Voices of the Mizrahim


In doing background research for an article on the Jews of the Maghreb (North Africa), I learned of the existence of a 2002 documentary on Iraqi Jews titled “Forget Baghdad: Jews and Arabs – The Iraqi Connection”. Among Jews, the term Mizrahim (Hebrew for Oriental) is applied to those from North Africa and the Middle East, in contrast to the European Ashkenazis who constitute the ruling elite of Israel.

In some ways the term that makes the most sense is Arab Jews, one that is embraced by Ella Shohat, an Iraqi Jew who is featured in “Forget Baghdad”. Her story, and the story of four elderly Jewish ex-members of the Iraqi Communist Party, is a reminder of the destructive character of Israel’s creation. Not only did it represent a nakba (disaster) for the Palestinian people, it also forced a people deeply rooted in their respective Arab countries to become assimilated into a culture that regarded them as inferiors.

While by no means an attack on the Zionist entity, the 1964 Israeli film “Sallah Shabati” does a fairly decent job of dramatizing the plight of new Mizrahim immigrants. You can rent the DVD “Forget Baghdad” from Netflix while “Sallah Shabati” is a bit harder to get your hands on (I took a copy out from Columbia University’s film library, but Amazon.com has new copies for sale at $15.64). After seeing them side-by-side, you can only conclude that the Mizrahim would have been better off where they came from, a claim that obviously applies to the Ashkenazim as well.

Samir, the director of “Forget Baghdad”, only goes by his first name. He is an Iraqi Muslim born in Baghdad in 1955 and who has been living in Switzerland since 1961. Like the four Jewish subjects of his film, his father was also a member of the Iraqi CP. And, also like them, he has felt as alienated from Switzerland as they have felt from Israel at one time or another.

The director shares the first name of one of his subjects, one Samir Naqqash, a novelist and playwright who insisted on writing in Arabic until his death in 2004, two years after the documentary was completed. If only on the basis of his name, this particular Jew could certainly have been labeled as an Arab. Like the three other ex-CP’ers, Naqqash remained defiantly on the left and proud of his Arab roots until his death. Despite his self-identification as an Arab, his works have never gained traction in the Arab world. Unsurprisingly, he was treated with disdain in Israel.

Also an acclaimed novelist, fellow ex-CP’er Shimon Ballas switched to writing in Hebrew after immigrating to Israel. A 1964 novel titled “The Transit Camp” depicts the trauma of arriving in Israel as second-class citizens, the same subject that is treated comically in “Sallah Shabati”. In 1991 Ballas wrote “Outcast”, a novel about an Iraqi Jew who after converting to Islam becomes a Baathist spokesman. Like Samir Naqqash, his character is neither comfortable with an Arab or Jewish identity.

Like his two former comrades, Sami Michael is also a writer. After moving to Israel in 1949, he joined the mostly Palestinian CP and wrote for its newspaper under the assumed Arab name Samir Mared. Like Naqqash, he dealt with the suffering of Mizrahi immigrants in “All Men are Equal – But Some are More”, his first novel that was written in Hebrew in 1974 and whose title is an obvious reference to Orwell’s “Animal Farm”. Like so many others, Michael became disillusioned with Moscow style Communism and dropped out of the party in 1955.

Of the four, only Moshe (Moussa) Houri continues to identify with the CP even though—ironically—he has become a successful businessman.

If the film were judged merely on the basis of filling in important details on the Mizrahim, it would be a significant accomplishment. But beyond that, it is also a fascinating oral history about the experience of being a revolutionary socialist in the Middle East reminiscent of the 1983 “Seeing Red”, a documentary about the CPUSA.

It is filled with memorable anecdotes, included one related by Shimon Ballas about going to an Iraqi CP educational at the age of 15 back in 1946. When the instructor asks the students about their take on idealism, the overly self-confident Ballas asserts that you have to have ideals in order to live a fulfilled life, demonstrating more familiarity with the boy scouts than Marxism. After being recognized by the instructor another student—an Arab who never got past grade school—explains the difference between German idealism and French materialism obviously derived from his reading of works like “The German Ideology”. Ballas remains amused by his impudence and in awe of the seriousness of the party’s working class base to this day.

