Avi Shlaim’s new work, Three Worlds: Memoir of an Arab Jew, is truly a brave book.
Its message is clear: “The Emperor Has No Clothes.” This truth was not uttered by a brave boy among the chorus of hypocrites and liars — the boy turned out to be a distinguished history professor who spoke the truth he collected as painstakingly as collecting straws in the wind.
Avi Shlaim declared his identity clearly as an Arab Jew — an Arab by culture, history, and geography, and a Jew by faith. His identity was destroyed by the Ashkenazi European Jews.
Here we have a new victim of Ashkenazi Zionism. It was not only the Palestinians who were depopulated by massacres and ethnic cleansing. It was also the Arab Jews who were uprooted from their ancestral home by Zionist bombs.
Welcome, brother, to the common struggle.
Shlaim’s family enjoyed in Baghdad the life of the rich upper class. His father was a very successful businessman, with wide connections among the Iraqi ruling class. Shlaim’s mother, a central character in the book and a vivacious and determined woman, lived in a villa that was rather like a palace, attended by over a dozen servants. She kept busy in the evenings by throwing parties and playing cards with Baghdad’s wealthy elites.
That life was irreversibly shattered after the Zionists planted bombs in Baghdad synagogues in 1950. Thus ended Jewish history in Iraq. This history is much more ancient and continuous — for over 2500 years — than the history of European Jews, which probably originated in Al-Khazar in Eastern Europe in the tenth century, and surfaced on record only after the demise of Muslim Spain.
The author describes in minute detail the product of his painstaking research over the years, which demonstrates that Zionists planted bombs to uproot Jews from Iraq. The family became unwilling immigrants to Israel, “the promised land.” The journey was tagged as aliyah (rising up, or ascent), but for them, it was a yeridah — or descent — into the abyss.
The trauma Shlaim endured from being uprooted as a child persisted when he became a distinguished history professor. Now his task was to find out who was behind the bombing of the synagogues. Was it the product of Arab rejection of Israel — and hence, all Jews — or was it engineered by the Zionists?
His research paid off. Several books have been written on the subject by Jews, including some who were agents of the bombing, like Naeim Giladi in Ben Gurion’s Scandals: How the Haganah and the Mossad Eliminated Jews. He left Israel and died in exile in New York.
Shlaim’s work is different. Over the years, he looked for primary operators and found original documents. To start with, he asserts that Iraqi Jews thought of themselves primarily as Iraqi or Arab Jews, and those who adopted Zionist ideology were a minority. The estimate is that out of a total of 130,000 Iraqi Jews, no more than 2,000 belonged to the Zionist movement — that is to say, 1.53 percent. Iraqi Jews lamented the disaster that befell the majority, engineered by the few.
Planning the bombing of Baghdad’s synagogues
In the face of the accusation of having bombed Baghdad’s synagogues, Israel has long maintained its innocence, denying that it had any hand in the atrocities, either directly or indirectly.
“A number of Iraqi Jews and Iraqi-born scholars in Israel have argued, to the contrary, that the Zionist underground was responsible. To support their claim they relied on various testimonies, circumstantial evidence and fragmentary pieces of information, but they were unable to produce a smoking gun. All my relatives in Israel were utterly convinced, evidence or no evidence, that the Zionist underground engineered our departure from Iraq.”
The evidence he had unearthed provides a partial answer to this question: three of the five bombs were the work of the Zionist underground in Baghdad.
The person who was responsible for three of the bombs was Yusef Ibrahim Basri, a 28-year-old Baghdadi Jew, a lawyer by profession, a socialist, an ardent Jewish nationalist, and a member of Hashura, the military wing of Hatenua, or the Movement. He was caught and hanged by the Iraqi government.
Basri’s controller was an Israeli intelligence officer, Max Binnet, who was based in Iran; Binnet supplied Basri with hand grenades and TNT. Basri was arrested on June 10, 1951, due to an error he had made. After four bombs had gone off in the streets of Baghdad, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) arrested him. After nearly a month of horrific torture, Basri broke down and confessed that he was responsible for three of the bombs but not for the one in the Mas’uda Shemtob synagogue.
Basri and his accomplice, Shalom Salih Shalom, were hanged in Baghdad in January 1952, about half a year after the official conclusion of Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, the Israeli plan to uproot Iraqi Jews.
Shlaim quotes another Iraqi Jew, the Israeli sociologist Yehouda Shenhav, who comments on the Iraqi reaction to the news of Basri’s hanging: “That is God’s revenge on the movement that brought us to such depths.”
In Israel, Shlaim found another useful source — an Iraqi Jew who claimed to have carried out several exploits on behalf of Zionism in Iraq. He was Yaacov Karkoukli, an Iraqi Jew who was born in Baghdad in 1928. He had a prominent friend and neighbor, Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qasim, who overthrew the Iraqi monarchy on July 14, 1958. This friendship is remarkable, perhaps peculiar, as Qasim distinguished himself as an officer in the Iraqi army, which came to liberate Palestine from the Zionist invasion in 1948 and was noted for saving the West Bank — especially the now famous Jenin — from the Zionist occupation. Karkoukli was an active Israeli agent and claimed many exploits, including supplying Israel with a full list of Iraqi arms acquisitions in 1948.
