Creating new perspectives since 2009

Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew

July 3, 2023 at 9:01 pm

Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew
  • Book Author(s): Avi Shlaim 
  • Published Date: June 2023
  • Publisher: Oneworld Publications
  • Hardback: 336 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-0861544639

The term “Arab-Jew” is often considered contradictory, as it seemingly represents conflicting identities within the geopolitics of the Middle East. However, Avi Shlaim, an Iraqi-born British-Israeli historian, challenges this notion in his personal story, Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew. Shlaim argues that this designation should not be viewed as a dichotomy. Instead, he highlights a period in modern history, prior to the establishment of the state of Israel, when indigenous Jews residing in Muslim-majority lands—known as Mizrahim—lived harmoniously alongside their Muslim and Christian neighbours. They played a significant role in the diverse societies, as was the case for Shlaim, growing up in Baghdad, often referred to as the metropolitan “Abode of Peace”.

The title Three Worlds aptly captures the essence of Shlaim’s memoir, as it delves into his formative years across three distinct countries, “from the vantage point of a scholar of the Arab-Israeli conflict.” He vividly portrays his privileged upbringing within an affluent and well-connected Iraqi Jewish family. However, their lives were dramatically altered when they, along with other fellow Jews in Iraq and the region, faced the difficult decision to migrate to the newly established state of Israel.

This decision was influenced, not only by the profound implications of the 1948 Palestinian Nakba, or “catastrophe” which saw the displacement of some 700,000 Palestinians from their land, but also by the combined pressures of rising Arab and Jewish nationalism with Arab-Jews caught in the middle. Shlaim’s adolescence was then shaped by his experiences studying in London, a world apart from both his native Iraq and the struggles of assimilating into the Ashkenazi-dominated society of the Zionist settler-colonial state.

However, Shlaim highlights that the majority of Israel’s Iraqi Jewish community, including himself, were not willing ideologues of Zionism – an ideology, which “spawned a state whose cultural and geopolitical orientation identified it almost exclusively with the West.” According to Shlaim, the exodus of Iraq’s ancient Jewish community, which had long-standing ties to the land dating back to the Babylonian times and even earlier through their connection to the Patriarch and Prophet Abraham, was not simply a migration.

BOOK REVIEW: The JNF/KKL, a Charity Complicit with Ethnic Cleansing

He suggests they were “conscripted into the Zionist project”, as the Eurocentric movement sought to bolster the numbers of Jewish immigrants in order to establish and maintain a demographic majority in Occupied Palestine. Initially, the movement turned to the European Ashkenazi Jews, who occupied a higher social status within the nascent community, and arguably still do to this day.

The author goes as far as to assert that, while the primary victims of Zionism are the Palestinians, the Jews of the Arab lands are “the second category of victims”, who are seldom thought of as such. Aside from rising tensions and “one infamous pogrom”, Iraq, much like the rest of the modern Middle East and unlike Europe, never had a “Jewish Question”.

For Shlaim, Zionism changed this, “By endowing Judaism with a territorial dimension that it did not have previously, it accentuated the difference between Jews and Muslims in Arab spaces.” This ideology “not only turned the Palestinians into refugees; it turned Jews of the East into strangers in their own land.”

BOOK REVIEW: Among the Almond Trees, a Palestinian Memoir

A significant portion of the book sheds light on the author’s early life in Baghdad and portrays his family’s seemingly idyllic existence in 1940s Iraq, prior to the establishment of Israel. The reader gains insight into the author’s familial roots and extended relatives, some of whom are mentioned repeatedly throughout the book. In fact, the narrative delves so deeply into these family connections that the inclusion of a family tree before the prologue would have been beneficial. This aspect of the book provides valuable insights into the dynamics of the once-vibrant Iraqi Jewish community, albeit one that belonged to the upper middle class. However, as the narrative unfolds, the frequent references to social gatherings, including activities like playing cards, may become repetitive and potentially tiresome for some readers.

Nevertheless, one particularly striking and controversial aspect of the book, which has already garnered attention and discussion on social media, is Avi Shlaim’s claim to possess “undeniable proof of Zionist involvement in terrorist attacks” targeting Jewish sites in Baghdad. Shlaim argues that these attacks were orchestrated by the Zionist underground within the country, with the aim of pressuring the hesitant Jewish community to participate in the Aliyah (Jewish immigration) to Israel. The coverage of these events, although not entirely new, has been deemed a “bombshell” in both literal and metaphorical senses. Without the arrival of Iraqi Jews (who formed the majority of Mizrahim “refugees”), Israel “would have ended up in poorer shape, demographically, economically, and in terms of security.”

Such accusations, are hardly surprising in light of similar controversies such as the Lavon Affair and the actions of certain Jewish extremist groups, notably the Irgun and the Stern Gang that carried out attacks against British authorities and Palestinian civilians during the pre-state period.

As a valuable addition to the budding literature on the experience of Arab-Jews, such as the 2019 memoir When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History by Massoud Hayoun, Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew is a captivating and enlightening read that highlights the complex intersection of identities within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In doing so, it offers a poignant exploration of the victimisation and discrimination experienced by Arab-Jews, who, like the Palestinians, were compelled to leave their homelands, albeit with significant nuanced differences.

BOOK REVIEW: Sumud, Birth, Oral History and Persistence in Palestine