Urban Violence and the Rebirth of the Arab Jew, Baghdad and Tel Aviv

By Orit Bashkin
Submitted to Session P3312 (Through the City's Prism: Cultures and the Politics of Resistance in Modern Iraq, 2013 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
In this paper, I explore the ways in which Iraqi Jewish communists responded to their marginalization in Iraqi society and later in Israel, by studying two series of demonstrations in which they participated. The first part will look at how Jewish communists in Iraq demonstrated against the state’s unjust social policies, pro-British sympathies, and its false equation between Judaism and Zionism during the Wathba, a series of grassroots demonstrations which shook Baghdad during the winter of 1948. After the Wathba, some of these Jews were forced to escape Iraq, and many found themselves in Israel, living in transit camps which were established by the state all over the country, together with fellow Iraqi Jews and other Arab-Jews who suddenly became Israeli citizens. In addition to the horrendous poverty and the loss of social status, these Arab Jews faced discrimination by the state because of their Middle Eastern origins and their Arab culture. The Iraqi communist Jews responded to these conditions, by organization a series of urban protests in Israel. In this part of the paper, I will study the staged movement of the newcomers from the transit camps to the Israeli cities and examine what it might teach us the rebirth of Iraqi communism in Israel of the 1950s. I argue that the Iraqi communists, in their organized demonstrations in urban spaces (be it Tel Aviv or Baghdad), wanted to challenge racialized spatial policies, to increase their visibility in subaltern communities like the urban poor, and to call for greater mobility in Iraqi and Israeli societies by disrupting the current urban order. Looking at Iraqi Jewish communism in both Iraq and Israel, I argue, yields a different periodization of Iraqi Jewish history: for Iraqi Jewish communists, the moment of arrival to Israel did not change everything at once as far as their Iraqi identity is concerned. They continued speaking in Arabic, believing in the same ideologies, and collaborating with fellow Muslims and Christians who upheld the same beliefs; it took, in other words, a long time to separate these Jews from their radical Iraqi culture. In fact, even after years of “assimilation” in Israel, this process was only partially successful. My readings are based on Iraqi police files, memoirs, the Arabic and Hebrew communist press in Iraq and in Israel, and records found in the Central Zionist archives in Jerusalem.