Born in Baghdad, Ella Habiba Shohat is now an NYU Professor of Cultural Studies who is arguably the most prominent Mizrahi advocate in the world today. As mentioned above, she prefers the term Arab Jew as she explained in Bint Jbeil, an online Lebanese publication. She makes virtually the same points in “Forget Baghdad”:

I am an Arab Jew. Or, more specifically, an Iraqi Israeli woman living, writing and teaching in the U.S. Most members of my family were born and raised in Baghdad, and now live in Iraq, Israel, the U.S., England, and Holland. When my grandmother first encountered Israeli society in the ’50s, she was convinced that the people who looked, spoke and ate so differently–the European Jews–were actually European Christians. Jewishness for her generation was inextricably associated with Middle Easterness. My grandmother, who still lives in Israel and still communicates largely in Arabic, had to be taught to speak of “us” as Jews and “them” as Arabs. For Middle Easterners, the operating distinction had always been “Muslim,” “Jew,” and “Christian,” not Arab versus Jew. The assumption was that “Arabness” referred to a common shared culture and language, albeit with religious differences.

In the same essay, she also describes Iraqi Jews as “generally well integrated and indigenous to the country, forming an inseparable part of its social and cultural life.” So how did she and the four others end up in Israel and at NYU? The answer, of course, was Zionism. When Israel ethnically cleansed the Palestinians, it gave reactionary nationalists in the Arab world all the excuse they needed to kick out the Jews. And when things were not moving as quickly as the Zionists would hope, they sped up the process very possibly through Mossad provocations. Although historians are divided on the matter, bombings of Jewish targets in Baghdad from April 1950 to June 1951 created a stampede emigration in the same manner as the slaughter of Palestinians in Deir Yessin. For a good overview of the arguments for Mossad involvement, I recommend Tony Greenstein’s “The Zionist Destruction of the Iraqi Jewish Community”. He writes:

It is a well-documented, open secret, that the exodus of over 100,000 Jews from Iraq, they formed one-third of the population of Baghdad, a rich and vibrant community, was plotted together by the Israeli government under Ben-Gurion and the British puppet ruler of Iraq, Nuri e-Said, who was hanged in the streets after the revolution of 1958.  Israeli agents later testified to having planted bombs to simulate anti-Semitism in order to provoke the flight of Iraqi Jews.  In exchange the Iraqi government got to seize their assets.

This was what was termed ‘cruel Zionism’ but it wasn’t exceptional.  In Hungary in May 1944, an agreement was reached between Jewish Agency representative Rudolf Kasztner and Adolf Eichman that in exchange for co-operation in the deportation of Hungary’s ½ million Jews to Auschwitz, Kasztner could select the Jewish and Zionist elite and place them on a train which would leave Hungary for safety.  This latter is indisputable since the evidence is contained in the trial of the same name in Israel between 1953 and 1958. (see Tony Greenstein, Zionism and the Holocaust, Weekly Worker, June 2006 and Ben Hecht’s Perfidy for an account of the Kasztner Affair.

I was inspired to watch “Sallah Shabati” mostly through Ella Shohat’s qualified praise for the film. Although its final message is that reconciliation between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim can be accomplished through mixed marriages (the film is a variation on Romeo and Juliet involving Sallah’s daughter’s romance with a Kibbutznik Ashkenazi), it is a fairly reliable account of the kind of degradation that the principals of “Forget Baghdad” faced upon entering Israel. That being said, it does not go so far as to show them being sprayed with DDT as they get off the plane, as happened to one of the four subjects of the documentary.

Sallah is played by the famous Israeli actor Chaim Topol, who would star later on as Teyve in “Fiddler on the Roof”. Although only 29, he gave a remarkable performance of a much older patriarch who gets off the plane with his wife and five kids in tow. Except for his oldest son and daughter who eventually get hooked up with Ashkenazi love interests, they are all dressed in traditional Arab clothing.

