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The Jews of Iraq, Zionist Ideology, and the Property of the Palestinian Refugees of 1948: An Anomaly of National Accounting

  • Yehouda Shenhav (a1)

An account already exists between us and the Arab world: the account of the compensation that accrues to the Arabs who left the territory of Israel and abandoned their property … The act that has now been perpetrated by the Kingdom of Iraq … forces us to link the two accounts … We will take into account the value of the Jewish property that has been frozen in Iraq when calculating the compensation that we have undertaken to pay the Arabs who abandoned property in Israel.

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I thank Shimon Balas, Orna Ben Dor, Shlomo Deshen, Frank Dobbin, Nadav Gabay, Alexandra Kalev, Esther Meir, Yosef Meir, Gershon Shafir, Shlomo Swirski, Yaron Tzur, and Yossi Yona for their useful comments, and Nadav Gabay for his meticulous help in collecting the archival material. Responsibility for the arguments put forward is mine alone.

1 Hillel, Shlomo, Operation Babylon (Tel Aviv: Edanim, 1985), 342.

2 Foreign Ministry (130)2563/61, n.d.

3 Admittedly, I never conducted a survey to find out whether this was the dominant feeling among all Iraqi Jews who immigrated to Israel. However, many of the immigrants went to Israel not because of their Zionist sentiments but, rather, because of their fears and the harsh situation in Iraq then. This situation was the outcome of the rise of Pan-Arabic nationalism on the one hand and the actions of the Zionist movement in Palestine and in Iraq on the other.

4 Smith, D. Anthony, The Ethnic Origins of Nations (London: Oxford, 1986).

5 For example, Moshe Lissak, “The Waves of Immigration,” Encyclopaedia Hebraica (Jerusalem: Sifriyat Hapoalim, 1993).

6 Smith, , Ethnic Origins; Armstrong, John, Nations Before Nationalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1982).

7 For detailed descriptions, see Meir, Esther, The Zionist Movement and the Jews of Iraq, 19411950 (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1993);Shiblak, Abbas, The Lure of Zion: The Case of the Iraqi Jews (London: Al Saqi Books, 1986).

8 Yohanan Cohen maintains in the Encyclopaedia Hebraica (entry on “The Arab Refugees,” update volume for vols. 1–16, cols. 545–50) that “Israel released $10 million from frozen bank accounts registered to refugees and transferred the amount to the owners in the Arab countries” (col. 548). The text does not make clear when the money was given, which Palestinians were compensated, and to which Arab countries the funds were transferred. Cohen is apparently referring to deposits of Arabs in Barclays Bank, from which the government of Israel in 1954 released 1 million pounds under British pressure (Record of the Cabinet Meetings of the Third Government, 4 November 1951). Sharett arranged with Finance Minister Levi Eshkol not to release more funds for the time being; Moshe Sharett, Personal Memoirs (Tel Aviv: Ma'Ariv, 1978), 331. In an article published in the daily Ha'aretz, Yossi Melman relates that Israel received a fivefold quid pro quo for releasing the Palestinian funds: after Israel returned the money to its rightful owners, Britain agreed to return deposits of 5 million pounds dating back to the Mandate era which belonged to Jews and were being held in banks in London (Yossi Melman, “A Dunam and Another Dunam Are Worth Billions,” Ha'aretz, 20 April 1997).

9 For a discussion of Iraqi Jewry in late Ottoman period, see Deshen, Shlomo, “Baghdad Jewry in Late Ottoman Times: The Emergence of Social Classes and Secularization,” in Jews Among Muslims: Communities in the Precolonial Middle East, ed. Deshen, Shlomo and Zenner, Walter P. (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 187–96.

10 Up to 1941 the Zionist activity in Iraq was mild. The cultural and political activities were concentrated mainly among the more educated circles. For a description see Meir, The Zionist Movement.

11 Tsimhoni, Daphne, “The Activity of the Yishuv in Palestine for the Jews of Iraq, 1941–1948,” in Jewish National Solidarity in the Modern Era, ed. Pinkus, Binyamin and Troen, Ilan (Beersheba: Publishing House of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, 1989), 221–60.

