Conference Asks: Iraqi Israeli, Arab Jew or Mizrahi Jew?

Tel Aviv University holds conference on integration and culture of Iraqi Jews who immigrated to Israel.

Vered Lee
Vered Lee
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Vered Lee
Vered Lee

A violin wailed in one of the auditoriums on the Tel Aviv University campus. Violinist Yair Dalal was demonstrating the creative powers of Salah and Daoud al-Kuwaiti, two brothers considered to be among Iraq's greatest musicians. With immense skill and delicacy, Dalal mastered the notes, careful not to bring the emotional audience to tears.

His appearance was part of the conference on Iraqi Jews at Tel Aviv University this month. "Recently, a conference on Ashkenazi Jews was convened at Beit Berl College and, a few years ago, another conference focused on the 'Yekkes' [German Jews], so I asked myself, why not have an academic conference on Iraqi Jews," says Dr. Uri Cohen of Tel Aviv University's Chaim Weizmann Institute for the Study of Zionism and Israel.

"This is a community that immigrated to Israel in the 1950s, which then numbered 130,000 people. The time has come to study how the members of that community have integrated into Israeli society and to look at their cultural roots and their identity," he says.

"This is the first time that academe has seriously considered Iraqi Jews and has held a conference on them," notes Prof. Sasson Somekh with immense satisfaction. He is a Tel Aviv University professor emeritus of Arabic literature and the chair of the academic committee that organized the conference.

"Usually, such events take place at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, not in an academic forum. I think that this sort of conference belongs on the campus of a university, which does not have to worry about being censored and which does not have to be politically correct in its thinking; an academic setting gives the opportunity to develop a profound, critical discourse."

Scholars in a variety of fields - including sociology, history and literature - were invited to attend.

"Undoubtedly, this is the first time that academe is looking at the works of Iraqi Jews written in Arabic and Hebrew with the same kind of serious interest and depth it displays toward, for instance, something written by Amos Oz," says Somekh.

Dr. Esther Meir-Glitzenstein, a lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev's history department who specializes in Iraqi Jewry, says the importance of the conference lies in how it has fractured the Mizrahi-Ashkenazi dichotomy and its willingness to go beyond the facile, all-inclusive definition of "Mizrahim" (Jews of Middle Eastern descent).

"When you take a close look at such rubrics as socioeconomic situation, place of residence, level of schooling and level of income, you discover that Iraqi Jews managed, within a decade of their arrival in Israel, to position themselves in and integrate into the the middle class," she adds.

"I asked myself," recalls Meir-Glitzenstein, "what sort of explanation can be found for the unique positioning of Iraqi Jews in the middle class during the first decade of Israel's existence, whereas other Sephardi Jews were channeled into lower social strata. Gradually, it became clear to me that Iraqi Jews, although they were discriminated against and were victims of racial prejudice, had the human capital needed to make the transition successfully.

"In Iraq, they received a modern education in schools established by the Jewish community in the second half of the 19th century. In Israel, the young Zionist Communist leaders of the Iraqi Jewish community organized demonstrations during the early 1950s to demand housing rights and better treatment for their community. The Iraqi Jews were not prepared to move to the periphery, and instead insisted on living in the greater Tel Aviv area."

She adds that Iraqi Jews attained their goal "because in the 1950s, the Israeli establishment was not yet sufficiently organized. However, only a few years later, when Jews immigrated to Israel from Morocco and Yemen, the regime sent them to found development towns, and the establishment was stronger than the immigrants. The immigrants who arrived after the Iraqi Jews were pushed to the periphery because they were not strong enough to resist."

For six years, Idit Sharoni-Pinhas, curator of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, gathered textiles and embroideries, which she used to weave the story of the social changes that Jewish women experienced in Iraq.

"Their voice was not allowed to be heard; nonetheless, it did break through in the embroideries, and it reflected the transition from a conservative to a modern society," she says.

The conference sessions were well-attended by people whose Iraqi Arabic was peppered with Hebrew words and who very much enjoyed the lectures. It was obvious that most of the audience, like most of the lecturers, were themselves Iraqi Jews.

"I read Iraqi literature but I feel that there is no in-depth research on Iraqi Arab Jewish culture and that this subject is not even given serious consideration," says Orna Mashiach, 36. "That is why I was so happy when I heard about this conference."

One of the participants was Nurit Tzadok, 65, who came with her husband, 75, who immigrated to Israel from Yemen. "I arrived in Israel at age 8 from Iraq," she recalls. "I am now learning about Iraqi Jewry and I am full of admiration for that community and for those who write about it. Recently, I began learning belly dancing, and I am now interested in Iraqi Jewish songs as well.

"Like all the children of Iraqi immigrants, I went through the stage of silencing the radio when my father tried to hear Arabic music at home. Like them, I also felt ashamed for a long while of being Iraqi. But today, I am happy to report that I am proud of my Iraqi heritage."

