Self-styled Arab Jew Shimon Ballas Was the First Iraqi Israeli to Publish a Novel in Hebrew

Instead of becoming an Israeli Zionist, Ballas chose to remain faithful to the identity he defined as Arab-Jew – despite the fact that the Arab was seen in the country as inferior, as a stranger and an enemy

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Iraqi-born Israeli author Shimon Ballas, who passed away in October, 2019.
The late Iraqi-born Israeli author Shimon Ballas. His extreme opinions pushed him to the margins of the Hebrew literary landscape.Credit: Gila Ballas

In 1965, 14 years after immigrating to Israel from Iraq, Shimon Ballas published a ground-breaking article that predated general academic discussion in Israel about Mizrahi identity (i.e., that of Jews of North African or Middle Eastern origin) and framed it in colonialist terms. He sought to point out the connection between the efforts of the West to “civilize” its subjects by means of colonialist domination, and the attitude of the Ashkenazi establishment (of Jews of European origin) toward so-called Eastern Jews, in the country.

“If the leaders of the West tried to ‘civilize’ entire nations with the power of their colonial rule, such work in Israel is far more horrifying," he wrote, "and not only because coercion in itself is negative, but because Jews are trying to ‘civilize’ Jews. After all, they all share a single Jewish culture."

Born in Baghdad in 1930, Ballas immigrated to Israel with his mother and siblings. They were sent to live in the Majdal transit camp, in the seaside city of Ashkelon, where he witnessed how the authorities tried to take away the culture from which he had come, and to force him to become assimilated into local Ashkenazi culture.

“For some reason the responsible bodies in the country consider it their obligation to teach cultural values to masses of new immigrants, who are supposedly lacking culture. This mistaken approach reflects a basic misunderstanding of the concept of culture,” he wrote.

“The consensus was that the immigrants were like putty in their hands and their spiritual world could be shaped according to the patterns acceptable to the Ashkenazi establishment that absorbed them. In other words, merging means assimilation, as they understood it. In other words, giving up an innate identity for an acquired one.”

Iraqi Jews arriving in Israel in 1951, on their way to a transit camp.Credit: GPO

For his part, however, instead of becoming an Israeli Zionist, Ballas chose to remain faithful to the identity he defined as Arab-Jew – despite the fact that the Arab was seen in the country as inferior, as a stranger and an enemy. He said that as opposed to Ashkenazi Jews from Europe “who crossed the sea in order to reach Israel,” he only “moved from one place to another within the Middle East” and thus remained in an Arabic-speaking region.

“You can’t talk about merging without expression of a willingness to merge from both sides – from the veteran community and from the new community,” he claimed. “Any rapprochement takes place between two points. Any love is based on two people, at least. Merging, which is the next stage after rapprochement and love, cannot be demanded of one side only."

Before emigrating, Ballas had been a member of the Communist Party, which opposed the British occupation and demanded independence for Iraq. In Israel he also joined the local branch of the party. He wrote for the communist press in Arabic, and published stories in Al Jadid, the literary journal of the Communist Party, edited by Emile Habibi. Later he served as a correspondent for Arab affairs for the Hebrew-language communist newspaper Kol Ha’am. In 1960, after Stalin’s heinous crimes came to light, Ballas left the party.

Extreme opinions

Ballas was the first Iraqi Israeli to publish a novel in Hebrew. His book “Hama’abara” ("The Transit Camp") was published in 1964: It was a critical work, which described life in the transit camp in the early years of the state. He went on to publish another 15 books. He often dealt with the relationship between Mizrahi Jews and the Arab world, and leveled criticism at the attempt by Israeli culture to see itself as being Western European, while uprooting itself from its cultural-geographical context and thus ignoring a large proportion of the Israeli public and its roots.

Breaking into the literary world along with him in those years were luminaries including Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, later dubbed the founding writers of the "generation of the state.” But Ballas' extreme opinions pushed him to the margins of the Hebrew literary landscape.

“I saw that it was my duty as a member of the Arab culture to do everything I could to breach the curtain of foreignness that separates the Arab world from Israeli society," he once said. "Arabic is a basic component of our identity as human beings, and in that we are no different from the other nations in the region."

In 1970 he wrote a doctoral dissertation at the Sorbonne in Paris about how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is reflected in Arab literature. In addition, he also published dozens of articles and several research-oriented books. In 1974 he began to teach in the Department of Arab Language and Literature at the University of Haifa.

In recent years Ballas suffered from Alzheimer’s. He did not get to see the realization of his vision, which he described as follows: “Israel could be an independent country that becomes part of the Middle East, were it to withdraw from all the occupied territories, learn how to open up to the Mediterranean region and accept it and its culture. I regret only one thing, that I will probably not be able to see all that happening.”

He died on Rosh Hashanah and is survived by his wife, art scholar Prof. Gila Ballas, their daughter, artist Avivit Ballas Baranes, and a grandson.