«Sant al-Tasqit»

Seventy Years since the Departure of Iraqi Jews

Seven decades after their massive exodus, the narrative about the departure of Iraqi Jews is hardly settled, not even within the displaced community itself. A continuous millennial existence in Mesopotamia was rendered impossible in the wake of a historical vortex generated by overpowering political forces and colliding ideologies. The fall of the Ottoman Empire, the subsequent rule of British colonialism, and the emergence of Jewish and Arab nationalist movements generated internal and external political pressures on the Jewish-Iraqi community. Pulled in opposite directions, the community ended up as the collateral damage of the warring ideological zones.

Iraqi Jews on a plane leaving for Israel
Dangoor family archive

The majority of Iraqi Jews were dislocated in the wake of the U.N. partition of Palestine, the establishment of the State of Israel, and the Nakba. Between 1950—1951, about 120,000 Iraqi Jews ended up departing, largely for Israel, in a process called tasqit al-jinsiyya—the precondition of waiving of Iraqi citizenship required for exiting without the possibility of return. This exodus, known as “sant al-tasqit” (the year of the tasqit), is conventionally narrated as the end of the Babylonian Exile and the fulfillment of the promised messianic return to Zion. Within Jewish tradition, Babylon is a site of the Diaspora, the ultimate exilic condition epitomized in the Biblical phrase “By the waters of Babylon we laid down and wept, when we remembered Zion.” Converting religious concepts into an ethno-nationalist discourse, the Zionist notion of Aliya (literally “ascendency”) has had the effect of mystifying the epic-scale cross-border movement between enemy zones. Indeed, the very official term deployed for the airlifting of the Iraqi Jews to Israel, “Operation Ezra and Nehemia” invoked the prophets associated with the Biblical return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple. Yet, what is often recounted as the “ingathering of the exiles” and the restoration of “the Diaspora” to Jerusalem, has been in fact a painfully complex experience, an ongoing multi-generational trauma which engendered an ambivalent sense of belonging for dislocated Middle Eastern Jews.

Departing and its Discontents

The 1948 foundation of the State of Israel and the consequent massive dislocation of Palestinians to neighboring Arab countries placed indigenous Middle Eastern Jews in an acutely vulnerable position. Arab Jews had to pledge allegiance to one identity articulated by two clashing movements—“Jewish” and “Arab”—both newly defined under a novel historical banner of ethno-national affiliation. Although in discord with Judaism’s traditional status as a religion, the Zionist redefinition of Jewishness as an ethno-nationality generated new dilemmas and tensions within the community itself, especially since some of the Iraqi Jewish youth came to view Israel as a promising option. In the post-1948 era, this push-and-pull pincer movement became more intense. As the Palestinians were experiencing the nakba, Arab Jews woke up to a new world order that could not accommodate their simultaneous Jewishness and Arabness.

Within this rapidly shifting environment, Jews in Iraq, Egypt, Syria and so forth had to defend a Jewishness that was associated for the first time in their history not with religion but with colonial nationalism. These momentous events resulted in general expressions of hostility and various discriminatory measures toward indigenous Jews throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The Zionist pressure to dislodge Jewish communities and end “the gola” (Diaspora) on the one hand, and the Arab nationalist gradual equation of Judaism with Zionism, on the other, brought about the eventual parting of Arab Jews from their homes. Ironically, the Zionist view that Arabness and Jewishness were mutually exclusive gradually came to be shared by Arab nationalist discourse, placing Arab-Jews on the horns of a terrible dilemma. The rigidity of both paradigms has produced the particular Arab-Jewish crisis, since neither paradigm can easily contain crossed or multiple identities and affinities.

Although for the most part, the Jewish-Iraqi community was not involved in political activity—whether Iraqi nationalist, Zionist or communist—it was involuntarily and dangerously implicated in the clashing nationalist ideologies. The various statements rejecting Zionism made by religious leaders, such as Iraq’s Hakham Bashi (the Chief Rabbi and also the President of the Jewish community) Sasson Khdhuri, have been the subject of much debate and interpretation, i.e. whether in fact it was truly their position or their way to safeguard their respective communities. For example, in 1936 with the escalation of the conflict between the Jewish Yishuv and Palestinians in Mandate Palestine, the Hakham published a statement on behalf of Iraq’s ta’ifa al-Isra’iliyya (Israelite community). Its purpose was to clear the Jews of Iraq of any doubt that may be cast on them concerning their possible association with the Zionist movement. “None of the members of the Israelite community of Iraq,” wrote the Hakham, “have any relation, contact, or joint activities with the Zionist movement, in any respect.” The Hakham’s declaration also insisted that the “Jews of Iraq are Iraqis and they are part of the Iraqi people”.