12 Ibid., 233.

13 Ibid

14 Shiblak, The Lure of Zion

15 Meir, Yosef, Beyond the Desert: Underground Activities in Iraq (Tel Aviv: Ma'arakhot, 1973).

16 Meir, The Zionist Movement.

17 Quoted in Tsimhoni, “Activity of the Yishuv in Palestine,” 245.

18 Ibid

19 It is undeniable that the nucleus of a Zionist movement existed within the Jewish community. Most of the Zionist activists were youngsters who were recruited by emissaries from the Yishuv—often in the face of bitter opposition from the youngsters' parents (for a comprehensive discussion, see Meir, The Zionist Movement). It bears noting that despite the furor generated by Zionist activity in Iraq—especially by the brash character it assumed in 1950–51—the Zionist movement there was numerically and financially negligible as compared with its activity in Europe.

20 tsimhoni, “Activity of the Yishuv in Palestine.”

21 Quoted in ibid., 237.

22 Quoted in ibid., 242.

23 Esther Meir-Glitzenstein, “The Riddle of the Mass Immigration from Iraq: Causes, Circumstances and Consequences,” Pe'amim 71 (1997): 2553.

24 Tsimhoni, “Activity of the Yishuv in Palestine.”

25 Tsimhoni, Daphne, “The Diplomatic Background to the Operation of the Immigration of Iraq's Jews 1950–1951,” in Studies in the History and Culture of Iraqi Jewry, ed. Avishur, Yitzhak (Or Yehuda: Center for the Heritage of Babylonian Jewry, 1991), 89113.

26 Qazzaz, Nissim, The Jews in Iraq in the Twentieth Century (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute and the Hebrew University, 1991).

27 Shiblak, The Lure of Zion.

28 Ibid, 70

29 Quoted in Tsimhoni, “Activity of the Yishuv in Palestine,” 236.

30 Tsimhoni, “Diplomatic Background,” 89–113.

31 Shiblak, The Lure of Zion.

32 There are different estimates of the number. According to British and American reports, 100,000 Iraqi Jews arrived in Israel. The official figures of the Israeli Ministry of Immigration show that 86,843 Jews arrived directly from Iraq and another 16,000 via Iran, for a total of 102,603. Other figures speak of 120,000 Jews (see Gat, Moshe, A Jewish Community in Crisis: The Exodus from Iraq 1948–1951 [Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center, 1989]).

33 Swirski, Shlomo, Seeds of Inequality (Tel Aviv: Breirot, 1995).

34 For example, Smith, Ethnic Origins of Nations; idem, “Zionism and Diaspora Nationalism,” Israel Affairs 2, 2(1995): 1–19.

35 Smith, “Zionism.”

36 Hobsbawn, Eric, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

37 For example, Hobsbawm, , Nations and Nationalism; Gellner, Ernest, Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983);Kedourie, Elie, Nationalism in Asia and Africa (London, 1971).

38 Ram, Uri, “Those Days and This Time: Zionist History and the Invention of the Jewish National Narrative: Ben-Zion Dinur and His Time,” in Zionism: Contemporary Controversy, ed. Ginossar, Pinhas and Bareli, Avi (Beersheba: Publishing House of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, 1996), 126–60; Ilan Pappé, “Zionism in the Test of the Theories of Nationalism and the Historiographic Method,” in Zionism: Contemporary Controversy, 223–24.

39 Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism.

40 Ram, “Those Days and This Time,” 129.

41 Pappé, “Zionism in the Test of the Theories of Nationalism.”

42 A perusal of the minutes of cabinet meetings from 1949 to 1953 turned up only one discussion about the Jews of Iraq (25 October 1949). However, the subject was addressed and commented upon by ministers in 17 other contexts.

43 Segev, Tom, The First Israelis 1949 (Jerusalem: Domino Press, 1984), 96. Segev also notes that when permission was given to sell Arab property in Israel, the Mossad emissaries in Iraq protested angrily, asking, “And what will happen to the houses [of the Jews] here?” (ibid., 196).

44 Tsimhoni, “Diplomatic Background,” 94.

45 Minutes of cabinet meeting, 35, 6 September 1949.

47 Shiblak, The Lure of Zion, 83.

49 Tsimhoni, “Diplomatic Background.”

50 See, for example, Shiblak, The Lure of Zion. For a discussion of Israel's position regarding a population exchange with the Arab states, see Han Halevi, “Another Transfer” (unpublished ms., Institute for Palestine Studies, 1995). Halevi maintains that bringing the Jews from the Arab states to Israel was in part a conscious, deliberate attempt by the Zionist leadership to provide an answer to the refugee problem.

