Pursuing Normalization With Iraq, Israeli Digital Diplomacy Plays the Heritage Card

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The "normalization" train illustration that appeared on the "Israel in the Iraqi Dialect" Facebook page. The waving Iraqi on the platform is saying "Take me with you."
The "normalization" train illustration that appeared on the "Israel in the Iraqi Dialect" Facebook page. The waving Iraqi on the platform is saying "Take me with you." Credit: Nimrod Reshef
Jonathan Shamir
Jonathan Shamir

The Israeli government has often faced criticism for its failure to include Arabic on official signage and websites, but there’s one place it’s increasingly not shy of using it: social media.

In 2011, Israel’s Foreign Ministry launched “Israel Speaks Arabic,” an online destination that has since amassed 422,000 followers on Twitter and 2.8 million followers on Facebook. Buoyed by its success with this modern-day influence campaign, where flyers are replaced by gifs and viral videos, in 2013 it launched “Israel in the Gulf,” which largely focused on shared interests in the geopolitical and economic arenas between Israel and Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

However, a new site launched by the ministry in 2018, “Israel in the Iraqi Dialect,” struck a completely different tone. 

Linda Menuhin, the page administrator and an Arabic digital media consultant at the ministry, who was herself born in Baghdad in 1950, told Haaretz that the initiative emerged after positive responses from Iraqis to the “Israel Speaks Arabic” page. 

Iraqis were actually the second-largest group to use the page and bucked the trend of skeptical and even abusive responses from citizens of other Arab states, she says. Menuhin also cites a survey issued by the group soon after its launch claiming that 43 percent of Iraqis wanted to recognize Israel. She claims the figure would be even higher today. 

Although hostility toward Israel remains on the “Israel in the Iraqi Dialect” page, Menuhin’s claims are corroborated elsewhere: the Arab Barometer, which conducts some of the biggest public opinion surveys in the Middle East, found in 2019 that while 79 percent of Lebanese people perceived Israel as their greatest enemy, only 21 percent of Iraqis shared that sentiment – one of the lowest percentages of all the Arab states. 

Screenshots of the social media accounts for Israel in the Iraqi Dialect, right, Israel Speaks Arabic, top left, and Israel in the Gulf. Credit: Screenshots from Foreign Ministry Facebook/Twitter accounts

Much of this is rooted in Iraq’s rich Jewish history and what that represents to the people of Iraq. Nostalgia for the Jewish community, Menuhin explains, is a proxy for the stability and prosperity of Iraq’s golden age in the first half of the 20th century – in contrast to the modern reality of a country beset by unrelenting troubles, from decades of brutal rule under Saddam Hussein and U.S. occupation to sectarian civil war and ISIS. 

Although decades have elapsed since the Jewish community left Iraq en masse following the formation of the State of Israel in 1948, Jewish memories of Baghdad – some acquired second- or even thirdhand – are still vivid. 

Baghdad was almost a third Jewish at its peak in the early 20th century, and the community’s 2,500-year-long traditions have doggedly persisted in the years since aliyah to Israel. Indeed, a visit to neighborhoods in cities like Ramat Gan and Or Yehuda reveals remnants of Baghdad or Basra. This, at least, is the story being presented by the Iraqi page on social media, in a bid to woo wary Iraqis.

Don’t mention the Palestinians

Even though Israel recently normalized relations with Sudan and Morocco, in addition to last summer’s accords with the UAE and Bahrain, the common thinking is that there’s little love shared between the populations (perhaps with the exception of the UAE).

“Iraq is the opposite,” Menuhin tells Haaretz. “The peace we’re trying to achieve is bottom-up: There’s a genuine warmth and connection between the two populations,” and this has been accelerated by Israel’s social media campaigns, she says.    