Yet, a decade later, in the post-1948 era, the ideological tension concerning the future of the community, and the concomitant tensions between the traditional leadership of the community and the Zionist underground movement, reached an unprecedented paroxysm. Mediating between the regime and the community, the Hakham pursued an approach of reconciliation which was regarded by some Jews as unproductive, and by others, especially Zionists, as appeasement of a persecutory regime. With the increasing number of arrests of youths accused of Zionist affiliations, a demonstration organized against his leadership led to the Hakham’s resignation from his position in December 1949.

Even if a growing number of Jews in countries such as Iraq were expressing a desire to go to Israel, the question is why, suddenly, after millennia of not doing so, would they leave overnight? Even subsequent to the establishment of Israel, the Jewish community was constructing new schools and founding new enterprises, a fact that hardly indicates an institutionalized intention to evacuate. The displacement, in other words, was hardly the result of a straightforward investment in aliya, in the nationalist sense of the word, but rather the product of complex circumstances in which fear, panic and disorientation played a central role. The ‘‘ingathering’’ then seems less natural and inevitable when one takes into account the intricate circumstances that engendered the departure, to wit: 1) the efforts of the Zionist underground in Iraq to denigrate the authority of the traditional Jewish community leaders, such as Hakham Sasson Khdhuri, who did not subscribe to this new vision of Jewishness; 2) its attempts to place a ‘‘wedge’’ between the Jewish and Muslim communities; 3) the Arab institutionalization of discriminatory practices toward Jews; 4) the vehement anti-Jewish propaganda, especially as channeled through the Istiqlal (Independence) Party, circulating in the public sphere; 5) the reticence on the part of many Arab intellectuals to spell out the distinction between “Jews” and “Zionists”; 6) the failure of the Arab political leadership to actively secure the place of Jews in Arab countries; 7) the persecution of communists, among them Jews, who opposed the Zionist idea; 8) the secretive agreements between some Iraqi and Israeli leaders concerning the departure of Jews to Israel; and 9) the misconceptions, on the part of many Arab-Jews, about the differences between their own religious identity, affiliation, or sentiments and the nation-state project of Zionism, premised on a Eurocentric secular vision even while invoking a quasi-religious messianic rhetoric.

To this day, discussion of the circumstances that led to the displacement of Iraqi Jews provokes a heated political quarrel vis-à-vis the 1948 Palestinian refugee question. The dominant Arab nationalist discourse has represented the mass departure of Jews as a sign of the Jewish betrayal of the Arab nation. The dominant Israeli discourse, meanwhile, has narrated the same departure as a story of expulsion of Jews. More recently, the issue of “Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries” has been linked to the 1948 Palestinian exodus as part of an effort to contest Palestinian claims of expulsion and dispossession. Pairing the nakba with the tasqit, a discourse of a presumed equivalence between the two cases of refugees, has been circulating as part of the rhetoric of “population exchange.” The linkage in this sense has tended to assuage Israeli responsibility for the Palestinian exodus. Some versions of the “population exchange” rhetoric, furthermore, embed the assumption of Muslims as perennial persecutors of Jews, in what could be called a “pogromized” version of “Jewish History.” In its most tendentious forms, this rhetoric incorporates the Arab-Jewish experience into the Shoah, evident for example in the campaign to include the 1941 farhud attacks on Jews in Iraq in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. One can denounce the violence of the farhud, and even connect it to Nazi propaganda in Iraq coming out of Berlin, without instrumentalizing it to equate Arabs with Nazis, or forge a discourse of eternal Muslim anti-Semitism. Apart from the fact that during the farhud some Muslims also protected their Jewish neighbors, the designation of the violent event as a pogrom has shaped a Eurocentric narrative for Iraqi Jews, projecting the historical experience of Jews in Christian Europe onto Muslim spaces.

Remaining and its Discontents

Although the majority of Iraqi Jews were dislocated in the wake of the partition of Palestine and the establishment of Israel, a minority of the community’s members did not register for the tasqit. The reasons for staying were various, including because they saw themselves first and foremost as Iraqis, and/or they believed the storm would pass, and/or they simply did not want to abandon their lives. Enduring family separation was also experienced by the family of Hakham Sasson Khdhuri, as most of his children left for Israel while he and a few other family members remained in Iraq. The Hakham resumed his leadership position, continuing to practice a flexible approach to Jewishness that accommodated shifting social mores. Deeply involved in the remaining community’s life, in celebration and in mourning, the Hakham was a vital symbolic figure for its Jewish identity. After the exodus of the majority of Iraqi Jews, the cataclysmic atmosphere subsided. Although the anxiety linked to the Arab/ Israeli conflict persisted, this period is nonetheless characterized by relative stability in comparison with the following decade of the post-1963 coup d’état and especially with the violence of the post-1967 War era.

