Once upon a time, Baghdad was home to a flourishing Jewish community. More than a third of the city's people were Jews, and Jewish customs and holidays helped set the pattern of Baghdad's cultural and commercial life. On the city's streets and in the bazaars, Jews, Muslims, and Christians—all native-born Iraqis—intermingled, speaking virtually the same colloquial Arabic and sharing a common sense of national identity. And then, almost overnight it seemed, the state of Israel was born, and lines were drawn between Jews and Arabs. Over the next couple of years, nearly the entire Jewish population of Baghdad fled their Iraqi homeland, never to return. In this beautifully written memoir, Nissim Rejwan recalls the lost Jewish community of Baghdad, in which he was a child and young man from the 1920s through 1951. He paints a minutely detailed picture of growing up in a barely middle-class family, dealing with a motley assortment of neighbors and landlords, struggling through the local schools, and finally discovering the pleasures of self-education and sexual awakening. Rejwan intertwines his personal story with the story of the cultural renaissance that was flowering in Baghdad during the years of his young manhood, describing how his work as a bookshop manager and a staff writer for the Iraq Times brought him friendships with many of the country's leading intellectual and literary figures. He rounds off his story by remembering how the political and cultural upheavals that accompanied the founding of Israel, as well as broad hints sent back by the first arrivals in the new state, left him with a deep ambivalence as he bid a last farewell to a homeland that had become hostile to its native Jews.
Pluralism in the Iraqi Novel is about the use of literature and the novel to express the new content of an Iraqi national identity constructed after the American invasion of 2003. Instead of the homogenizing national identity in Iraqi literature created before 2003, postoccupation literature presents Iraqi society as a kaleidoscope of multiple religious identities converging in an accommodating Iraqi national identity. The author argues that this could not have happened without the upheaval of 2003 and its consequent results: democracy and political restructuring that incorporated Shia for the first time into the ruling political coalition in recognition of their numerical majority. Literature was consequential to processing the complicated subject of Shia-Sunni relations and the sectarian identity of each and, even more, in the wake of the geopolitical events of 2003, literature was instrument in bringing representation of the Kurds, the small minorities, and even the last Jews of Iraq to the fore. As such, literature demonstrated its revolutionary power and formed the basis for a “New Iraq.”
In this new history, French author Georges Bensoussan retells the story of what life was like for Jews in the Arab world since 1850. During the early years of this time, it was widely believed that Jewish life in Arab lands was peaceful. Jews were protected by law and suffered much less violence, persecution, and inequality. Bensoussan takes on this myth and looks back over the history of Jewish-Arab relations in Arab countries. He finds that there is little truth to the myth and forwards a nuanced history of interrelationship that is not only diverse, but deals with local differences in cultural, religious, and political practice. Bensoussan divides the work into sections that cover 1850 to the end of WWI, from 1919 to the eve of WWII and then from WWII to the establishment of Israel and the Arab Wars. A new afterword brings the history of Jewish and Arab relations into the present day. Bensoussan has determined that the history of Jews in Arab countries is a history of slowly disintegrating relationships, increasing tension, violence, and persecution.
Iraq's Last Jews is a collection of first-person accounts by Jews about their lives in Iraq's once-vibrant, 2500 year-old Jewish community and about the disappearance of that community in the middle of the 20th century. This book tells the story of this last generation of Iraqi Jews, who both reminisce about their birth country and describe the persecution that drove them out, the result of Nazi influences, growing Arab nationalism, and anger over the creation of the State of Israel.
Although Iraqi Jews saw themselves as Iraqi patriots, their community—which had existed in Iraq for more than 2,500 years—was displaced following the establishment of the state of Israel. New Babylonians chronicles the lives of these Jews, their urban Arab culture, and their hopes for a democratic nation-state. It studies their ideas about Judaism, Islam, secularism, modernity, and reform, focusing on Iraqi Jews who internalized narratives of Arab and Iraqi nationalisms and on those who turned to communism in the 1940s. As the book reveals, the ultimate displacement of this community was not the result of a perpetual persecution on the part of their Iraqi compatriots, but rather the outcome of misguided state policies during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Sadly, from a dominant mood of coexistence, friendship, and partnership, the impossibility of Arab-Jewish coexistence became the prevailing narrative in the region—and the dominant narrative we have come to know today.