an alien identity, and remain so to this day.

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