With the 1968 coup d’état, the dictatorial Ba‘athist control of Iraq had a devastating impact on Iraqis of all denominations. The terrorizing measures taken to crush the regime’s real or imagined adversaries led, as we know, to the imprisonment, torture, kidnapping, and killing of many innocent Iraqi citizens generally, but the repression became exacerbated in the case of the Jewish community, now under a blanket suspicion of treason. The surveillance of all Iraqis became for Iraqi Jews a ready-made accusation of collaboration with the “Zionist enemy”, which resulted in public hangings, and more significantly carried dangerous implications for the very existence of a Jewish community in Iraq. The Ba‘ath-sponsored repression between 1969 and 1971 resulted in the departure of Iraq’s remaining Jews. By the early 1970s the numbers of the already dwindling community continued to shrink; a dispersal from a millennial existence in Mesopotamia that has taken Iraqi Jews largely to Israel, the U.K., and North America. By the time of the 2003 invasion, Iraqi Jews in an estimate numbering only in the tens remained during the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Despite its indigenous history in the land and complex set of social structures, the Jewish community came under horrendous pressures which ultimately led to its collapse.

In the 1999 biography of the Hakham written by his son, Sha’ul Hakham Sasson, the author who stayed with his father in Iraq, vehemently attempts to contest the negative image of the Hakham, whose reputation tended to be rather maligned within the Zionist narrative. Entitled in Arabic Ra‘in wa-ra‘eeyya (A Leader and his Community), and published in Jerusalem by the Association of Jewish Academics from Iraq, the son passionately argues that the Hakham was without a shadow of a doubt a generously dedicated leader. Fearing for the community’s welfare, and indeed for its very existence, the Hakham altruistically defended it under extraordinary pressures and at high personal cost. Throughout five turbulent decades, until his death in Baghdad in 1971, the Hakham navigated the powerful political shifts in the region that had momentous consequences for the Jewish-Iraqi community and for Middle Eastern Jews more broadly. Indeed, in the tumultuous period of the post-1967 era, Sha’ul was himself detained in Saddam Hussein’s prison, apparently in an attempt to exert pressure on the Hakham to make pro-regime declarations in the face of growing international protestations. In his 1999 prison memoir, entitled in Arabic Fi jaheem Saddam Hussein (In the Hell of Saddam Hussein), Sha’ul Hakham Sasson explains his decision to leave Iraq following the death of the Hakham on March 24th, 1971. “I uprooted myself and moved to England,” he wrote, where “I still live…with sad memories, wishing for God to liberate Iraq from its oppressors the Ba‘athists.” Expressing his hopes for Iraq “to live in peace and prosperity,” he continued in his London exile to call Iraq “my homeland, my birthplace.” He concluded the memoir by wishing that all Iraqis who were “obliged to leave would be able to return to a free and democratic Iraq where all communities and citizens of different religions could coexist in tolerance and equality.” Living through wars, revolutions, and a dictatorial regime that rendered hellish the situation of all Iraqis, but especially of Jews, existing as they did under the unrelenting suspicion of disloyalty, the Hakham’s family, in sum, embodies the story of a Mesopotamian community fragmented and diasporized.

In the wake of their exodus from Iraq and the shock of arrival in Israel, Iraqi Jews along with Middle Eastern Jews more generally, experienced exclusion, rejection, and otherization as Orientals, in a place that had been viewed at the least as a refuge. The realization of unbelonging could be glimpsed in the lament: “In Iraq we were Jews, in Israel we are Arabs.” The same year of the Hakham’s death in Baghdad coincided with the founding of the Black Panther movement which protested the discrimination of the Mizrahim in Israel. Indeed, for decades after the tasqit, Iraqi Jews often gave expression to their frustrated sense of betrayal by both Iraq and Israel. They invoked the rumors about the (still disputed) placing of bombs in synagogues and the secretive deal between the Iraqi and Israeli governments under the auspices of the British. They also spoke of both countries as benefitting materially from their departure—Iraq, from their property left behind, and Israel, from turning them into cheap labor. The phrase “ba‘ona” -“they sold us out”- gave expression to an embittered sense of a no-exit situation, from a pre-departure fear of persecution if they were to remain in Iraq to a post-arrival encounter with Euro-Israeli Orientalist attitudes. Such a post-tasqit sentiment of being doubly out-of-place was hardly in tune with the official narrative of rescuing Jews from their perennial Muslim oppressors, but it did turn the Jewish-Iraqi exodus into a tale of a scapegoat sacrificed on the altar of the Arab/Israeli conflict.