Linda Menuhin. “The peace we’re trying to achieve is bottom-up: There’s a genuine warmth and connection between the two populations,” she says.Credit: Tali Mayer

The rise of social media, and the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, opened up new channels of communication between the peoples, whose states technically remain in a state of war. Absent diplomatic relations, people sought to reconnect with their old friends and neighbors: Facebook groups such as the 72,000-strong Hebrew-language page “Meshamrim et HaSafa HaIraqit” (“Preserving the Iraqi Language”), which focuses mainly on Iraqi identity among Israelis, or the Iraqi Jewish Friendship Society, which has 12,000 members conversing in Arabic, to WhatsApp exchanges and groups, have proved the perfect mediums. 

Menuhin says this shift “couldn’t have been realized without technology,” and that the posts of her groups helped “expose the truth about Israel.” 

Ronen Zeidel, an Iraq specialist at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, is one of a few prominent figures who is pursuing these relations for his own ends. “Iraqi people add me on Facebook almost every day, and there’s some sort of conversation opening up. I have developed some very good friends through this,” he tells Haaretz. 

The state sought to capitalize on this opportunity, and “Israel in the Iraqi Dialect” now has almost half a million followers on Facebook. Most of the credit for this rests with Menuhin.

Although she is employed by the ministry, she is far removed from some of Israel’s other faces in the Arab world. As  someone who lived in Baghdad until the 1970s and attended university there, she is largely able to dispel the image that this is merely state propaganda and online hasbara.

Indeed, one of the most frequently recurring words in the comments section when Menuhin personally appears on a page is “aslia” – meaning authentic or original in Arabic. “We’re bringing our truth, and this is effective,” Menuhin says.  

Dudu Tassa, an Israeli rock star of Iraqi decent. performing in Israel in 2019. A safer subject than the occupation on the Israel in Iraqi-Arabic Facebook page.Credit: Orit Pnini

Everything from the music of Israeli rock star Dudu Tassa to recipes for red kubbeh soup, Iraqi jokes and phrases are shared, to an almost unanimously positive response. However, this is probably because most of the content posted is apolitical in nature. 

In general, the page attempts to pair Iraqi Jews and their traditions with Israel itself. One of the page’s most popular posts, exceeding 24,000 likes, is a video of Basra-born Israeli Sami Khedourie Helaly discussing, in perfect Arabic, one of the most gruesome chapters in Iraq’s Jewish history: the 1969 Baghdad hangings when nine Jewish “spies” were publicly hanged, including Helaly’s 21-year-old brother, Naim. The post received an outpouring of sympathy, support and apologies, accompanied  by a deep longing for Iraq’s better days.

A post about the 1969 Baghdad hangings on Israel in the Iraqi Dialect.

Nevertheless, many still adamantly reject this coupling. One Iraqi wrote that Zionism was responsible for tearing Iraq’s multicultural fabric apart. Another said he supports the renaturalization of Jews, but this was different to establishing bilateral relations between Iraq and Israel. Zeidel concurs. “Not every Iraqi makes the leap to Israel – it’s still taboo overall,” he says.

Until the Abraham Accords were signed last summer, Menuhin’s posts generally steered clear of political or controversial subjects, with the topic of Palestine and occupation virtually nonexistent on the page. Overall, the participating Iraqis were obliging and more interested in gleaning an insight into the parallel world of Iraqis in Israel. 

A June 2019 post celebrating 150,000 likes on the page involved a poll asking whether they viewed Israel through “politics’’ or through “society and science.” Nearly 90 percent opted for the latter. 

Indeed, Iraqis and Israelis have held secret meetings in third countries in recent years to cement these cultural ties – and social media has proved instrumental in making those virtual links real. Menuhin runs a group (independent of her work for the government) called Iraqi Tour in Israel, which she launched in September 2018 and brings Iraqis with second passports on visits to Israel. 

The page has over 10,000 followers and brought a couple of delegations to Israel before the coronavirus temporarily halted the project last year. Menuhin is hoping the group could ultimately work in a similar way to Birthright’s heritage trips for Diaspora Jews. 

A man entering the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda, April 2018. Credit: AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Lily Shor, director of external relations and events at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Museum in the central Israel city of Or Yehuda, told Haaretz that “hundreds” of non-Jewish Iraqis who reside in another country have visited the museum since 2015, arriving in Israel using their second passports.

