By Avi Shlaim
Review by Gillian Mosely
“The trouble with nationalism is that it stops us thinking.” The source of this piece of profound wisdom, imparted on page two of Avi Shlaim’s new book, Memoirs of an Arab Jew, is Marilyn Monroe. As the book unfolds, it continues to offer a distillation of the relationship between Zionism and the historic Jewish diaspora, which is equally acute. Before I go on, I need to confess to being a huge fan of Avi Shlaim, and will continue by saying that this is a wonderful, if unexpected, book.
Part heart-wrenching memoir, part historical masterwork, it divides into three sections denoting Avi Shlaim’s early life: Baghdad, Ramat Gan in Israel, and London. Whether intentional or not, the book’s emphasis on his early life in Baghdad, which takes up more than half of the book, is marked. Here, Avi, or Abi as he was called there, interweaves his family history and his own early life, with the sharp historical context and analysis that will be familiar to fans of his other books.
I come from a mixed Ashkenazi-Sephardi background in which the Sephardi side of my family was so exalted in Britain and the U.S. that the Ashkenazi side was, for years, relegated as less than. So, when my grannie took me to Jerusalem for the first time, age 13, for the bar mitzvah of the grandson of my godfather, Haham Solomon Gaon, I was shocked. In Israel, it was, and to some extent still is the case, that the Sephardim (and other non-northern European Jews) are the ones looked down upon. I’m glad to say that things have changed a bit since then, but not fully.
Avi Shlaim comes from an upper middle class background and was raised, until his move to Israel, with servants and a level of privilege and abundance that disappeared overnight. I found this portion of the book compelling, as their daily lives and important milestones unfold. But Avi makes no bones about contextualizing this geopolitically, sometimes with explosive and unique evidence. Let me explain, trying not to put in too many spoilers.
Arab Jews, a term which has mostly been eradicated, had been living across the Middle East for several thousand years. They were better integrated, experiencing fewer instances of severe discrimination or indeed pogroms than in Russia and northern/eastern Europe. In the book, Avi discusses this extensively, because propagandists have been successful at suggesting that Jews in the Middle East were also very much discriminated against and were saved by being able to migrate to Israel post 1948. This was labelled ‘the Jewish NAKBA’ in which 850,000 were exiled to Israel.
The book picks apart this ‘official version’ comprehensively, including the false narrative created by the above moniker. It does so using both the personal circumstances and experiences of the Shlaims and their wider family as well as primary evidence from official documentation, the most explosive of which has just been uncovered. These two elements in combination build an evocative picture of the lives of the upper echelons of Baghdadi Jewish society during the decades leading up to the early 1950s when most Jews left Iraq. It also threads in strands about other levels of Jewish society there.
It’s a largely peaceful and joyous picture and one which comes to feel like halcyon days before the fall. For anyone interested in the experience of Iraqi Jews generally, and, within the context of the burgeoning Zionist state, this book is a must. Avi sticks to his own Iraqi Jewish narrative, but it doesn’t feel like a leap, while we are reading about his life and family background, to transpose the experiences of Iraqi Jews to other Middle Eastern countries. Spoiler alert, Avi fully disputes the official story of the exodus of Iraqi Arab Jews, with Zionists their saviours and Israel their refuge. Indeed, for both his grandmothers who moved with him Baghdad was Jana mal Allah (the Garden of Eden,) while Israel was the land of exile.
I’ve done my best not to include spoilers, but other reviews have raised the most explosive new evidence revealed in this book. Efforts in 1951 to entice Iraqi Jews to make Aliyah drew few. Just 126 had registered by April 7. But by the end of that year, 110,00 had registered following five bombings in Baghdad which shook the community and led to a torrent of emigration. This ultimately included Avi’s own family. What Avi Shlaim has uncovered is evidence that at least three of these bombings were perpetrated by Iraqi Zionists. Two were charged, and a large cache of weapons found at their base. I will let that sink in and leave this section of the book here.
I saw Avi at his book launch where I cadged a signed copy of the book, and he pointed me to the contrast between the photographs of him as a youngster. One was from Iraq, where he was dressed in a white shirt, tie, and waistcoat, while the other was taken in Israel, where he’s wearing a simple and rather dull shirt. Despite the obvious upside of taking in rich Iraqi Jews, the Zionist narrative painted them as charity cases who owed a huge debt of gratitude to the Israeli state.
Accordingly, as the family moved to Israel their fortunes fell in every way imaginable, putting a strain on the mental health of numerous members of the family, as well as on their ability to survive materially. Such personal experiences are both riveting and tragic to read about.
Again, I do not want to give away more spoilers, but do also want to reflect on Avi’s early experience in the Israeli educational system, which, had it continued, would have deprived historical academics in his arena of one of their brightest minds. As a ‘seker’ his chances of doing well educationally were a priori slimmer than for an Ashkenazi child. His mother was wily enough to see this and arranged to have her son sent to Britain, where his latent academic talents were fostered by a handful of teachers. Grateful for the opportunity and its role in laying the groundwork for his academic career, Avi nevertheless spent these early years in Britain feeling foreign, yet again.
His sisters did not receive the same educational opportunities, and throughout the book Avi comments on issues like baked in sexism with sharp analysis and no sugar-coating. This leaves the reader with an unvarnished and quite raw family portrait. And for anyone who disputes the effects of world events on small family units we are also left in no doubt that with Zionism the lives of millions were altered forever, and not for the good.
On a lighter note, I want to leave you with one piece of information about Avi’s time serving in the IDF. His nom de guerre was ‘Mademoiselle Fifi.’ To find out why, you will need to read this wonderful, highly engaging and very recommended book.