Saturday, June 01, 2013

Remembering the Farhud (continued) – Simon Schama on Elie Kedourie and the lost world of Iraqi Jewry

This follows up my post from a few days ago on Memories of the Baghdad Farhud of 1941, a two-day pogrom that, in retrospect, marked the beginning of the end of thousands of years of Jewish life in what is now Iraq. The 72nd anniversary of the Farhud begins today.

Below is a discussion that helps bring out the significance of the Farhud and its lasting impact on the generation of Iraqi Jews who experienced it.  It's a portion of a lecture that the historian Simon Schama gave in 2010 about the Anglo-Jewish-Iraqi historian  and theorist of nationalism Elie Kedurie (1926-1992), who grew up in Baghdad and eventually became a British academic.  Schama's account, as one might expect, is intellectually sophisticated and historically evocative.
That was Elie Kedourie’s childhood world: the oldest, culturally richest, Jewish community in the Middle East – 140,000 in 1940. Poor shopkeepers and artisans, traders in hides, rugs, textiles, sugar, spices; the wealthy elite and the Sassoons, Daniels and indeed Kedouries; francophone education at the lycée Alliance Israélite, anglophone in the Shamash college; 90 per cent of the Baghdad Symphony were Jews. But also of course fluently, often poetically Arabic, a world in which its social and cultural symbiosis with Arab culture was itself a denial of the obligations of nationalism, even or perhaps especially Jewish nationalism. There was Baghdadian Zionism, but within the political class allegiance was divided between socialists, Zionists and Iraqi Jewish – I suppose one would say – loyalists or traditionalists. This culturally elastic community was snapped by the Farhud, itself the product of the poisonous confluence of religious fanaticism and wounded nationalism.  [....]

Tony Rocca, in an appendix to Violette Shamash’s memoir of Jewish Baghdad, says that the Jews of Baghdad were mostly anti- or at least non-Zionists before the Farhud and that afterwards they were pretty much all Zionists. Both statements, I think, may be over-simplifications.  [JW:  Tony Rocca actually agrees, and notes that "tortured debate raged for over a decade" on these issues within Iraq's Jewish community—though it's true that "everything changed" after the Farhud.]  But the butchery was certainly the beginning of the end of  Baghdad Jewry in its ancient form. Under pressure of intimidation and the threat of repetitions at the time and after the foundation of Israel, indicated by exemplary hangings, 104,000 left in 1950, mostly for Israel but also for the Netherlands and Britain. Yellow identity cards for the remainder followed, and with the advent of the Ba’ath party, torture and public hanging of 14 Jews accused of being spies occurred, with half a million parading past the swinging corpses shouting, of course, ‘Death to the Jews’.  [....]
And now that whole world is gone for good (along with all the other historic Jewish communities throughout the Arab world).
The disruption of Kedourie’s community and the disingenuous diplomatic policy in the hands of Cornwallis ­– not in the hands of Wavell or Churchill ­– made the case for Israel as the asylum of last resort. Kedourie understood Zionism and accepted, though never warmly, the necessity of Israel, but the Farhud memory and its aftermath never diluted his pessimism about nationalist solutions.  [....]
Anyone who knows the history of the past two centuries will recognize that such skepticism is not unwarranted.  One crucial question is always: What are the realistically available alternatives?

(As noted below, the full lecture is available on podcast.  Thanks to Point of No Return for the tip.)

—Jeff Weintraub

==============================
Remembering the Farhud
May 13, 2010
Extract from a talk given by historian and broadcaster Simon Schama (Columbia University) at the British Academy, London, on May 13, 2010, honouring the memory of Jewish-Iraqi historian Professor Elie Kedourie. The full lecture is available as a podcast at http://www.britac.ac.uk/cmsfiles/assets/9586.mp3

WELL IN advance of the Islamic revolution in Iran, Kedourie had begin to think about political Islam and about the increasingly religious turn taken by Israeli politics – not as marginal but as central to the politics of the Middle East. There is, I think, one telltale revelation about why Kedourie came to brood on the awakening of these old demons and the list of places where nationalism had been marched out to silence democratic dissent. He drops the case of Iraq.

It was a place he never stopped thinking about because of course it was a country and culture that had made him. In a book of essays published in the 1970s called Arabic Political Memoirs, Kedourie included one essay that was as yet unpublished, perhaps because it meant more to him personally than some of the other learned investigations of policy, diplomacy and literature. It was about something in the late spring and summer of 1941 that he went through, an extraordinarily important and tragic event at the age of 15: the Baghdad Farhud of Shavuot, June 1st and 2nd, in which we’re pretty clear from later British diplomatic reports 600 Jews including small children and infants were slaughtered in cold blood in the streets of the city and in their own houses and schools and hospitals by a rioting mob. The official Iraqi government estimate was 130 to 200, but as I say, later British diplomatic reports – when it came clean about a moment in which their own hands had been dirty (or at best Pilatically clean) – reported that much higher number. We’ll never know exactly, because permission to bury the remains according to Jewish rites was denied and the bodies dumped in a mass grave. Another thousand at least were wounded in violent attacks with axes, cudgels and knives. Schools, shops and synagogues were burned.

That was Elie Kedourie’s childhood world: the oldest, culturally richest, Jewish community in the Middle East – 140,000 in 1940. Poor shopkeepers and artisans, traders in hides, rugs, textiles, sugar, spices; the wealthy elite and the Sassoons, Daniels and indeed Kedouries; francophone education at the lycée Alliance Israélite, anglophone in the Shamash college; 90 per cent of the Baghdad Symphony were Jews. But also of course fluently, often poetically Arabic, a world in which its social and cultural symbiosis with Arab culture was itself a denial of the obligations of nationalism, even or perhaps especially Jewish nationalism. There was Baghdadian Zionism, but within the political class allegiance was divided between socialists, Zionists and Iraqi Jewish – I suppose one would say – loyalists or traditionalists. This culturally elastic community was snapped by the Farhud, itself the product of the poisonous confluence of religious fanaticism and wounded nationalism.