"We want to publish the lectures in a book," says Prof. Somekh, who is very pleased that the conference was a success. "We are weighing the idea of holding the conference every two years so that research on the subject will get into the bones of the academic community. That way, there will not be the feeling that this gathering will have no follow-up and that it was organized merely out of respect for Iraqi Jews and out of a desire to demonstrate that, like Jews from other countries, they are also a nice bunch of people."

The stormiest debate arose when most of the lecturers objected to the definition "Arab Jew." This term, commonly used by the members of the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition and Sephardi Jewish intellectuals, angered many of the conference participants.

"Those who proclaim themselves 'Arab Jews' rather than Jews with an Arab background are doing so to be fashionable and to express a political stance," says Prof. Somekh. "I believe that there is a tendency to use the term 'Arab Jew' without thinking deeply enough about what it really means. For me, an Arab Jew is someone who was born into an Arabic-speaking Jewish family, who is a member of an Arabic-speaking Jewish community, who lives in an Arab-Muslim society and who is familiar with literary Arabic, which is the basis of Arab culture. By such criteria, everyone using the term 'Arab Jew' is doing so incorrectly, because they never learned Arabic, never spoke Arabic and cannot read Arabic."

University of Haifa professor Reuven Snir, who teaches in the Department of Arabic Language and Literature, emphasized in his lecture that the Jews who wrote literary works in Arabic in the early 20th century felt no need to declare themselves Arabs.

"Dudi Busi, an intellectual who calls himself an Arab Jew, admits in the fine print of the introduction to his 'A Noble Savage' (Pere Atzil) that he was inspired by Sasson Somekh's book, 'Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew,'" he said. "That statement reinforces the feeling that an artificial Arab Jewish identity was created among intellectuals with a revolutionary turn of mind who want to weaken the Zionist foundations of Israeli society and who are protesting against its dominant Ashkenazi component."

Is there an Iraqi-Israeli identity? Author Sami Michael says that 99 percent of the identities on the face of this planet are imposed identities.

"I hear from all sides that I am an Iraqi and therefore I accept this label," he told his audience with a laugh. "Mind you, I really am an Iraqi anyway."

Michael says it is regrettable that Israeli society has turned the Iraqi Jewish collective memory into a sweet, sticky bit of nostalgia, and failed to adopt the unique wisdom that characterized the Jewish community in Iraq: The community transformed itself into an aristocracy in Iraq by virtue of its ability to negotiate with the Arab society in which it resided.

"That is the way to achieve stunning results. Results that are achieved not with a gun or with warfare, but rather through negotiations with the Arabs," he says.

University of Haifa sociology professor Sammy Smooha said, "There is an Iraqi Israeli identity, but that is not the important point. The principal identity competing with our country of origin is still the Sephardi Jewish identity. And what determines the kind of life you lead and your fate is still the division of Israeli Jewish society into Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, or Sephardim.

"The social rift will only grow deeper and more severe," he said. "In Israel, when people make it in society, they lose their identity, which is what happened to the Iraqi Jews."

Smooha also expressed his objection to calling "Iraqi Jews" "Arab Jews," and generated loud applause when he proclaimed, "This term does not hold water. It is absolutely not a parallel to 'Arab Christian'; a Jew by religion cannot be part of the Arab nation or a member of the Arabic faith."

Prof. Haviva Pedaya is a poet who teaches Judaism and culture in the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev's Department of Jewish History. She made the following point: "The first thing that happens in a situation of oppression is that you declare that everyone is the same, in other words, that everyone is a Mizrahi or Sephardi Jew. The original approach of the Iraqi Jewish identity, as we see it expressed on this podium, is that it expressed several very different voices and channels. And it is impossible to say which is more Iraqi than the other."

Gradually, the discussion shifted to what the audience had to say, and one person suggested this solution to the Iraqi-Jewish-Arab-Israeli conflict: "I always say that I am not Iraqi, but that I am from Iraq." Another person got up and requested the floor: "I was born in Prague," he said with a smile. "But I must admit that, after two days of this conference on Iraqi Jews, I myself feel a longing for Baghdad."

The Israeli-born children of the Iraqi Jewish immigrants naturally have no memory of Baghdad, but instead create an imaginary Baghdad from the fragments of memory that they have gleaned from their parents. These fragments are, in turn, based on the literary works written by immigrant authors who have shaped our identity.

Like these children of immigrants, I swam with the immigrant authors in the Tigris River whose sources are literary, wandered through Baghdad's alleyways, drank coffee in the coffee shops along the river's banks, and saw the city from the roofs of Baghdad's houses. For a brief moment, in the lively discourse at the conference, a discourse that was so full of love and longing, I caught glimpses of the house of my childhood, the home that disintegrated with the death of my parents, who had immigrated to Israel from Iraq.

For a few seconds, its walls once more joined together and my parents again hugged me. The Iraqi Arabic, which they used whenever they spoke to me (while I always replied in Hebrew), echoed from that house once more. How could I explain all this to the woman who asked me how I was connected to this conference and why I was covering it for Haaretz. She gave me an embarrassed smile as she apologized for not recognizing that I myself was also an Iraqi and she asked me why my surname was Lee and why I was crying.



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