Three Worlds: Story Of The Lost World Of Arab Jews

Former Oxford professor Avi Shlaim’s book Three Worlds: Memoir of an Arab-Jew uncovers what he calls ‘undeniable proof’ of Zionist involvement in the attacks that forced Iraqi Jews to emigrate to Israel after over 2,500 years of presence in Babylon

Shlaim’s father was a businessman and his mother society hostess in a rich and cosmopolitan Baghdad before Arab Jews emigrated to Israel
Shlaim’s father was a businessman in a cosmopolitan Baghdad before they emigrated and lived diminished lives in Israel.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In the 19th century, the settler-colonial Zionist movement originated in Eastern and Central Europe for a Jewish state in Palestine. Attempts to persuade Jews to move there had begun much earlier in the 16th century. The British colonialists would regulate the migration to increase the Jewish population in Palestine from 9% in 1922 to 27% in 1935.

Demolitions were carried out under the garb of ‘urban regeneration’ following the 1917 Balfour Declaration for Israel’s creation. An estimated 750,000 Palestinians would eventually be forced out of their homes to make Israel a reality in 1948 post-Nakba (catastrophe) or ethnic cleansing. Israel passed the Law of Return two years later entitling all non-Israeli Jews and converts to Judaism to settle and receive Israeli citizenship.

Peaceful means were not necessarily used to have Jews emigrate. The bombings targeting Jews in Baghdad in 1950 and 1951 have been linked to the clandestine Zionist activities to persuade Iraq’s Jews to settle in Israel. Former Oxford professor Avi Shlaim’s book Three Worlds: Memoir of an Arab-Jew (Simon & Schuster, 2023) now uncovers what he calls ‘undeniable proof of Zionist involvement in the terrorist attacks.’ The bombings forced around 110,000 of an estimated 135,000 Iraqi Jews to emigrate to Israel.

Shlaim argues the Zionist project dealt a mortal blow to the position of Jews in Arab lands. The bombings were the last straw after Israel’s creation turned them into a suspected fifth column from accepted compatriots. The Zionist underground is suspected to have deliberately inflamed anti-Semitism in Iraq.

Israel’s dispossession of Palestinians would also blight Jewish-Muslim centuries-old cordial ties dating back to Islam’s rise. Jews thrived under the Abbasid Empire at the peak of Islam’s Golden Age. A Jew was among those who chose the auspicious day for work to begin for Baghdad’s foundation as the Empire’s capital in 762.

Jewish religious scholarship flourished in Abbasid Baghdad with 10 rabbinical schools and 22 synagogues. Spanish rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, who visited Baghdad in the 12th century, called the Caliph ‘kind unto Israel.’

Muslims believe Islam is an extension of Abrahamic Judaism and Christianity. The world’s three major religions trace their origins to Abraham. Early Muslims prayed in the direction of Jerusalem, the city Muslims, Christians, and Jews consider holy. The Muslim respect for Judaism and Christianity is rooted in the Quran, which calls Jews and Christians the ‘People of the Book’ 31 times and also refers to them as alladhīna ūtū al-kitāb (those who have received the Book) ahl al-dhikr (the people of the remembrance).

The Quran says God protects ‘monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of God is much mentioned.’ When the Prophet Muhammad founded the first Muslim state in the seventh century, the Medina Charter, which many consider its constitution, underlined ‘no Jews will be wronged for being an unbeliever.’

Muslims—from Albanians to Arabs —protected Jews from Nazis. Jews earlier found refuge in Muslim lands when papal ascendancy in medieval Europe led to religious repression, or inquisitions, from the 13th to the 15th century. The Ottoman Empire welcomed Spanish Jews fleeing the Catholic Inquisition.

Tanzimat (re-ordering) administrative, military, educational, legal, and social reforms in the 19th century required provincial administrative councils to reflect local religious diversity. Four Jews would consequently represent Baghdad in the first Ottoman parliament (1877–78).

Celebrated for their ancient heritage and rich culture, Arab Jews remained well-integrated into a tolerant and multicultural Muslim-majority Iraq with also a significant Christian population. Iraq’s Jews were privileged, prosperous, and distinguished sections of society tracing their presence in Babylon over 2,500 years when the 1950-51 bombings uprooted them.

Iraqi Jews were active in businesses, government, academics, music, and literature. They ran religious, educational, and social welfare institutions. Prominent Jewish families from Baghdad such as the Sassoons established businesses in Britain, India, and the Far East while maintaining ties with their community back home. Shlaim’s family was among them.

The Shlaims had a large house with servants and nannies. They sent their kids to the best schools and rubbed shoulders with the Crème de la crème sashaying from one glittering party to the next. Shlaim’s father, a successful businessman, counted ministers as friends. His mother, a socially ambitious woman, lived a gilded life as a society hostess in Baghdad’s rich, cosmopolitan, and harmonious milieu. She had Muslim friends but no Zionist ones.

For Shlaim, who was born in Baghdad in 1945 and clings to his identity as an Arab Jew, these were halcyon days. But they did not last. The Shlaims were among those who fled to Israel in July 1950 when Shlaim was only five. The flight undid Shlaim’s father, who was by then in his 50s and could not speak Hebrew. His attempts to start a business failed. He never worked again, forcing Shlaim’s mother to work as a telephonist.

Shlaim’s parents lived in diminished circumstances before the couple drifted apart and divorced. Shlaim’s father would die in 1970. Shlaim, a well-known historian of the Arab-Israeli conflict, disinters his childhood in the book. An inferiority complex defined his relationship with Israel, where Ashkenazim, the European Jews, looked down upon Arab Jews or the Sephardim. The Iraqi Jews were sprayed with DDT,  an insecticide, upon arrival in Israel.

Shlaim grew up tongue-tied and taciturn at school in Israel before regaining his confidence after settling in Britain, where he graduated from Cambridge in 1966. He assails the Eurocentric Zionist movement and Israel for intensifying divisions between Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians, Hebrew and Arabic, and Judaism and Islam. Shlaim accuses them of actively working to erase an ancient heritage of pluralism, religious tolerance, cosmopolitanism, and coexistence that the city of his birth represented.

Shlaim blames Zionism for discouraging them from seeing each other as fellow human beings. He calls Israel an apartheid and fortress state with a siege mentality attributing genocidal intentions to its neighbours. Shlaim concludes the so-called two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a busted flush after years of the relentless and illegal expansion of Israeli settlements.

Shlaim’s memoir celebrates the disappearing heritage of Arab Jews. It is about the lost world of Arab Jews, the dwindling but once flourishing community of over 150,000. Shlaim demolishes the myths of the clash of the Arab and Jewish civilisations and the Zionist rescue of ‘persecuted’ Eastern Jews from their backward nations.

Shlaim backs the one-state solution with equal rights for all citizens, regardless of ethnicity or religion, saying apartheid in the 21st century is simply unsustainable. The resolution was once dismissed as an extreme fringe pursuit. But many Palestinians and a few Israelis have been considering it with increasing seriousness.

In a The Spectator piece, author Justin Marozzi called Shlaim’s investigation into the Baghdad bombings the heart of the riveting book. He wrote Israel has consistently denied any involvement in the bombings but suspicion has hung over the clandestine activities of Zionist agents tasked with persuading the Jewish community to settle in Israel.

Marozzi wrote the beautifully written book artfully blends the personal with the political, recreating Shlaim’s family life in both its glory and its anguished tribulations vividly. He calls Shlaim’s powerful and humane voice a reminder that the Palestinians were not the only victims of Israel’s creation.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide 

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