Once they are dropped off at the transit camp, Sallah is shocked to see that a shack rather than a proper apartment awaits them. The remainder of the film is a series of sketches depicting him trying to earn the 1000 lira that is necessary to buy an apartment in a housing project, most of which end badly because he is averse to the sort of shitty jobs recent immigrants are forced to take.

Sallah will remind you of Jaroslav Hašek’s “The Good Soldier Švejk”, a novel about a private who gets back at his superiors in the Austro-Hungarian military through feigned incompetence. In one of the film’s best scenes, Sallah has been dragooned into planting trees for a pittance. After a few hours of backbreaking work, a Zionist official shows up with a big sign announcing it as the funded project of a couple of wealthy American Jews—call them the Goldbergs.

When the Goldbergs drive up moments later to review the progress, Sallah looks on in disgust. His hard work is earning him nothing. After they leave, the official takes down the sign and replaces it with one virtually identical but with a different name—the Bernsteins. What’s that about, Sallah asks. The official explains that the Americans have to feel special. The sign makes them think that they and they alone are responsible for the trees.

As the official welcomes the Bernsteins to the orchard-to-be, he is shocked to see Sallah pulling up all the new seedlings by their roots. He cries out, “Are you crazy?” Sallah replies, “Those are the Goldbergs’ trees. You need to plant new ones for the Bernsteins.”

One of the best scenes in the film shows Sallah leading a group of transit camp denizens in a rousing version of the song “The Old Messiah” that more than anything shows the eclectic blend of Arab and Jewish culture that he was forced to leave. The clip can be viewed on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZ5ZjGpksI4. The lyrics are priceless:

In Jumalan lived an old man named Messiah

Alone in his house without a wife or son

He hoarded money until age seventy years

In order to buy a woman to marry.

How much money did he collect?

Allah knows.

Maybe 3 dinar?

Maybe 100 times that.

Maybe 30 dinar?

Maybe double that.

Maybe 300 dinar?

Let’s drink le’chaim!​

It’s good for Messiah, good!

Allah will bring him good luck.

In Jumalan lived the old Messiah

At age 70 he went and got married

A pure woman he bought with all his money

She will bear children they will all carry his name!

How many children will be born?

Seven inshallah.

If only six are born,

Praise be to Allah.

Maybe only five,

He doesn’t have any energy left.

If God wants, he’ll give him one.

It’s good for Messiah, good!

Allah will bring him good luck.

When a Jewish song refers to Allah bringing somebody good luck, you are obviously being transported into a world that no longer exists. The concluding paragraphs of Volume One of Eliyahu Ashtor’s “The Jews of Moslem Spain” evoke the warm and supportive environment Jews enjoyed, and that would be recreated in the North African and Middle Eastern countries once the Jews were driven from Spain. It is part of a lengthy account of a reading by famed Jewish poet Ibn Khalfon. It is important also to consider that Jewish poetry was strongly influenced by the Arab style. Ashtor writes:

At last the host gestured to the poet to declaim his verse, and Ibn Khalfon recited a florid poem in which he proclaimed all the qualities of the new officeholder, his deeds in behalf of his coreligionists, the alms he gave to the poor, and the merits of his forefathers, who were nobles in Israel. Not all those present understood the beautiful biblical Hebrew, but all listened intently; not a sound was heard. When the poet had finished he bowed to the host, who drew forth from the folds of his coat a purse full of gold pieces and handed them to Ibn Khalfon. All his friends voiced cries of enthusiasm over the beauty of the poem and the generosity of the noble lord. A few arose from their places to stroll in the corners of the courtyard, where tall trees stood; others remained seated and engaged in spiritual but friendly conversation.

It was a warm and pleasant night, the skies were strewn with innumerable stars, and the moon shone with a brilliant light. From a distance could be heard a monotonous voice, yet pleasant to the ear: “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the prophet of Allah. Life to those who pray to Him, life to those who serve Him.” Again and again the voice repeated its cry saturated with yearnings. This was the muezzin calling the Moslem to prayer, for this was the month of Ramadan, when the call to prayer is sounded before dawn.

East and West had met under Andalusian skies.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.wordpress.com and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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