51 Shiblak, The Lure of Zion.

52 See the New York Times, 31 October 1949. See also Schechtman, B. Joseph, Population Transfer in Asia (New York, 1949).

53 For example, a document from R. Gordon, the director of the Foreign Ministry's International Institutions division, to the ministry's director-general. It states that the chairman of the Survey Group “re-confirmed to me that the Prime Minister of Iraq indeed said this” (Foreign Ministry 2384/4, 17 November 1949).

54 Records of the First Government, 25 October 1949.

55 To be sure, fractions of the Israeli Zionist movement have toyed with the transfer idea at the same time. See Schechtman, Population Transfer, cited by Qazzaz, Jews in Iraq, 298.

56 Foreign Ministry (130)/2563/8, 26 October 1949.

57 Tsimhoni, “Diplomatic Background.”

58 There were also qualms in Israel about the arrival of the Iraqi Jews. The Jewish Agency Executive was worried about the growing numbers of Mizrahi Jews in Israel and about the decline in the country's cultural level, as the matter was described. There were also exaggerated rumors about the scale of communist activity among Iraq's Jews and about the danger such Jews could pose to the Israeli government (Tsimhoni, “Diplomatic Background”).

59 Ma'ariv, 27 October 1949.

60 See, for example, Ha'aretz, 17 October 1949.

61 Records of the First Government, 4, 18 October 1949.

62 Ibid., 25 October 1949.

63 For example, in 1937, at the World Congress of Poalei Tzion, which convened in Vienna, a senior figure in Mapam, Aharon Ziesling, urged that efforts be made to effect a population exchange between Palestine and the Arab states. Ben-Gurion, who took part in the ensuing discussion, did not reject the idea out of hand. Similar proposals were voiced by American Zionists and by local leaders of the Labor movement. Yosef Weitz, for example, wrote in his diary that there was no room for two nations in Palestine and that the only solution was the transfer of the Arabs (Shiblak, The Lure of Zion). In 1948, Joseph Schechtman, a member of the Jewish Agency's actions committee in the United States, published a proposal to solve the refugee problem on the basis of the Greco-Turkish model (Schechtman, Population Transfer; Tsimhoni, “Diplomatic Background”). Moshe Sasson, the vice-consul at the Israeli legation in Athens at the beginning of the 1950s, worked out a proposal for a population and property exchange involving Israeli Arabs and Libyan Jews. Sasson notes the importance of the plan as a “lesson” for the Palestinian refugees who were still seeking to re-enter Israel (Uzi Benziman and Atallah Mansour, Subtenants [Jerusalem: Keter, 1992]).

64 See an article in this spirit in the Labor movement daily Davar. “Is There Any Substance to the Iraqi Proposal?” Davar, 17 October 1949.

65 See, for example, Yediot Ahronot, 28 October 1949. Only after the arrival in Israel of the Maghrib Jews did the number of Jews from Arab countries in Israel match the number of Palestinian refugees. Speaking to the thirty-second UN. General Assembly on 17 October 1977, Moshe Dayan, then Israel's foreign minister, put the number of Arab refugees at 590,000 and the number of Jewish “refugees” at 600,000, including the North African Jews.

66 Morton, from the British Foreign Office, was the deputy chairman of the UN. Economic Survey Mission, which was headed by Gordon Clapp. The Israeli press perceived Morton's proposal for the refugees' resettlement as a “trial balloon of the Foreign Office” (e.g., Ha'aretz, 19 October 1949).

67 Memorandum of the director of the International Institutions Division (Foreign Ministry [130]2384/4, 17 November 1949).

68 The reasons for the law's enactment remain obscure. The justification offered by the Iraqi government was the growing rate of illegal emigration from the country, resulting in a large-scale property drain and the shrinkage of the economy. Official sources in Baghdad estimated that by the time the law came into force, some 3,000 Jews had already left Iraq for Iran, en route to Europe (Shiblak, The Lure of Zion). The Baghdad paper al-Sha⊂b said the law was necessary and that its passage was “a bold and important act that would put an end to the anarchy” of illegal emigration (Ha'aretz, 6 March 1950). Others, though, attribute the law's passage to the pressure of the Great Powers and of world public opinion in the Iraqi government (Yitzhak Raphael, Not Easily Came the Light [Jerusalem: Edanim, 1981]), or even to a secret Israel-Iraq agreement (Shiblak, The Lure of Zion). Still others dismiss the possibility of such an agreement and argue that Baghdad believed that a large-scale influx of immigrants into Israel would cause the Israeli economy to collapse (Meir, Beyond the Desert). Some of these explanations are mutually contradictory, and, as noted, the true cause of the law's enactment is difficult to determine.