The ‘normalization train’

As much as Menuhin has tried to sidestep politics on the “Israel in the Iraqi Dialect” page, it has always lingered in the background. Recently, though, it has taken a starring role. Last November, the Foreign Ministry sent a video showing a “normalization train” to its Facebook followers in Iraq. The animation depicted the five Arab countries that had established formal diplomatic relations with Israel at that point – Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan – waving to Iraqis on the platform. The ministry posed a question, amid what it claimed were calls in the Iraqi media to join the new regional order: what benefits do you see in normalizing relations with Israel? 

The post received over 10,000 likes and just under 10,000 comments within a week. Menuhin says the post reached over 6 million people and evoked “genuine debate.” But the division is clear when you browse through the thousands of comments: Some speak of the economic benefits of establishing relations with Israel and of the fatigue of endless animosity. Others say that abandoning the Palestinian cause amounts to a relinquishing of dignity. Regardless, Iraqis do appear to be engaging with the post: 15 percent of Iraqis on the page interacted with it, compared to 3 percent of users on the page in general.

Iraqi boys watching as a U.S. soldier secures an area during a military patrol in central Baghdad, August 29, 2008.Credit: REUTERS

Menuhin does not shy away from admitting that normalization represents a tipping point for the page, and that political and state messaging has been ramped up – resulting in far more debate. The wave of normalization in the past several months has also “sharpened the desire” of Iraqis to join too, she claims. “We have received a deluge of messages and comments since. There’s a buzz in the region – of course it influences the Iraqis,” she says. 

However, there’s also been a flip side, with those opposing any ties or recognition of Israel becoming more motivated to get involved. “Since the deals [with the UAE and Bahrain], there has been much more hatred too,” she admits. 

That polarization may be more palpable than ever on the Facebook page – but it’s not just about Israel. If Israelis can play politics, so too can the Iraqis. A lot of pro-Israel sentiment being expressed is seemingly a vehicle for combating Iranian influence in their country: “Not from the love of Mordecai, but from the hatred of Haman,” as Zeidel puts it.  

The page’s shifting tone has not gone unnoticed by users. One Iraqi calls out the page for its “daily” posts “only on normalization with Iraq,” before rejecting any deal with Israel. And while there are some positive responses to the “normalization train,” many others decry the “treachery train” and “train of humiliation and shame.” Still others describe normalization as “a distant Zionist dream.” 

According to Menuhin, more Iraqis are sending messages of support to the page in private than ever before, and she says her inbox “is full of requests and opinions, but it has moved more underground.”

‘Atmosphere of fear’

While the normalization deals may be perceived as a watershed moment by many, both Menuhin and Zeidel point to a different shift in recent history: the Iraqi protests of October 2019, which created a power vacuum and allowed pro-Iranian militias to increase their influence in the streets. This has made any contact with Israelis, however innocuous, “life-threatening,” according to Zeidel.

Iraqi police firing teargas at protesters during a demonstration against state corruption, failing public services and unemployment in Baghdad, October 2, 2019.Credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP

Menuhin adds: “There’s an atmosphere of fear, and that has only increased – and this extends to social media too.” The levels of intimidation also increased following an alleged Israeli bombing of Iraq’s al-Shuhada military base in 2019.

With the political situation in Iraq in decline, this particular normalization train may have been stopped in its tracks. “It’s getting more and more dangerous,” Zeidel says, “and some people have paid with their lives.” After the blossoming of contacts in recent years thanks to social media, he now observes a “very significant withdrawal” from the Iraq side and says “there’s almost no room for cooperation nowadays.”

The “Israel in the Iraqi Dialect” page continues with its mission, though, and only seems to be expanding. Yet when you study the latest comments, another trend becomes clear: the despondence and desperation of Iraqis in light of their decades of difficulties. 

For instance, one Iraqi pondered why, unlike Jordan and Egypt – who share borders with Israel – or the UAE and Bahrain, with their oil wealth and technological capabilities, Israel would want anything to do with a country like Iraq. For Israel’s own sake, he concluded his post, “better for you to stay away.”

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