The Iraqi government has cracked down on participants in a conference which called for the normalisation of ties between Baghdad and Tel Aviv. Attended by political, business and community leaders in Erbil – the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan – the conference was organised by the Centre for Peace Communications, a conservative American think tank.
Normalisation of a sordid situation
What could be wrong about establishing connections between Israel and its Arab neighbours, such as Iraq? Surely the Abraham accords – the recent peace deals struck between Tel Aviv and several Arab capitals – are a positive development? Behind the cynical deployment of promoting cultural understanding between Muslims and Jews, Tel Aviv is pursuing a calculated, strategic goal of furthering its own economic and military interests.
In fact, Tel Aviv has long practiced the cynical manipulation of the stories of Jewish communities in Arab nations, to promote support for the narrow settler-colonial policies of Zionism. By alleging that Arab nations – in the late 40s and early 50s – engaged in a systematic policy of expelling their Jewish minority populations – Tel Aviv hopes to rebalance the moral calculus, and distract from its own ethnic cleansing of Palestine in the 1940s, and in subsequent settlement expansion.
The subject of the dispossession of the Palestinians by the Zionist movement – its ‘original sin’, so to speak – is a sensitive issue for Tel Aviv. Countering attempts by Palestinians, and their supporters, from exposing the criminal policies of the Zionist parties requires the cynical and selective deployment of sympathy. The story of Iraq’s Jewish community, and the complex, multi-factorial causes of their flight from Iraq, have been twisted and oversimplified into a falsely slanderous portrayal of Iraq, and Arab societies generally, of being hatefully antisemitic.
The Iraqi Jewish community – victims of ruthless geopolitics
The Iraqi Jewish community had historical connections and roots in Iraq, going back to Mesopotamia. Iraqi Jews built economically and culturally successful communities when Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire. Britain, which acquired Iraq as a mandate colony after the defeat of the Ottoman Turkish empire in 1920, maintained cordial relations with Iraq’s – and particularly Baghdad’s – prosperous Jews. The latter had successfully integrated into Arabic-majority Iraq.
The Baghdadi Jewish community, having had special protected status as a non-Muslim minority under the Ottoman Turkish authority, appealed to the British for similar recognition. Britain, eager to put down Iraqi nationalist revolts in its new colony, shrewdly appealed to Baghdad’s Jews. While employing their commercial prosperity and administrative skills, the British authorities made sure that the Jewish community did not grow too powerful.
Britain supported the Zionist movement’s drive to colonise Palestine – from 1917 onwards. There was hardly a mass exodus of Iraqi Jews to the kibbutzim of Palestine. The Baghdadi Jews were assimilated, occupying crucial positions in the administration of British authority in the nation, and were indifferent to the Zionist project.
By the time World War 2 began, the only multiconfessional political formation in Iraq was the Communist party. Pro-German factions in the Iraqi army cunningly appealed to Iraqi nationalism, hoping to establish a pro-Nazi regime in the nation. However, the troubles of those times passed, and the Iraqi Jewish community thrived.
It was the 1948 Zionist colonisation of Palestine, and the Iraqi military’s incompetent performance on the battlefield, which brought sectarian polarisation to a head. The close identification of the Jewish community with the British-backed Iraqi monarchy made them convenient targets for anticolonial sentiment. As much as Iraq’s Jews protested that they were loyal citizens, and repudiated Zionism, the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Said regarded them as a potential fifth column.
The new Zionist government in Tel Aviv claimed to speak for Jews worldwide, and its agents did their utmost to increase tensions between the Iraqi government and the Baghdadi Jewish community. Encouraging the latter to emigrate was the intended goal of the Zionist movement; exploiting internal Iraqi problems would create enough of an external push-factor to incite Iraqi Jewish emigration.
Zionist operatives, active inside Iraq, organised the bombings of cafes, synagogues and areas that Iraqi Jews frequented, increasing sectarian tensions. The government, under British and American pressure, passed a denaturalisation law in 1950, allowing those Iraqi Jews who renounced their citizenship to emigrate.
Nuri al-Said was Britain’s right-hand man in Iraq; dedicated to maintaining the British-backed monarchy in the country. Facing this destabilising campaign by Zionist agents, he relented and allowed thousands of Iraqi Jews to leave. Was he incapable of providing a political programme to unite Iraq’s various ethnicities? Yes. Was he a vicious antisemite, out on a Hitlerian frenzy to eliminate every Jewish person in sight? No, he was not.
The evacuation of Iraqi Jews, presented by Tel Aviv as an ‘in-gathering of the exiles’, was actually the uprooting of an ancient and established community. The Israeli forces, throughout 1947-48, acquired territories outside those allotted by the UN partition plan – extra space, especially ethnically cleansed areas, require filling by extra numbers of people.
The misleading characterisation of the Israel/Palestine conflict as resulting from ‘ancient hatreds between Muslims and Jews’ only serves to disguise the original guilt of the Zionist movement; the dispossession of the Palestinians. Do not use the claim of ‘cultural understanding’ or ‘religious tolerance’ to mask economic and political objectives.