After a long pursuit, Shlaim managed to extract from Karkoukli, in addition to a long narration of his deeds, a piece of paper in Arabic extracted from an official Iraqi report about the Zionist bombing in Baghdad.
Shlaim persisted. In 2013, he contacted an Iraqi journalist named Shamil Abdul Qadir, who published a book entitled History of the Zionist Movement in Iraq and its Role in the Emigration of the Jews in 1950–1951. He found the report, one paper of which was delivered by Karkoukli. The report was confirmation of the Zionist bombings except for one case in which the bombing was instigated by the pro-Arab Istiqlal party.
“This report constitutes undeniable proof of Zionist involvement in the terrorist attacks that helped to terminate two and a half millennia of Jewish presence in Babylon. I hesitate to call it a ‘smoking gun…”
Israel did not learn from this experience. In 1954, the scandal known as the Lavon Affair was exposed. The Mossad ordered its agents, Egyptian Jews, to plant bombs in cinemas. Many died. They were caught and hanged. As a result, Egyptian Jews were deported to Israel or to Europe for holders of European passports.
Is this what David Ben Gurion wanted, the “ingathering of exiles?” Yes, reluctantly.
He did not mince words. He described Arab Jews as “primitive” or worse, but he had little choice. So, what made him bring them to Israel?
Through a series of massacres, the Zionist forces led by the Haganah depopulated over 500 Palestinian towns and villages. About half were depopulated before Israel was created and before any Arab soldier entered Palestine to rescue Palestinians from massacres like Deir Yassin. Palestine became empty. The majority of European Jews opted to immigrate to USA, not Palestine. Ben Gurion had to find people to fill the vacuum. Germany paid reparations, not to the survivors of its Jewish citizens but to the new Israel to help settle new immigrants. Germany won twice: it relieved its conscience by paying reparations, and it got rid of its Jewish citizens.
Zionists started the campaign to entice Arab Jews to immigrate to Israel. The first prize was Iraqi Jews, the most established and the richest of all Arab Jews.
In Israel, a shock was waiting for them. Upon arrival in Israel, they were met with the humiliating treatment of spraying them with DDT, and housing them in ma’abarot, a transit camp of tents and shacks, not in the Kibbutzim where the Europeans resided. Shlaim’s family escaped this treatment through powerful contacts. But the family had to earn a living.
Shlaim’s mother, ever determined and resourceful, took up a job in the only skill she could find employable, a telephonist. For a lady of the palace, hostess of parties for the rich and important, to take this position is a feat of courage. His father remained in Iraq for a while, then immigrated to Israel but remained without a job, a broken but dignified man.
Although his mother accepted her new way of life (in spite of various attempts to move to Britain owing to her British citizenship), she never accepted the Askenazi brand of Zionism. When the author asked her about Zionism, she replied, “Zionism is an Ashkenazi thing.”
For a young Iraqi boy in the new Israel, the state that was created and run by Ashkenazis, it was a tough life. He lost his Iraqi past and did not gain, or allowed to gain, an Ashkenazi personality. A humiliating experience he never forgot was when his father (a true Iraqi Arab) called him in Arabic among his Ashkenzi friends. He could not reply. The silence was embedded in his soul. Perhaps the book was his first admission.
Throughout the book, Shlaim described his experiences with the transparency of an honest narrator and the rigor of a seasoned historian. He described the ills of Zionism and the injustice to Palestinians.
Zionism not only turned the Palestinians into refugees; it turned the Jews of the East into strangers in their own land. In 1947–49 it was not only the land of Palestine that was partitioned but also the past. The common past of Jews and Muslims in Iraq was superseded by the new reality of the Arab–Israeli conflict.
In spite of this strong verdict, Shlaim never uttered a disparaging word about Jews in Europe, their experience in Europe, or their future in Israel/Palestine. He advocates a single democratic Palestine/Israel for all its people. However, there was no specific explanation of this future plan, no mention of the Right of Return of Palestinians to their homes in 530 depopulated towns and villages, or the recovery of their property in the land where only 6% was registered as Jewish by the British Mandate.
I read the book non-stop with great enthusiasm. I related to it in many ways. Shlaim also read my memoir, Mapping my Return, and wrote a warm endorsement.
I found that we both had many similar trajectories.
In 1948, as a ten-year-old boy, I became a refugee after my birthplace was attacked by 24 Zionist armored vehicles. I went to Cairo to study, a friendly Arab country, in which I was the odd refugee boy in school. In 1950, he, too, was uprooted from his ancestral home in Baghdad to a foreign place called Israel, full of Ashkenazis.
After a short sojourn, we both found ourselves in London in the early 1960s, where we both started a rewarding academic career. I wish we met in London, but I think we would not. He was then an Israeli, and I was a Palestinian with the wound of refugeedom still bleeding. By the time he was admitted to the university in the mid-1960s, I had already got my Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from University College London.
The analogy continues. His initials are AS (Avi Shlaim). So are mine (Abu Sitta). His father died in 1970 while he was in exile. So did mine, in the same year.
When my lecture on Balfour at Edinburgh University in November 2022 was threatened by cancellation due to a concerted Zionist campaign, Shlaim wrote a supporting letter to the concerned parties. I did not know it then.
I hope our trajectory toward justice will continue in the same manner.