69 The subject is discussed in Meir-Glitzenstein, “The Riddle of the Mass Immigration.”

70 For example, ibid..

71 Shiblak, The Lure of Zion.

72 Foreign Ministry 2387/4, 8 November 1950.

73 Meir, The Zionist Movement, 205.

74 Ibid.; Swirski, Seeds of Inequality; Shiblak, The Lure of Zion.

75 Foreign Ministry 2387/4, 20 June 1950.

76 Benziman and Mansour, Subtenants

77 In 1950, for example, Zalman Lief proposed moving the residents of the large village of Kara, in Wadi Ara, across the border and compensating them for their property. Such ideas were not an isolated phenomenon (ibid.).

78 Foreign Ministry 2387/4, 21 June 1950.

79 Benziman and Mansour, Subtenants.

80 Cabinet Record 67, 7 September 1950.

81 Yosef al-Kabir, one of the notables of the Iraqi community, estimated that at the start of the emigration Jewish property was worth about £90 million, or $252 million (Gat, Jewish Community in Crisis, 128). Danin's estimate was £60 million. S. Kahane, from the Foreign Ministry's Middle East division, thought the Iraqi estimate of 3 million dinars ($7.2 million) was too modest (Foreign Ministry, [130]2387/4, 1 April 1951). Gat reports that the Iraqi custodian-general estimated the frozen assets to be worth about 5 million or 6 million dinars (Gat, Jewish Community in Crisis). The claims of Iraq's Jews, as recorded in the Israeli Finance Ministry in 1956, totaled $49 million in 1950 terms (Foreign Ministry [130]2563/7,20 February 1956). It bears noting that the value of the assets changed between the start of the migration and the legislation freezing the Jews' assets. The general estimate is that between May and November of 1950, Jews smuggled out of Iraq 8 million to 10 million dinars, an amount that represented 15 to 20 percent of the country's entire monetary turnover (Gat, Jewish Community in Crisis; S. Kahane, Foreign Ministry [130]2387/4, 1 April 1951). Even before the Iraqi Parliament enacted the freeze law, Teddy Kollek, the director of the Foreign Ministry's United States division, told Philip Ehrlich, the legal adviser to the Bank of America, that the property of the Jewish community in Iraq was estimated to be worth several hundred million dinars and asked for his help in finding a solution.

At the end of 1942, the Zionist emissary Enzo Sireni organized a group of wealthy Iraqi Jews to purchase 10 dunams (2.5 acres) of land in Tel Aviv and demanded that Hachsharat Hayishuv, a national corporation that purchased land in Palestine, send maps and organize the transaction (Bibi, Mordechai, The Underground Pioneer Zionist Movement in Iraq 1942–1951 [Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 1988], 157). Similar efforts were undertaken by Sireni's successors, Aryeh Eshel and Meir Shilon. In 1948, before the State of Israel was proclaimed, they sent memoranda to the Jewish Agency requesting the transfer of Jewish property from Iraq to the Yishuv and demanded that a mechanism be established to oversee this. However, the Yishuv institutions took no notice of these efforts (Bibi, Underground Pioneer Zionist Movement; Meir, Beyond the Desert).

82 Gat, Jewish Community in Crisis.

83 Cabinet Records 35, March 15, 1951.

84 Meir, Beyond the Desert, 313.

85 Knesset Record, Third Session of the First Knesset, viii, 1358–59

86 The director-general of the Foreign Ministry, Walter Eytan, noted in a cable dated 29 March that the decision of the Iraqi government had forced Israel to link the two accounts: of the Palestinians and of the Iraqi Jews. The following day, the Israeli government forwarded a memorandum in this spirit to the US. government (Foreign Ministry, doc. 88, 181).

87 Foreign Ministry (130)2387/4, 25 March 1951.

88 Knesset Record, Third Session of the First Knesset, viii, 1358–59.

89 Foreign Ministry, doc. 93, 191

90 Foreign Ministry (130)2387/4, 21 March 1951.

91 ibid., 2 April 1951.

