Iraq rejects moves to begin ties with the Israeli state

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.

The Lost Cause myth – a long running disinformation campaign to rehabilitate white supremacy

In September this year, the 12-tonne statue of Confederate general and racist traitor, Robert E Lee, in Richmond Virginia, was taken down by the authorities. In its place, a statue commemorating the emancipation of slaves was erected. This measure, undertaken by the Virginia state government, reignited a debate about memorialising the Confederacy, and the persistent myth of the Lost Cause.

Let’s examine why this is not only a historical issue, but compellingly relevant for today’s politics.

The Lost Cause, a propaganda campaign developed over several decades after the end of the Civil War, downplays the importance of slavery and racism in driving the Southern states to secede. Instead, the partisans of Lost Cause mythology posit several, seemingly legitimate reasons for secession – states rights, preserving the ‘Southern way of life’, and hostility to ostensibly greedy Northern interests. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), a pressure group formed after the Civil War, promoted public activities to rehabilitate the Confederacy.

By denying the role of slavery – and its aggressive promotion by the slave owning states – the Lost Cause myth absolves the Confederacy of its racism, and recasts the Southern states as historical patriots. The Lost Cause – advocated by ex-Confederate generals and soldiers – is a counter factual reading of history, removing the stain of white supremacy from the Confederate cause.

Fighting for ‘states rights’ against a supposedly overbearing federal authority sounds like a ‘noble’ motivation. Fighting for the expansion of slavery to benefit white Southern landowners and politicians sounds more materialistic in intent.

The naming of streets, statues, military bases and public spaces after Confederate generals is not a matter of simply adhering to historical veracity. They are public tributes to segregationist traitors and slave-owning racists, and promote the claim that white supremacist ideology is something to be normalised. After the Civil War, Confederate apologists worked tirelessly to deny the expressly stated intention of the secessionist states – slavery, and the white supremacy upon which it was based.

Repurposing the Confederate cause as one of defending ‘cultural heritage’ has a cynical and perverse consequence – uniting whites from the Southern and Northern states into one racialised block against the African American community. Disguising the role of the Southern landowning aristocratic class in instigating the Civil War serves to break down interethnic bonds between poor whites and black Americans.

The UDC, and similar Confederate advocacy organisations, monitored school textbooks and evaluated the history sections, ensuring that a Southern-sympathetic point of view was included. As the decades after the end of the Civil War proceeded, and the veterans of that conflict passed on, a concerted effort was made to ensure that succeeding generations learned the repackaged Lost Cause myth of the Civil War.

From the 1880s onwards, numerous projects to erect statues to Confederate generals were undertaken. As Reconstruction was wound back, new ways of enforcing racial segregation were explored – resulting in extensive Jim Crow legislation. Public rallies, children’s activities, ceremonies honouring the bravery of Southern soldiers, renaming military bases after Confederate generals – and the growing white supremacist vigilante insurgency by the KKK – all these events helped to reintegrate the Confederate cause into the public consciousness.

The Lost Cause advocates have never tired of recycling an old falsehood – the myth of the loyal slave. While slave owning was downplayed by neo-Confederates, the pernicious distortion of the happy black slave has been promoted in books and films. Indeed, the Lost Cause contends that these ‘loyal slaves’ even took up arms for the Confederacy. Former US President Donald Trump recycled this myth in his frequent outbursts defending the old South.

That claim is interesting, because the Confederacy – even when the tide of the Civil War turned against the South – the ‘happy slaves’ were never armed by the ‘non racist’ slave owners. In fact, the Southern aristocratic class were constantly terrified of slave uprisings, escapes and rebellions. This unending anxiety was not confined to the Confederacy; throughout the slave owning colonies in the Americas and the Caribbean, slave owners were terrified of the growing number of – and possible uprisings by – the African slaves.

The Emancipation proclamation only heightened the fears of the Confederate slave owners that the erstwhile slaves would escape to the North for freedom – which they did. Black persons were employed by the Confederate armies – as servants. Armed black slaves was the last thing the Confederacy wanted; a situation which undermines the claim that racism was not a factor in secession.

Are we being too harsh, with the benefit of hindsight, to judge our forebears and their actions? In our everyday world, that makes sense. However, Confederate statues were not constructed as public artefacts to commemorate history. They were erected as part of a toxic campaign of white nationalist resentment, not for any innocuous cause of states rights. By removing these memorials to white supremacy, we can see the racist history of American capitalism more clearly.