“Cruel Zionism” in Action ‒ Book Review by Moshe Machover

10 August 1987

in Articles, Khamsin Bulletin 1

The story told by Abbas Shiblak in The Lure of Zion ‒ The case of the Iraqi Jews (Al Saqi Books, 1986, 177 pages) can be summarized briefly.

The Iraqi Jews, numbering some 150,000 in 1950, were the oldest Jewish community in the world, whose proud and sometimes glorious history stretched back uninterruptedly to the middle of the first millenium BC. It was there, in the Land of the Two Rivers, that the Babylonian Talmud ‒ the fundamental text of the Jewish religion as we know it ‒ was elaborated, compiled and codified during the first millenium AD.

Unlike many other Jewish communities, Iraq’s Jews were extremely well integrated in the culture, language and national life of their country; it was in the deepest and most genuine sense their homeland. They could truly be described as “Arab Jews”, unlike their co-religionists in Egypt and the Maghreb, to whom this description is not generally applicable. Their relations with the Muslim majority were on the whole very good. In modern times there was, it is true, one serious outbreak of anti-Jewish violence, the farhud of June 1941, when, during the suppression of the anti-British right-wing nationalist rebellion led by Rashid ‘Ali, popular frustration was diverted against the Jews, who were regarded (probably rightly) as tending to side with the British. About 100 Jews were killed and twice that number injured. However, this outbreak was an isolated exception.

It is not surprising, then, that Zionism had little support among Iraqi Jews, who saw no good reason to leave their homeland, where they had prospered so long. Nevertheless, in the course of a few months (March 1950 to July 1951) virtually the whole community were stampeded into flight and were airlifted directly to Israel.

How did this happen? It turns out that this is one of those rare cases in which a Conspiracy Theory is quite literally true. The series of bombs that exploded In Jewish café’s, synagogues and other institutions, terrorizing the Jews into flight, were planted by Israeli agents, who were implementing a policy known in Zionist circles by the apt name Cruel Zionism: “Zionism is destined to be sometimes cruel towards the [Jewish] diaspora, that is, when this is required for building up the Land [of lsrael]” (These words were spoken by Moshe Shertock, later Sharett, in 1935, during a debate among the Zionist leadership ‒ Quoted by Yigal Elam, An Introduction to Zionist History, Hebrew, Israel, nd. As far as l know, this is the earliest use of the term Cruel Zionism. Shiblak ‒ p. 123 ‒ attributes the term to Ben-Gurion, but gives no reference for this.)

The Jews had to be “saved”, whether they wanted it or not, and brought to Israel to replace the evicted Palestinian Arabs; and if there was not enough anti-Semitism to make them go, then the Zionists are quite capable of manufacturing some do-it -yourself provocations. The highest Iraqi authorities colluded in this sordid plot, partly out of stupid blindness, partly out of intimidation by the Zionist propaganda machine in the West, but mainly out of corrupt greed: they were simply bribed.

While the story is not new ‒ an allusion to it can be found, for example, in an article published in Khamsin (R. Shapiro, “Zionism and its Oriental Subjects“, Khamsin 5, p. 16),  Shiblak is, to the best of my knowledge, the first to provide detailed, authoritative and incontrovertible documentary evidence. His extremely well-written account tells a riveting and almost incredible tale; but it does so with great restraint and historiographic soundness, never going beyond what can be firmly substantiated.

His major documentary source is the files of the British Foreign Office, mainly correspondence between the FO and its representatives in the Middle East and elsewhere. To a much lesser extent, he uses documents from the Iraqi government archives. Peripheral material is provided by books published in Arabic, English and Hebrew. (The one remaining important source ‒ the Israeli archives ‒ was apparently inaccessible to him.)

His heavy reliance on FO documents is, in general, quite justified: in the period under consideration the British were still a major power in the Middle East, with eyes and ears everywhere. Iraq, though nominally independent, was closely controlled by them, and they were privy to whatever was going on behind the scenes there.

But occasionally this reliance is overdone by Shiblak, resulting in somewhat flawed scholarship: he is satisfied with quoting FO documents as sole evidence even where these are merely a secondary source reporting primary (non-FO) material that is itself easily available (The most extreme example of this is on page 98, where he reports on the position of some Israeli political parties during the 1949 Israeli general elections . The report is correct, but the only source cited in evidence for it is a letter to the FO from its embassy in Cairo(!). To compound this infelicity, there is an obvious misprint in the date of this document. Surely the election manifestos of Israeli parties were widely published in the Israeli press.)

There are also other flaws and errors, mainly in Israeli matters. Evidently, Shiblak’s knowledge of Hebrew is extremely slight. In reading his Hebrew sources, he had to rely on the help of others (to whom he gives due credit) who translated the material for him. Unfortunately, this help did not extend to the proofreading stage, resulting in quite a few garbled renderings of Hebrew names, terms and titles. On the other hand, some quotations from Hebrew were obtained from secondary sources. This should have been stated, even If the secondary source is perfectly reliable. (The quotation from Weitz (p. 80), dealing with Zionist plans for forced exchange of population, is a case in point. It comes from an article published in the daily Davar in 1967, in which Weitz reproduces, in condensed form, excerpts from his own diary written in 1940. The diary itself was published in 1965, not in 1940 as Shiblak claims. Shiblak evidently did not get the quotation from Davar itself ‒ (although this is the only reference he gives ‒ but from an unnamed secondary source which I am able to identify and know to be reliable. However, the quotation in that secondary source is incomplete: it omits a couple of sentences, duly marked as an elipsis (…). Shiblak reproduces the quotation exactly as it appears in the secondary source, together with the indication of omission. Ironically, had Shiblak looked at the original source (Davar), he would have discovered that one of the omitted sentences is extremely relevant to his particular topic, as it contains an explicit mention of Iraq! This illustrates the pitfalls of reliance on secondary sources.)

There are also a few simple factual errors concerning Israeli matters. Thus, for example, Joseph Weitz, far from being “a dedicated revisionist [that is, right-wing] Zionist” (p. 80), was in fact a high-ranking member of MAPAI, fore-runner of Israel’s Labour Party; this makes the quotation from him even more telling. Also, Ben-Zvi was not Israel’s first president (p. 159) but its second.

Finally, there is an arithmetical error I must correct. On p. 98 Shiblak says that “by the end of 1949, Israel occupied 20 per cent more land than the UN partition resolution had allocated to the Jewish state”. He has got his sums wrong. In fact, the area that Israel occupied by the end of 1949 (about 20,000 square km) was some 43 per cent more than the UN resolution had allocated to it (about 14,000 square km). The additional 6,000 square km seized by Israel constituted roughly 20 per cent (actually 22 per cent) not of the area allocated to it but of the whole area of Palestine. Thus Shiblak’s arithmetical error underestimates Israel’s expansion.

All these minor flaws and errors do not seriously detract from the value of this excellent book. It recounts and documents a significant piece of Middle Eastern history; and it does so in a humane way, full of empathy for the Iraqi Jews who, like Shiblak himself ‒ a Palestinian refugee from Haifa ‒ were victims of Zionism.

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