The ground had been prepared by the active mutual collaboration of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, and the Third Reich at its triumphant apogee in 1940-41. Arabic editions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Mein Kampf had been published and circulated widely. And at the point where the British Empire at home and abroad seemed to be on its knees, a strategic design had been made: as recent books have made clear, not just for a marriage of convenience between Iraqi nationalists and Berlin foreign policy, but for a Middle Eastern final solution. Had El Alamein gone the other way, Jewish communities not just in Palestine but from the Maghreb to the Gulf would have met the same fate as their European brethren and sisters.

In April 1941 a coup d’état overthrew the British-protected Hashemite regent and brought Rashid Ali to power as the direct ally of the Reich. Following the template of 1933, Nazi paramilitia were quickly established as organs of state. A reign of intimidation shading into outright terror was unfolding. What thwarted it was the landing of a British-Indian force at Basra and a bombing campaign which broke the seige of an RAF base at Habbaniya, defeating the Iraqi army and sending Rashid Ali fleeing to Iran. Mysteriously though, much of the pro-Nazi Iraq regime was left in place in Baghdad itself. This was at the doing of the British ambassador, Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, who thought it best to hedge bets between the remnant of Rashid Ali’s people and the returning Hashemite regent, and he was very exercised about refraining from any action that could be read as British interference with the internal workings of Iraqi politics.

Cornwallis had been the director of Mark Sykes’s Arab Bureau and had a hand with Lawrence and Gertrude Bell in the making of the Iraqi constitution and the Anglo-Iraq Treaty of 1922. Gertrude Bell had become besotted with him, and his eventual failure to reciprocate is said by her biographers to be a primary reason for her suicide in 1926. ‘Hands off’ seemed to be Cornwallis’s style, for at a critical moment, in contradiction to instructions from Churchill’s government in London, Cornwallis decided to keep British troops out of Baghdad. His fastidiousness was, as he well knew, a green light for massacre: there would be nothing between demobilised but still-armed Iraqi soliders and militia streaming back to Baghdad and the defenceless Jewish community that was suddenly ordered by one of the holdovers from the pro-Nazi regime to remain in their houses until further notice. There they were trapped as sitting ducks, sacrificed for the appearance of British neutrality.

As the enemies of the defeated Rashid Ali, the Jews were targeted for two days of bloody mayhem. Visitors to the embassy, who drank port in Cornwallis’s mahogany-panelled, air-conditioned library, heard him allude euphemistically to a couple of days of trouble in which some Jews had been set upon. In two dilatory dispatches to Whitehall a month and a half after the murders he made similarly vague remarks. Despite a shocking account forwarded to London by the Jewish Agency, no investigation of the perpetrators was ever called for by the British, so none was carried out, nor anyone ever prosecuted or punished. The ambassador claimed Jews were reluctant to come forward as witnesses – this supposition, Kedourie says bluntly, ‘was quite false’. Shmuel Moreh has written that the memory of the Farhud forever haunted Kedourie and his generation of Iraqi Jews.

Elie Kedourie and Naim Kattan were the first to do careful scholarly work on the slaughter, as far as I can see. But of course it was the unconscionable betrayal by the British that made the most indelible impression. In his most acid shorthand, Kedourie writes incredulously that Cornwallis put the blame on what happened to the Jews to the provocation of the Balfour Declaration. On Cornwallis’s failure to give anything but the most cursory reference to the Farhud in his dispatches, Kedourie wrote witheringly that, ‘after all, even in the bloodstained history of Iraq, a few hundred murders in the capital city still constituted in those days a noteworthy happening. But readers of dispatches, particularly in wartime, no doubt are busy men.’

Tony Rocca, in an appendix to Violette Shamash’s memoir of Jewish Baghdad, says that the Jews of Baghdad were mostly anti- or at least non-Zionists before the Farhud and that afterwards they were pretty much all Zionists. Both statements, I think, may be over-simplifications. But the butchery was certainly the beginning of the end of Baghdad Jewry in its ancient form. Under pressure of intimidation and the threat of repetitions at the time and after the foundation of Israel, indicated by exemplary hangings, 104,000 left in 1950, mostly for Israel but also for the Netherlands and Britain. Yellow identity cards for the remainder followed, and with the advent of the Ba’ath party, torture and public hanging of 14 Jews accused of being spies occurred, with half a million parading past the swinging corpses shouting, of course, ‘Death to the Jews’.

The disruption of Kedourie’s community and the disingenuous diplomatic policy in the hands of Cornwallis ­– not in the hands of Wavell or Churchill ­– made the case for Israel as the asylum of last resort. Kedourie understood Zionism and accepted, though never warmly, the necessity of Israel, but the Farhud memory and its aftermath never diluted his pessimism about nationalist solutions. Even less, I think, did he subscribe to the grand master narrative of Jewish history in which a Jewish state was the logical consummation of an unbroken national religious story, returned to the place where a collective identity had been formed, and most unanswerably in the view of that narrative the only response to an interminable non-stop story of pain and persecution. Kedourie stayed a pragmatist: whatever enormity had been committed in the Farhud – Nazi plot, British expediency or Arab brutality – had been, he thought, the product of specific circumstances of time and place.

Kedourie, a little in the manner of AJP Taylor (one would not normally bracket those two names together) did specialise in the analysis of unintended consequences, especially those generated by nationalist simplicities that, through the victims of their displacements, sowed the dragon’s teeth of further, if not perpetual, conflict.

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