“Arab,” “Jew,” and identity in Israel

In 1946, Baghdad was a Jewish town.

Jews accounted for a quarter of the city’s population — as much as New York City in its Jewish heyday —  and the members of this millennia-old community were thriving.

Many of Baghdad’s Jews enjoyed a comfortably secular and middle class life, with some even numbered among the city’s wealthy elite. Jews were active politically and culturally, and Jewish schools and communal institutions were strong. So much so that Sasson Somekh’s 2007 memoir of his Iraqi Jewish youth, Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew, describes the 1930s and 1940s as a golden age. Despite the trauma of the anti-Jewish riots, known as the Farhud, that swept Baghdad for two days in June of 1941, Somekh recalls languid summer days spent sunning on the Tigris river; mixed, well-to-do neighborhoods of Jews, Christians, and Muslims; and meetings with famous Arabic poets in the city’s literary cafes.

By 1951, 90 percent of Baghdad’s Jews, Somekh and his family among them, had fled. Following the United Nations’ decision to partition Palestine in 1947, and the 1948 war that secured Israel’s independence, Iraq began to restrict the rights of her Jewish citizens. The government dismissed Jews from their positions in the civil service and imposed quotas on entry to the universities. Bombings targeted synagogues, and increasing numbers were arrested, and some executed, on charges of Zionist conspiracy. Then, in 1950, the Iraqi parliament passed the Citizenship Waiver Law, which permitted Jews to emigrate on one condition: they relinquish their Iraqi citizenship, and, in an addendum passed a few months later, all their assets.

Israeli journalist Linda Menuhin Abdul Aziz was born in Baghdad in 1950, just as the majority of the Jewish community — but not her family — was preparing to flee. The story of her Iraqi Jewish youth, told in director Duki Dror’s captivating and surprising new documentary film, Shadow in Baghdad, is a far cry from Somekh’s lyrical ode to paradise lost. On the eve of Yom Kippur in 1972, Menuhin Abdul Aziz’s father, Yaakov Abdul Aziz, was abducted by government agents from a Baghdad street, never to be heard from again. Shadow in Baghdad follows her attempt to uncover her father’s fate. Despite their differences in tone, the two works share an unspoken question: What does it mean to be an Arab Jew in Israel today?

Read the full review from 2014 in The Marginalia Review of Books.