92 Ibid., (130)1963/1, 18 July 1951.

93 ibid., (130)1961/1, 20 November 1951.

94 Ibid., (130)1963, 16 October 1951.

95 Foreign Ministry, doc. 388, 648.

96 Ibid., doc. 99, 199.

97 Ibid., doc. 150, 149.

98 Ibid., doc. 240,410.

99 Gat, Jewish Community in Crisis.

100 Document by Yosef Takoah, Foreign Ministry (130)1963/5, 24 April 1952.

101 Record of the sessions of the First Government, vol. 30, 7 September 1950.

102 Foreign Ministry, International Institutions division, 1963/1.

103 Gat, Jewish Community in Crisis, 137./

104 Foreign Ministry (130)2563/61, 30 May 1951. See also document of the Custodian General's Office, Foreign Ministry (130)2563/5, 9 July 1952.

105 Gat, Jewish Community in Crisis, 221.

106 Foreign Ministry (130)2563/7, 25 October 1955.

107 Hillel, Operation Babylon, 325.

108 Ibid., 324.

109 Similar claims in the name of the property of Europe's Jews were put forward by the government of Israel and by Jewish organizations against the German government and other European governments in whose territory Jewish property was frozen or appropriated during World War II (see Zweig, W. Ronald, “Restitution of Property and the Refugee Rehabilitation: Two Case Studies,” Journal of Refugee Studies 6 [1993]: 56–64; Zweig 1987).

110 Smith, , “Zionism”; Yaron Tzur, “The Immigration from the Islamic Countries,” in The First Decade: 1948–1958, ed. Tzameret, Zvi and Yoblonka, Hanna (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 1997).

111 Hobsbawm, j. Eric, Nations and Nationalism Since 1870 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

112 See also Tzur, Yaron, “Diaspora Nationalism and Serious Crises in the Diasporas,” in Between Vision and Revision: One Hundred Years of Zionist Historiography, ed. Weitz, Yehiam (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center, 1997).

113 Herzog, Hanna, “Ethnicity as a Product of Political Negotiation: The Case of Israel,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 7 (1984): 517–33;idem, “Social Construction of Reality in Ethnic Terms: The Case of Political Ethnicity in Israel,” International Review of Modern Sociology 15(1985): 45–62; Oren Yiftachel, “Israeli Society and Jewish-Palestinian Reconciliation: ‘Ethnocracy’ and Its Territorial Contradictions,” Middle East Journal 51 (1997): 505–19; idem, “The Dark Side of Modernism: Planning as Control of an Ethnic Minority,” in Postmodern Cities and Spaces, ed. Watson, S. and Gibson, K. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1995).

114 In the years that followed, too, the major parties—the Labor movement in particular—continued to manifest this two-faced approach toward the Mizrahi Jews (Herzog, “Ethnicity”). On the one hand, they encouraged the Mizrahim at the organizational level as a vote-getting ploy; on the other, they rejected Mizrahiness at the ideological level. Ethnic platforms were considered to contradict the ethos of the “melting pot,” the “ingathering of the exiles,” and the “unity of the nation.” In the 1950s, Mizrahi lists (known as Sephardim) formed to run for the Knesset were said to be associated with hostile elements. Later, the Black Panthers movement was said to pose a danger to the state. The hypocrisy of the big parties, which were Ashkenazi by character, composition, and platform, was manifested in their rejection of the Mizrahi way as an ideology but in their use of it as a means to get votes.

115 Cohen, Encyclopaedia Hebraica, col. 548; see note 8.

116 Records of the cabinet meetings of the Third Government, vol. 2, 4 November 1951, 34. See also Zweig, “Restitution,” and Melman, “A Dunam and Another Dunam.”

117 Zweig, “Restitution.”

118 For the construction of ethnic categories in Israel, see Ben-Rafael, Eliezer, The Emergence of Ethnicity: Cultural Groups and Social Conflict in Israel (London: Greenwood Press, 1982); idem, Language, Identity and Social Division: The Case of Israel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).

119 Shafir, Gershon, Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict 1882–1914 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989/1996), 8.

120 Shohat, H. Ella, “Mizrahim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Jewish Victims,” Theory, Culture & Ideology 19/20 (1988).

121 Ibid.

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